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by Stephanie Jones | January 03, 2021

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Search engine optimization has grown from a minor web development skill into a full-time position. Today, if a web user can’t find a company online, it’s toast. This fact has given rise to specialists who have mastered navigating the chaotic sea of the internet.

Part marketing, part web coding, and part content development, SEO requires flexibility, patience, and an appetite for learning. Though some fundamental rules remain unchanged over the years, SEO evolves quickly alongside the internet that spawned it. Those who understand these rules are highly valuable in an increasingly digitized world.

Are you up to the challenge? Here’s how to build a career in SEO:

Start by determining whether you have what it takes

Before you dive into SEO work, it’s important to understand what this career path entails. While some companies simply invest in paid advertising to boost their rankings, long-term, cost-effective SEO requires a more nuanced approach.

The nature of SEO means you’ll always have to learn something new. Copywriting, video editing, social media marketing, analytics, and even basic web coding are helpful skills. While most SEO practitioners choose to specialize, having a foundational understanding of each facet will make you valuable to your team and clients.

On top of all the learning you’ll do, SEO is something you’ll have to practice. Search engine algorithms change frequently; keyword value and search volume even more so. You’ll be doing a lot of testing, measuring performance, determining what works, and getting rid of what doesn’t.

Strategies that work well this month might fail to deliver the next. Something that doesn’t work now might work fantastically later on. Those who enjoy constant experimentation and learning tend to do best in the SEO industry over the long haul.

Decide whether or not to specialize

There are a lot of options in this line of work. You could specialize in technical SEO, focusing on things like site speed and mobile-friendliness to improve SEO performance. On-page and off-page SEO are other specialty areas.

On-page SEO pros optimize tags and headers to ensure that users find websites as appealing as search engines do. Off-page SEO practitioners use techniques like backlinking to boost page rankings. If you know about and enjoy working in each of the three subfields, you could be a generalist.

Whether you specialize or not, prepare to hone your critical thinking and communication skills.

Pick a primary focus

Just as you’ll be using a variety of skills, you’ll also have the opportunity to work in many industries. But as the old saying goes, less is more.

While SEO fundamentals remain the same for any industry, that doesn’t mean you should work in every one. Instead, focus on one or two niches, ideally ones that are related. For instance, if you are passionate about healthcare, you can work with doctor’s offices, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and public health departments.

As it happens, medical practices are one of the top eight beneficiaries of SEO investment. To make a living in SEO, target the industries that are spending on it — or would see the highest ROI if they did. Online businesses would clearly fall into the latter category, but real estate, professional services, and restaurants are other likely candidates for your SEO expertise.

Hang with the experts

When you’re starting out and just developing that expertise, you’ll want to learn from those who know more than you do. It’s fitting that SEO experts would find each other online. There are SEO communities, Slack channels, and forums that can answer virtually any question you might have. They also provide excellent opportunities for networking.

The heavy hitter of SEO Slack channels is Traffic Think Tank, started by SEO gurus Matthew Howells-Barby, Nick Eubanks, and Ian Howells. At $119 a month, this paid channel might be out of reach for SEO newbies. However, its member-exclusive webinars and expert training might make it worth your dollars. OnlineGeniuses is a worthy free alternative, provided you can make the cut. Each applicant to the community is vetted manually.

Build your credibility

Just as in any other career path, building your credibility is vital to success as an SEO professional. This is especially true when it comes to digital marketing. With so many so-called SEO gurus who like to cut corners, many businesses are understandably wary.

Few nontechnical people understand the field well enough to know whether they’re being scammed. They don’t realize their SEO consultants are engaging in black-hat practices, like keyword stuffing and link manipulation. SEO agency Hennessey Digital suggests bad SEO may be worse than no SEO because it risks site penalties.

Legitimate SEO tactics take more work than bad ones, requiring you to charge more for them. If your clients don’t trust you, they aren’t likely to pay a premium for your services.

Choose your career model

So you’ve decided you really want to dive into SEO. You have a focus and know-how to do the job right. Now for the final question: Do you go it alone or find an agency to work for? Or maybe a hybrid of each?

There are advantages and disadvantages to freelancing as opposed to working for a company. There are similar pros and cons to working for a boutique agency versus a large corporation. If you’re an SEO newbie, a smaller company may be the best way to get the experience you need. From there, you can either find a larger company or strike out on your own.

Perhaps you’ll decide to perform white-label services, freelancing for companies and working on their behalf. This provides a sense of job security while giving you the flexibility to find your niche or look for more work.

For those who love to adapt, learn, and tackle new challenges every day, an SEO career is a great choice. Just as SEO evolves with the ever-changing internet, so too do the best SEO experts.

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