Essential Skill Sets for the Modern SEO

by Ruth Burr Reedy  |  Published 9:00 AM, Thu July 3, 2014

Even though SEO has been around for years now, it’s still in its infancy as an industry. While college courses in digital marketing principles are becoming more common, very few places offer a degree in SEO. For the most part, people are learning SEO the same way I learned it eight years ago—reading blogs, asking questions, and a whole lot of trial and error.

We talk a lot in the digital marketing space about being a “T-shaped marketer“—someone who, while having some areas of deep specialty, is also conversant in a lot of different digital marketing concepts. If you focus on the stuff that lights you up, that you’re good at and care about, as you learn SEO, you’ll find the “deep” part of your T pretty naturally (at least I did).

But if you’re getting started in SEO and want to develop some skills to help you specialize in being a generalist, as it were, I recommend building skills in a few other areas.


A working knowledge of HTML can be very freeing for an SEO, since it increases your ability to get things done yourself without relying on your developer for every single change. While WYSIWYG blog post editors have come a long way, being able to dig in to the HTML on the page gives you a lot more opportunity to get blog posts formatted the way you want them.

Adding HTML tags to data is something every SEO should know how to do, and knowing the ins and outs of what tags do and how they build on each other will help you implement them with ease, speed, and confidence.

For example, basic Google Analytics code is pretty much plug and play, but a ton of additional functionality is just waiting to be unlocked. Knowing where and how to add additional tags for things such as event tracking, ignoring referrals from sister sites, and setting custom variables can make your SEO data much more robust.

Semantic markup through is another bit of HTML wizardry that can go a really long way. Just knowing what <div> and <span> tags are and what they do is a big help, and it can also help you figure out things like which data to tag and how, and when to create a new tag or when you can add one to existing code.

Do you know how to do this?

Do you know how to do this?

The more you know about how websites are coded, the easier it will be to diagnose back-end problems quickly by looking at the source code. Even for things that are beyond your ability to fix, knowing a thing or two about how things are put together on your site will make it so much easier to communicate changes to your developer.

Where to learn it: Code Academy’s HTML session is free and fun.

Extra Credit: Once you’ve mastered the fundamentals of HTML, try your hand at some CSS.


To be clear: When I say SEOs should learn to write marketing copy, I don’t just mean SEOs should learn to write. I mean that in addition to being able to create compelling long-form content for blog posts, SEOs should be familiar with the fundamentals of marketing copy. Some of the most important pages on your site will typically be marketing-focused, and if you can’t write for the conversion you’ll have a hard time getting the sale.

While many projects you work on as an SEO will have their own copywriters, it’s not at all uncommon for an SEO (especially in-house) to get pulled into writing copy. We can’t be so focused on incorporating keywords that we don’t get the sale.

Copywriting fundamentals include things like writing compelling headlines, outlining features and benefits, creating strong calls to action and creating/adhering to a strong brand voice. Testing and tweaking marketing messages should be a part of your ongoing conversion rate optimization and social media promotion efforts, as well.

Where to learn it: Copyblogger and SEO Copywriting both offer SEO-focused courses in writing marketing copy.

Extra credit: While you’re learning old-school marketing techniques, take a deep dive into brand building and brand marketing, too.

Content Strategy and Content Marketing

Wait, aren’t those the same thing? Actually, no. Content strategy is about planning; content marketing is about execution.

A good content strategy should incorporate research to figure out what questions users are trying to answer when they search, and how to create content that answers those questions while building brand trust and affinity. It should include an editorial calendar, and encompass not only blog posts and content on your own site, but also the content you’re pushing out to various third-party sites.

Building an ongoing content strategy also means testing and tracking to find the best dates, times and methods to publish for maximum engagement.

Content marketing, on the other hand, takes each piece of content you’re creating and asks, “How are we going to promote this?” You can’t take an “if you build it, they will come” approach with content; you have to let people know about all this awesome work you’re doing.

This includes forging relationships with influencers in your space, building and nurturing an active community, and planning how you’ll promote your content pieces on your various social media pages (hint: tailoring your message to each channel will yield better results than simply blasting the same message across Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.).

This is not what we're doing here. (Kids Field at Talking Stick, by Dru Bloomfield on Flickr.)

This is not what we’re doing here. (Kids Field at Talking Stick, by Dru Bloomfield on Flickr.)

When you combine these two disciplines, you get a holistic promotional strategy that will build a brand and a community, as well as good old-fashioned links.

Where to learn it: My old pal Jonathon Colman has a truly excellent list of resources at

Extra credit: Study up on building marketing personas so you make sure the right content is reaching the right audiences.

User Experience and Information Architecture

How do I know that user experience is important? Because Google and Bing keep saying it’s important.

Not to get too tautological over here, but good UX is a better experience for the user. And since search engines have a vested interest in people finding what they want when they search, it stands to reason that they will continue testing ways to reward sites with good UX.

A pleasing design and easy-to-use, intuitive user paths make using a website a delight, which drives repeat traffic and increases customer loyalty—not to mention conversions! The last thing you want is to spend a lot of time and effort getting users to your website, only to have them leave without buying anything. Web designers can design really beautiful sites, but if the labels are confusing or next steps aren’t clear, they can leave a user unsure of what to do next.

A co-learning experience for UX: information architecture (IA). Mapping out the hierarchy of how information is categorized and presented on the site makes that clean, beautiful UX twice as powerful, and ensures users can easily do what they came to your site to do.

When you have the coveted opportunity to work on SEO for a website from its inception, you can really build the keyword targeting, persona research, and content strategy you’ve been working on into the bones of the site. Ever seen a site with too much junk crammed into the footer because nobody can figure out where else to put it? Good IA up front could have prevented that from happening. Even with an existing site, a foundation in IA will help you create experiences for your users based on their individual needs. Who doesn’t like that?

Where to learn it: Udemy and UX Apprentice both have UX programs, and check out this presentation on information architecture by Abby Covert.

Extra credit: Take a course in web design.

Local SEO

Any business that drives users to a brick-and-mortar location, or provides services in a service area, needs local SEO. In fact, for some small businesses in small markets, local SEO is all they need to blow their competitors out of the water.

Google is getting better and better at figuring out whether a search has local intent, and is localizing searches even when users don’t specify a city. This means it’s more important than ever to send strong location signals both on your site and off.

A local SEO worth their salt should know how to target service areas, how to clean up old/incorrect listings, where to update location information, and how to incorporate location information into the website itself.

Where to learn it: Moz Local.

Extra credit: Learn how to mark up location information using

Classic SEO

Of course, the modern SEO should also know how to do SEO! The basics of search engine optimization go a long way. In fact, advanced techniques like semantic markup often won’t make much of a difference if your site is code-heavy, error-prone, difficult to crawl, or lives in a link desert.

Doing keyword research and optimizing the copy on a site with fundamental accessibility problems is like putting nice furniture in a condemned building. Add in content marketing, and all you’re doing is inviting a bunch of people to a party in a building that could fall down at any time—not the kind of party Google’s going to want to suggest people attend.

Where to learn it: All over the place! Start with the Moz Beginner’s Guide to SEO, then for a more in-depth course go to Distilled U. After that: never stop learning. Keep up with industry thought leaders on blogs such as the Moz blog, Raven Tools blog, Search Engine Land, and of course ISOOSI.

Continuing Education

I haven’t even touched on a bunch of other skill sets that would be useful to know—things like social media marketing, video creation and production, retention marketing, email and even pay-per-click. The more you work in SEO, the more you’ll figure out where your strengths, talents and interests lie.

It’s a constantly evolving and expanding world, and having at least a passing knowledge of several areas of expertise will make you a better marketer—not to mention a much more employable one.


Ruth Burr Reedy is the head of on-site SEO at BigWing Interactive, a digital marketing agency in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Prior to her move to Oklahoma, Ruth was the Head of SEO at Moz (formerly SEOmoz).

Since 2006, Ruth has been working in digital marketing in-house, at agencies, and as an independent consultant. Her passions include strong technical SEO, building holistic digital marketing strategies, karaoke and grilled cheese sandwiches.

  • alanbleiweiss

    Great post Ruth! Too many fall into either the marketing or the technical side and in so doing, miss important knowledge. Even if someone works on a team, or collaborates, it really is wise to know enough to communicate intelligently about all the areas…

  • ronellsmith

    Ruth, Ruth, Ruth…

    This is an awesome post. Thorough. I could not agree more with each of the areas you cover. It’s freeing to have a base of knowledge in those areas. Helps everyone on the team as well.

    I’ll miss seeing you at Mozcon.


  • Partha Sarathi Dutta

    Local SEO.. Where else SMBs goes?

    Classic SEO.. Without knowing the art of spamming, how could someone know about the SEO ethics?

    Good read. m/