Can’t afford a consultant? How to teach yourself SEO
In these thin times for publishing, you probably don't have a few thousand dollars in your editorial budget to pay for tutoring from an SEO consultant. Happily, many of these consultants have put an enormous amount of knowledge on the Web. If you put in the time, you can learn a ton about SEO without paying a dime.
Here's a three-step plan.
1. Read one search-related article every day
Basic SEO articles - a great starting point
Here are some I've bookmarked over the course of my own self-education.
- A glossary of search engine terms. As you read through subsequent articles listed here, you can keep this one open in a tab for handy reference.
- 55 quick SEO tips. This piece by Richard Burckhardt quickly covers a lot of practical topics and techniques.
- A guide to ranking factors. What makes one article rank higher than another in the results for a particular search? Outside of the search companies, nobody really knows with absolute certainty. The algorithms are complex and they change with some regularity. But there is a general understanding of the key factors. For this article, SEOmoz asked numerous SEOs to rank the importance of various factors, then averaged their scores to establish something like a consensus of what matters to search engines. The value isn't in whether they are exactly right; a rough understanding of the factors involved is the goal of reading this article. I come back to it from time to time myself. In fact, it's just one of a series of valuable in-depth articles on SEOmoz - see the additional free guides listed on the right side of this page.
- Targeting keywords and phrases. A generally informative article about keyword phrases and how they're effectively used in various elements of the page. Emphasizes (yet again) the important point that ranking high on a results page is worthless if the searcher is served unreadable or suspicious gibberish.
- A roundup of SEO tools. A great list and explanation of online tools related to keyword research and other SEO topics. Here's another in list-only format that focuses only on free tools.
RSS feeds - for continuing education
If you don't use a feed reader, I would urge you to start now. It's a very fast way to skim through a large amount of information and pick out what's immediately relevant.
I follow four search-related feeds.
Key point: I do NOT read every post. I don't even read 30% of them. I scan the headlines every day and try to read at least one interesting article about search. Doing this, you can absorb a lot of information and stay on top of changes in the field while only investing five to fifteen minutes each day.
Here are links to those four feeds. It is not an exhaustive list; it's just the set I scan regularly. Plug these URLs into your feed reader, add your own favorites over time (you'll find others via recaps on Search Engine Land), and you're good to go.
- Search Engine Journal: http://feeds.feedburner.com/SearchEngineJournal
- Search Engine Land: http://feeds.searchengineland.com/searchengineland
- SEOmoz: http://feeds.feedburner.com/seomoz
- Matt Cutts: http://feeds.mattcutts.com/mattcutts/uJBW. This one's optional. Matt Cutts is a Google employee closely watched by the SEO community, which is always looking for clues and signs about changes in Google's philosophy and/or its search ranking algorithm. A low percentage of his posts actually address these issues, but I include it so you can make your own decision about whether you care to follow him.
Two key people to follow if you're really pressed for time
If you're looking to narrow down your input even further (which I don't recommend) in the interest of time, here are two names to remember: Rand Fishkin and Ann Smarty.
Ann Smarty writes exceptionally good roundups and reviews on Search Engine Journal, including the tool roundup linked earlier in this column.
These are my subjective choices. Your mileage may differ.
2. Become best friends with your analytics software
On my site CSOonline.com we use Omniture. We also have Google Analytics installed as a backup, and in fact I find it easier to Google Analytics to parse search engine traffic. (Two clicks: Traffic Sources, then Keywords.)
Which articles on your site bring in search traffic? What keywords do those articles use? What is their rank on the results pages for those keywords? Can you raise that rank with simple tweaks learned from your SEO reading – clarifications and greater consistency in labeling, for example, or more links to that article from others within your own site?
Until last March, CSO had a legacy CMS with an archive of excellent articles, mostly repurposed from print and using magazine-style headlines, emphasizing cleverness over clarity. Editing the articles retroactively would have been prohibitively slow, and given my meager Dreamweaver skills, who knows, I might have crashed the servers altogether. A move to TeamSite in 2008 gave us the opportunity to work back through the archive at high speeds and change to much clearer headlines. That's a whole case study for another day, but you can believe that Omniture data and Google were a key part of the process.
3. Ask questions on SEO groups on LinkedIn or other forums
If you hit a particularly vexing question you can't answer with your own reading and Web searches, this is the natural next step.
I am a member of the LinkedSEO group and find people there most helpful. There are lots of other places to try, such as:
Many of them require registration. As with almost any online forum, I suggest lurking, reading and searching for a bit before posting questions.
So there's a plan for gaining knowledge in SEO with a minimal but consistent daily investment of time. The links provided are not comprehensive but they have certainly helped me make a productive start in SEO, and in putting my site's content in front of new readers.
Feel free to comment with other links and resources you've found particularly useful.
Derek Slater originally intended this as a Tweet, but ran long by 929 words. He is editor in chief of CSOonline.com and CSO Magazine, a publication about security. He has been recognized as a Top Innovator by B2B's Media Business and CSO has won numerous awards for editorial quality, including the Grand Neal (ABM) and Magazine of the Year (ASBPE).