How to learn SEO

How to learn SEO

How to learn SEO

1. Curiosity is your biggest asset

Firstly, and most importantly, it’s entirely up to you. Nobody else can learn for you. The single lesson that I remember most clearly from my school days was from Mr. Wilson, my electronics teacher. Paraphrasing:

Always ask yourself ‘how does that work?’

I think this is one of the most critical life skills you can possibly acquire. It might surprise you to know that I think it’ll make you a better SEO if you spend your time asking yourself questions like these (Spoiler: answers at the end of the post):

  1. How do they get cranes on top of big buildings?
  2. How come phone touch screens work through paper but not through foil?
  3. How does gmail’s two-factor authentication work? [Side-note: please turn on two factor authentication – it’s more pain-free than you expect]

This highlights one of the key distinctions I wanted to make in this post. Learning is not the same as training. If you are provided with formal training opportunities at work then that’s great, but in my opinion it’s never going to be more than 5-10% of your learning. You are responsible for you – I highly recommend this talk by Sheryl Sandberg who I think is one of the best speakers on getting ahead at work.

From an SEO perspective, I suggest applying this first to the whole stack of a search result – from crawling, indexing and ranking to the actual delivery mechanism (DNS, TCP/IP etc.). The more curious you are, the better you’ll be.

Closely related to this, I highly recommend getting your hands dirty in order to try to understand how things work. I’m a big advocate that this is very rarely a bad idea – though sometimes you also need a sandbox while you’re learning. (This was the motivation behind our interactive modules in DistilledU – when you are learning about robots.txt syntax or Google Analytics code modifications it’s nice to take the very first steps in a safe environment).

Curiosity strikes again

I would go as far as to say that if you are looking to get into online marketing from scratch, the very first thing you should do is get a small site entirely under your control – everything from registering the domain to adding the Google Analytics code. What could go wrong?

2. Take advantage of steep learning curves

It can take a lifetime to dominate specific skills, but it’s surprising how much you can learn SEO in a weekend (or even a couple of hours).

I talked about the exponential nature of learning in my Searchlove presentation in London last year.

In summary, my mental model for learning is not an evenly paced journey from beginner to expert but more like an exponential scale where it gets many times harder to get from each stage to the next:

  1. No experience at all – complete beginner
  2. Basic competence – you start to be able to complete basic tasks (perhaps with oversight)
  3. Core competence – you can handle pretty much everything in this subject area
  4. “Distilled expert”(*) – one of the people that those with core competence turn to for help
  5. Renowned expert – wrote the book

(*) that’s what we call it at Distilled – you can use your initiative to come up with your own name for this level

Side-note: this scale deliberately includes a little confusion between excellence and fame – I’m afraid the real world works this way as well. 

You can make this work to your advantage – even if you don’t intend to become a world expert in something, there is huge benefit to learning enough to know what you don’t know. In my own online marketing journey, I’ve enjoyed applying this to technical skills ranging from setting up a linux server to toying with client-side jQuery as well as creative skills like basic video editing and animation.

I think Danny Dover’s checklist is a great place to get started with this kind of learning for SEO.

3. You need to know the existence of trivia

I’ve observed that a trait that appears to separate highly successful technical marketers (and knowledge workers in general) from everyone else is the ability to recall the existence of arbitrary details.

Not everyone is a trivia geek, but they all tend to remember enough about the subtleties of a problem to find the detailed answer they need to get their job done. Whether this is remembering that there can be a time-lag to DNS propagation, that googlebot only crawls from US IP addresses or that if you include a specific user-agent directive in a robots.txt file that robot will only listen to those rules(*), it’s this skill that avoids disaster over and over again.

(*) this last tidbit was something I learnt while building the robots.txt interactive module for DistilledU.

I think the way you cultivate this skill is to read widely and to create things yourself.

On the “reading widely” front, I strongly recommend setting yourself up with something like Instapaper that allows you to remain curious and interested without getting sucked into reading articles all across the internet all day every day. Instapaper gives you a browser bookmark (and mobile app) that lets you save an article to read later – and formats it for easy distraction-free reading. (My favourite feature is its ability to send a weekly “magazine” to my kindle every week). Others at Distilled like Pocket which does something similar.

The need for maker mode is the realisation that you never really understand the subtleties of something until you’ve done it. I talk more about this later.

Of course, you probably need deep expertise in at least some areas as well (the notorious T-shaped inpidual) but I would counsel that you should avoid spending all your time learning minutiae. The internet is full of it, half of it isn’t correct and for much of the rest, you are far and away better served by shipping real things.

4. Expose yourself to intimidation

I talked about this at our all-hands company meeting in London in January. I talked about the perils of letting yourself be the smartest guy/gal in the room (TL;DR get yourself into a different room – at least some of the time). I think most people who have been really good at something let themselves at some point get exposed to people who are really, really good. For me this happened when I went to college.

This was one of the most valuable experiences of my life and I heartily endorse it. Because here’s what happened: I got my ass handed to me. My teammates were freakishly smart. It turns out that the distribution of math-contest talent is not at all normal, and that being in the top 1% of contest-takers doesn’t mean that you’re within hailing distance of the top 0.5%. Oh, no.

Last year I went back to my old high school to give a talk entitled “things I wish I’d known”.

The desire to get smart people together and let them share ideas is one of the driving forces behind the way we have designed our conferences. It’s why we go for a single-track event with social events afterwards – giving people a shared context to discuss the things they’ve learnt with people who’ve got a wide range of experiences.

You don’t have to go to a conference though. I started out my learning journey in SEO hanging out in online communities. Back in the day it was cre8asite (I recently saw black_knight at a conference and had fun reminiscing about those days). More recently it was SEOmoz and Twitter. I don’t think you necessarily should expect to learn everything from the social interactions, but hanging out with people you know and like who know more than you do about a subject helps to steer you to learn the right thing next.

5. Focus on learning to drive

I like to think about two very different kinds of learning:

  1. Learning to drive – you remember the first time you drove (the first time you drove stick for my US friends)? The experience of going from “HOLY CRAP I HAVE TO WATCH IN FRONT AND BEHIND AND SIDEWAYS WHILE MOVING BOTH MY HANDS AND BOTH MY FEET IN HARMON…BOUNCEBOUNCEBOUNCESTALL” to “I barely think about the mechanics of coordinating feet and hands and have time to pay proper attention to the road”
  2. Learning the directions to a new place – this is more like the transition from: “Before I looked up the way, I didn’t know which street to take” to “After I looked up the way, I knew which street to take”

Only one of those is transformational, isn’t it? So focus on things that look more like learning to drive and less on things that look like directions to a new place.

Never written any HTML? That is a great skill for an SEO to know – a form of online “learning to drive”. (I recommend Treehouse and Codecademy which complement each other nicely).

Don’t know the specific way to mark up a date in the hEvent micro-format? Don’t worry about it until you need it – it’s a form of online “learning directions”.

Another way of thinking about this is to focus on learning real-time and bicycle skills. It’s worth noting here that both these forms of learning can come with the same endorphin hit, so you need to keep asking yourself if the things you are learning are the right things. This was the main reason I left my first real job. I was a “coder-in-a-suit” (Accenture-style) for a small company. As I transitioned from learning real things (we were working on financial software, so I learnt about general ledger, P&L, balance sheets etc. as well skills as diverse as SQL and business process mapping) to learning the specific way you deploy certain changes on an IBM AS400 iSeries, I realised I’d gone from learning to drive to learning directions and I had to get out.

6. Allow yourself to fail

By its definition, learning involves new things. Some new things go wrong.

This is the greatest argument for actually shipping things – it’s not until you try to ship something that you discover whether it really is a success or a failure.

If you are in a position of authority, I believe it’s especially important to allow yourself to fail publicly (at least openly in front of your team). I read a great article about management at Github that talks about a management style of:

Show what, don’t tell how

The core point of the article is that you can lead a team by getting stuck into the team’s work but holding yourself to a form of open-ness where you not only do, but are seen to do.

The author relates this mainly to core job skills, but I think it’s equally important about life skills like learning. As a leader, it’s even more important that you take risks and fail visibly.

My journey of learning presentation skills falls into this category. Many of you will have seen me get crushed by Rand in a head-to-head presentation competition. Slightly fewer of you will have seen the times when the learning paid off and I repaid the favour.

7. Write

I’m a big fan of writing as a core part of learning. I was taught that writing things down helped you retain them in your memory. I suspect that is true, but the more powerful effect is that the act of composing your thoughts shapes them. Structuring and editing a piece of writing gets you thinking more deeply about a subject than anything else I know.

Perhaps most importantly, writing is designed to be published. And in a world of blogging and social media, it’s easier than ever to get other people’s eyes on your writing. This gives you a safe environment in which to fail, allows feedback and makes it easy to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are.

8. Remember your liberal arts

Finally, remember that being the most effective SEO you can be has remarkably little to do with SEO knowledge. We find that once you’re past the basics, the bottlenecks are increasingly likely to be what I’m going to call the “liberal arts” of marketing.

To be truly effective at SEO you need to round out your education with a whole bunch of wider knowledge including:

  • Regular marketing
  • Business awareness
  • Project management
  • Presentation skills
  • Writing skills
  • Leadership and people management skills

I still love this post by Paddy at Distilled on his views of what it takes.

For each of these skills, you can apply the methodology outlined above.

In summary

Learning something deeply doesn’t happen in hours or days. But I would really like to see people working on their own learning experience – so if you are starting from scratch, start with these specific actions from my first three suggestions:

  1. Get curious – go and look up the answer to something that’s been bugging you. How does that work?
  2. Benefit from a learning curve – challenge yourself to learn something in 2 hours
  3. File away the trivia – sign up for Instapaper

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