The Competencies Required for Search Engine Optimization

Last week Jill Whalen’s Twitter Question of the Week asked, “What has changed most in Search Marketing since 2000?

@JillWhalen Response

My answer to the question:

@DerekEdmond Response

There are a lot of good answers; search innovation, integration of social media, success measurements, to name a few.

I wanted to use this post to further develop the point that success in search engine marketing often requires multiple skills and resources, more so now than ever before.

Search Engine Optimization in 2002
While I still use many of the SEO tactics I was learning early in the past decade (I started experimenting towards the end of 2002), execution of those tactics was much more simplistic back then.

The “high level” strategy would work: Identify keywords, write articles and information associated to those keywords. Identify link opportunities, email webmasters with link requests. Make sure websites are built and adhere to “SEO best practices” which improve visibility to search engine crawlers.

Search Engine Optimization Today
As more companies adopt SEO practices in their marketing plans, best practices only take an organization so far. Search engines continue to innovate through a greater understanding of keyword intent and shifts in the value of on-page/off-page factors associated to relevance.

Site owners are more competent on the value of an outbound link and more skeptical of the first communication. Mechanisms for getting content into search engines and how search engines present search results continues to evolve.

SEO Requires a Comprehensive Set of Skills
It is very difficult for a search engine marketer in today’s market to be highly competent in all areas an effective SEO strategy might encompass.

Consider the following:

  • Web Design – At a basic level, understanding enough HTML to apply a keyword strategy in high priority places and work effectively in a site structure or CMS. Most SEO roles I come across also desire the ability to build web pages, handle CSS, explain JavaScript, etc.
  • Web Development – Beyond HTML, code experience is often essential for dynamic sites, shopping carts, and rendering data feeds. More advanced practitioners can build gadgets, tools, or applications for client management and link acquisition.
  • Copywriting – Whether its marketing collateral, article generation, or tutorials, quality copywriting with an SEO focus is fundamental to most campaigns. I wrote thousands of words of web page copy before even thinking about blog writing.
  • Blogging – I separate blogging (and blog writing) from copywriting because becoming even a serviceable blogger is a skill in itself. Without the writing aspect, there is a tremendous amount of challenge to managing a blog as well, including administration, networking, and editorial calendars.
  • Design and Usability – While one may argue a compelling design or focus on usability is not essential, in my experience they play a key role in establishing the professionalism required for securing links and/or simply putting the right foot forward in building relationships online.
  • Web Server Administration – There will always be a need to handle requests specific to the web server, such as URL rewrites, .htaccess, DNS, proxy servers, etc. For most people, setting up their website behind http proxy servers is often a necessity, to not only hide the originating IP address, but to also prevent DDOS attacks. The larger the organization, the more involved this process usually becomes.
  • Online PR/Promotion – Site owners and publishers understand the value of links. It’s important to establish relationships with these people before asking for the link request, or at the least, have the campaign in place to reach out productively. Old-school link requests are (mostly) dead and there is only so much value online directories will have for more competitive keyword niches.
  • Skills Associated to Specific Content Generation – Video, Photos, Graphics, etc can all play a part in an SEO’s ability to attain links and generate search engine visibility, especially with Google Universal Search. Unfortunately, each of these type of assets have unique requirements and a learning curve for implementation.
  • Social MediaWhere to begin here? Social media really deserves more space than one bullet and it is arguable that social media is even more complicated than the role search engine marketers hold. Regardless, effective SEO and social media strategies should serve to complement one another, proving invaluable to the results of an online marketing initiative.

Again, it is not to say that all of these competencies are required for SEO, but most long-term search marketing initiatives will involve a large percentage of them at some point in the campaign’s lifetime.

In addition, I think about all of the “soft skills” that distinguish the most effective SEO’s. Effective search marketers possess a blend of creative problem solving abilities with a sharp analytical mindset.

Search Engine “Marketing”
SEO’s understood “marketing” before marketing began to take control of the space. As an example, when I built my first e-commerce site in early 2003, I recognized the need for a buyer FAQ, testimonials, security functionality, and a newsletter registration. While all of these things were important marketing initiatives, there was a very indirect tie to SEO.

That said, I am certain that these components were part of the reason site owners linked to it and we were able to secure relationships with trusted resources in the industry [that are still in place today].

The Changing SEO Landscape?
Fortunately, while search innovation has changed the way SEO’s provide value to clients, the objectives of SEM have not changed. Businesses and organizations want to drive traffic, leads, and revenue through search engines.

More importantly (and thankfully more predominantly in today’s marketing environment) they want to understand the ROI for which SEO strategies impact their business.

What do you think? Do you agree (or disagree) with these assessments? I’d love to hear your thoughts via the comments below.

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