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How To Become an SEO (how I did it, and how you can, too!)

I see the following question asked all the time: How do I become an SEO? What a great question! And what a hard one to answer.
As I spend ever more time in this career field and meet more and more of my peers, industry colleagues, and of course, the noteworthy thought-leaders in this field, I’ve come to realize how many varied paths there are to becoming a working SEO. And let’s be clear: the career of being an SEO is not just one skill set or task. There are many career opportunities in the field of search engine marketing, with SEO being just a subset of that, and then there are many areas of specialization within SEO itself. There are many people who make full careers by specializing in any of the following:
  • Pay-Per-Click advertising (covers creating compelling search advertising in Google and Bing [which also includes Yahoo!], display network advertising, affiliate advertising, and much more)
  • Social Media Marketing (covers creating fresh, compelling content and drawing followers [and the ultimate goal, sales] via many online venues, such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, YouTube, Flickr, FourSquare, Pinterest, and many more)
  • Search Engine Optimization
    • Local search (covers getting business profiles created in the major search engines, mapping sites, major search directories for business, niche industry directory sites, local media sites, and more)
    • On-page (covers an examination of all the on-page elements that affect how efficiently and effectively the search engine crawler consumes and interprets the content of a website)
    • Analytics (covers analyzing tracking and referrer data of website visitors and creating reports to identify the user population demographics and their behavior on a site)
    • Mobile (covers all things related to search on mobile devices, including the use of dedicated mobile sites and mobile interfaces like Apple’s Siri)
    • Content development (covers writers of webpage content, social media messaging, and even blog posts!)
    • Link building (covers the process of getting links from external websites to point to a target site)
    • Keyword development (identifies the keywords and phrases to be used by websites to earn relevance to a targeted topic in search)
    • Reputation management (covers the task of maintaining the overall goodwill shown toward an individual or a company or mitigating the damage incurred by the same due to a public relations disaster)
Many of these are interrelated disciplines. For example, PPC advertising is now growing to cover paid ads in Facebook, the ultimate social media venue. PPC requires effective keyword development, as do many SEO disciplines. Social media marketing often ties in with local and mobile search. Analytics can now be done with Facebook pages as well as with websites and PPC campaigns.
The gist of this means that, as an SEO candidate, you won’t likely ever be well-versed in all aspects of the business (especially since it changes and grows so quickly!). A successful career strategy is to become an expert in one thing and conversant in many more. That will help make you more marketable in this career field.

How I began

I was previously a technical writer working in and around Microsoft (that means I worked as both a full-time and contract employee) for 14 years. My last assignment there started as a contract tech writer hired by the then Microsoft Live Search team to update the online Help for the old version of Webmaster Center tools. I quickly finished that task, and was then given the opportunity to work on building up a library of technical content for what became the Bing Webmaster Center blog. I already had a layman’s knowledge of search engine optimization (due to a long, personal interest in web technologies), but I quickly got down to brass tacks by learning details of SEO from folks in the Bing core search team. I also completed the SEMPO Institute’s “Insider’s Guide to Search Marketing.” In addition, to keep up with industry sentiment and perspectives, I became an avid reader of many industry blogs, which contributed to my knowledge, not only on technical questions about SEO, but how SEO is perceived by the outside (non-search engine company-based) world. Lastly, I attended a few conferences, which gave me even more industry sentiment understanding for my work.
My main gig was writing, but I have a personal passion for technology and for helping people succeed. SEO fit the bill for me nicely. I realize I was a lucky beneficiary of serendipity by landing a position with Microsoft’s search engine team. It was a “right place, right time” kind of thing. But not completely. If I had not been a successful writer, taken on new work I was not specifically hired to do, and not had the passion and interest to quickly learn about the field, I would not have lasted.

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