How to become exceptional at SEO

Learn the vital soft skills, work ethic, communication abilities and big-picture thinking required to stand out as an SEO professional.

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Everyone wants to be exceptional, but if it were easy to achieve this status in the SEO industry, everyone would do it. 

To succeed in SEO, one must have great discipline, a wide range of knowledge, experimentation and true skill.

In this article, I will describe some of the things required to be a top SEO consultant in the following areas:

  • Skills
  • Experience and expertise 
  • Methodology
  • Execution

Skills 

Mastering technical skills in SEO is essential, but I want to talk about the soft skills that can truly set you apart. Some of those skills include:

  • Seeing the big picture
  • Communication 
  • Relationship building
  • Time management
  • Work ethic
  • Being helpful and humble
  • Contribution

Seeing the big picture

This skill is usually inherent or built over years of experience as you master your domain. 

Either way, seeing the big picture of anything in SEO – whether it’s a client’s website, an algorithm update or the industry’s future – will help you succeed tremendously.

Often, it’s just about taking the time to develop your theories. This happens by reading, analyzing, experimenting and discussing. 

Changes to an SEO strategy or search engine algorithm have a significant ripple effect, and experts can see the consequences of one change on other aspects of SEO. They know it is a system of systems, not a switch.

Many of us are too busy working in our businesses to do that, though. But if you build time into your work week or month to figure these things out, it will pay dividends later on. 

Work ethic

A strong work ethic differentiates great SEOs from good ones. 

Especially at the beginning of a career, hard work and perseverance can sometimes outweigh raw talent, as your work ethic shows that you’re genuinely invested in client success. The experience will come. 

This commitment builds trust with your clients and sets you apart in a competitive industry, proving that you’re the go-to professional they can count on.

Communication 

It doesn’t matter what job you do in this world – if you learn how to communicate effectively, you will be more successful. 

Business leaders reported increased productivity (72%) and increased customer satisfaction (63%) due to effective communication, according to Grammarly research.

Because SEO is such a technical topic, it is critical to learn how to communicate these ideas in a way people can understand. 

Whether you’re explaining strategies to clients or collaborating with team members, clear and concise communication ensures everyone is on the same page. 

Dig deeper: How to keep your SEO clients engaged: 8 communication touchpoints

Relationship building

Business is really just about relationships. Building strong relationships within your team, clients and the SEO industry is vital. 

These networking and interpersonal skills will create a foundation for long-term success for your business. 

Time management

Everybody has 24 hours in a day. How you manage your time is essential in the fast-paced world of SEO. 

Be a master of your schedule. Prioritize tasks, set deadlines and maintain focus in whatever way works for you. 

Prioritizing tasks effectively also means tackling the most impactful SEO activities first based on each client’s unique situation. When resources are often limited, focus on high-value tasks that drive results. 

Dig deeper: How to protect deep work time and retain focus as an SEO

Being helpful and humble

From the beginning – way back in the 1990s – I saw the opportunity to share what I knew about SEO with others and I have always considered that a privilege.

In the early 2000s, speaking at SEO conferences immediately gave you “SEO rockstar” status.

From left to right: Matt Cutts, Danny Sullivan and Bruce Clay at an SMX Conference in Seattle.
From left to right: Matt Cutts, Danny Sullivan and Bruce Clay at an SMX Advanced conference in Seattle.

I remember the first time someone at a conference asked for my autograph and to take a picture with me. The first thing I thought was, “Are you talkin’ to me?” 

After speaking at any given session, there were usually long lines of attendees waiting to ask me questions. I stayed as long as necessary and answered as thoroughly as possible to each person. And this is still true today.

This is to say that if you reach a level where your SEO knowledge can benefit others, share it and enjoy the privilege of sharing. 

SEO’s best and brightest minds are usually eager to share and stay humble doing it. 

Contribution

This aligns with my previous point – be present and engaged in your professional life. Contribute through your ideas, time and effort.

Be where your colleagues, clients, conferences, publications and search engines need you.

If there is an initiative you can meaningfully contribute to, do it. If there is an opportunity to make a difference in the industry, take the chance. 

Join industry organizations, be a presence at conferences, write good content (or even a book!) or train people on how to do the thing you know how to do. 

I am humbled to have been a part of shaping this industry from the start through my contributions. 

You can still be a great SEO without doing all those things. But if you are interested in becoming exceptional at SEO, do what you can to get your expertise out there.

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Experience and expertise

Now, let’s move on to the foundational element of being a top consultant: experience. 

But let’s distinguish between experience and expertise. In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell says that becoming an expert at something takes 10,000 hours of practice.

Scientists debunked that theory, stating that practice does not necessarily make perfect.

It’s hard to deny that spending more time in the industry makes one more attuned to dealing with SEO situations.

However, it’s just as important to cultivate successful strategies during your time as a consultant, not just to go through the motions.

Methodology

Experience and methodology go hand-in-hand. I’m talking about how you “do” SEO for your clients. This usually evolves naturally as a career progresses.

There are many ways to do SEO. There are certainly ways that drive success and other ways that are a waste of time.

So, the questions before you are: 

  • What technical skills and SEO program strategies do you want to be known for?
  • What are you the best at and where have you had the most success with your clients?

For example, is it local SEO? Technical SEO? Link earning? Content development? Technical site audits? International SEO? Or are you more of a Jack or Jane of all trades?

You first need a strong knowledge of how all facets of SEO work and then you can begin to specialize and focus on one or two areas. 

No matter how you specialize or niche your services, I think all SEOs need to understand the following areas to be able to guide and implement SEO programs with success:

  • SEO website audits.
  • Keyword research, analysis and content mapping.
  • Earning quality links.
  • All matters of technical SEO.
  • Website architecture best practices. 
  • Understanding algorithms and the SERPs.
  • Competitive analysis. 
  • Web analytics and SEO tools.
  • Content development.

But it doesn’t have to be so black and white regarding how you specialize.

For example, at my agency, our greatest strength is our technical knowledge and the ability to see the big picture. 

So those strengths are built into our offerings, whether technical site audits, local SEO, enterprise SEO, content development, SEO software or anything else. 

Dig deeper: Broad vs. deep expertise: How to decide which is right for you

Execution

How you actually execute your services is another way to be a stud – or just a dud. If you are elevating your name to “SEO rockstar” status, you should always practice what you preach. 

Sadly, there have been well-known SEOs that are great at marketing but don’t deliver how you thought they might when the rubber meets the road. 

So, dial in how you execute your services to achieve brand recognition. 

How? Creating successful internal systems and SEO programs for clients.

Here are some things to consider. 

  • Have a repeatable process: Be clear on your service offerings and approach and know how you will execute the work. You don’t want to reinvent the wheel every time you sign a new client or start a new SEO project. So, you need to have a framework for approaching the work and managing the service.
  • Create a plan: When putting together SEO programs for clients, conduct thorough research at the outset and develop a custom strategy with clear milestones and goals. No two sites or businesses are alike, so custom strategies will help you find more success.
  • Onboard your clients effectively: Ensure a smooth onboarding process to establish clarity and expectations. Define roles and objectives from the start. See my article on how to onboard an SEO agency the right way for more tips on the onboarding process. 
  • Provide SEO education for clients: Educate client stakeholders continuously to foster SEO understanding and program support. Support your recommendations with guidance from Google.
  • Manage the project well: Use collaboration tools and regular check-ins to stay on track. Time and budget constraints often force teams to cut corners, hindering SEO success. 
  • Report progress and results: Regularly report KPIs and progress to keep stakeholders informed and motivated.

Becoming a high-performing SEO professional

Becoming an exceptional SEO requires a blend of technical expertise, solid experience, effective methodology and flawless execution. 

Mastering soft skills like communication, relationship building and time management is equally important. A strong work ethic, seeing the big picture and contributing to the community will set you apart. 

Share your knowledge, stay humble and continuously strive for excellence. With dedication and perseverance, you can elevate your SEO career.


Contributing authors are invited to create content for Search Engine Land and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the search community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.


About the author

Bruce Clay
Contributor
Bruce Clay is the founder and president of Bruce Clay Inc., a global digital marketing optimization firm providing search engine optimization, PPC management, paid social media marketing, SEO-friendly site architecture, content development, and SEO tools and education. Clay authored the book "Search Engine Optimization All-In-One For Dummies," now in its fourth edition, and "Content Marketing Strategies for Professionals." He wrote the first webpage-analysis tool, created the Search Engine Relationship Chart® and is credited with being the first to use the term search engine optimization. Bruce Clay's renowned SEO training course is available online at SEOtraining.com.

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