Recently several key figures, who have made enormous contributions to the search industry, have either left (Matt Cutts) or stepped back from day-to-day activities in the companies they have helmed (Danny Sullivan and Rand Fishkin). While each of these gentlemen is to be congratulated on all he has accomplished, it is not a sign of impending doom for SEO that they have moved on to other opportunities. It is a sign of the times — a generational shift in the industry. Not a generational shift determined by the age of the participants, but one determined by how the industry as a whole has aged and matured.
SEO has changed and become a different discipline than it was some 20 years ago when I first optimized sites for search engines that are no longer household names — AltaVista, Infoseek, Excite, Yahoo! and others. Everything we did was so new and moving so fast that the industry attracted heat-seekers. What do I mean by heat-seekers? They are those people who want to be right on the edge of new things where the risks are greatest, and there is the most chance for upside reward. They are heavily self-reliant and willing to go off-road intellectually to explore new territory. They are not settlers; that is the next generation. Be mindful that there is nothing wrong with being a settler; our country was made great by hardworking settlers.
As I look back on those early days and try to figure out how to bring the next generation of SEO practitioners along, I cannot help but reflect on how the industry pioneers learned and developed the practice of SEO. When an industry is brand new or emerging, the knowledge base is less important than the minds and ingenuity of the individuals carving the way. As we look to training the next generation of practitioners, we must consider what makes someone able to learn this discipline — not just create it. Here are some of the qualities that make a good SEO.
SEOs Must Have Inquisitive Minds
The ideal candidate for learning SEO must have an active, inquisitive mind and be willing to ferret out answers from mounds of data. SEOs today, even with all of the guidelines for the actual practice of SEO (the roads to success), must be able to map the way for their organizations. This means bringing together multiple strains of information — business goals, marketing goals, technology roadmaps. Today’s SEO does not work in a vacuum, just doing their thing to make the site visible in search. Today’s businesses have developed online and offline marketing programs, all of which must be integrated into the SEO plans.
SEOs Must Be Highly Analytical
When online marketing was new, traditional marketers (myself included) were thrilled to be able to gather so much information on each visitor. From my own experience, the first time I looked at a set of log files and realized what they included, I immediately closed the file and spent a few minutes worrying about whether I was invading someone’s privacy. I felt like a peeping Tom. Today, the analytics packages provide dashboards filled with useful information, which once had to be mined from lengthy raw data reports. The hard part is still extracting meaning from the data, even in its contemporary easy-to-analyze form. This requires strong analytical skills.
SEOs Must Have Strong Communication Skills
To be successful, the SEO must be able to talk tech intelligently with tech teams and speak fluent biz buzz with marketers and managers. As the role of content has grown in search, the SEO can no longer just create content that “works” for search engines but does nothing for the site’s visitors. SEO content must inform and persuade both search engines and the site’s human visitors.
All that is missing from this list of skills and abilities is perhaps the ability to leap over buildings in a single bound or have a spidey-sense for algorithm updates. All gags aside, the SEO of today may not be bushwhacking through totally uncharted terrain, but SEO is still a fascinating, rewarding and difficult discipline. The next generation will have new challenges as the industry continues to mature.