How to Learn SEO (and Stay Sane)

Cody is the Chief Strategist and Founder at Assisted Reach where he uses SEO and data analytics to execute growth strategies for a variety of clients.
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    Learning search engine optimization can be overwhelming at first. There is a lot to wrap your mind around. But becoming proficient in SEO is definitely an achievable undertaking. 
    Teaching you everything you need to know to go from SEO newbie to competent SEO in one article is next to impossible.

    But the next best thing is a guide that provides you with the resources to achieve SEO mastery on your own.

    This is that guide.

    If you are new to the world of SEO, you probably have some concerns like:

    • Time. Will it take years to learn SEO?
    • Information overload. There is so much SEO related content on the internet, where do I even start?
    • Contradictory information. Who do I trust when I find different opinions?
    • Fear of anything technical. Do I need to be technical to succeed?
    • Hat Color. Should I use black, grey, or white hat tactics…? Or maybe all of them?
    • Education. Do I need any formal education to work in SEO?
    • SEO Gurus. Do I need to buy online courses from SEO gurus for thousands of dollars to learn?

    All of these concerns will be addressed in this guide, along with the resources you will need to nail down the fundamentals.

    SEO changes quickly. Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller says that Google updates and evolves its algorithms almost every day, which forces the SEO industry to evolve as well. Although the fundamentals stay the same, there are always new things to be tested and learned.

    To make this guide more objective, we reached out to some SEO agency professionals who have experience teaching SEO in an agency environment. We wanted to thank the following contributors for their advice and insights that helped us create this guide.

    Kate Morris — Director of SEO @ Craftsy
    Everett Sizemore — Director of Marketing @ Inflow
    Greg Lucas — Senior Partner @ Over The Top SEO
    Jake Bohall — VP Marketing @ Hive Digital
    Jim Bader — VP of SEO @ Investis Digital
    Justin McIntyre — Director of SEO and Content @ Perfect Search Media
    Kyle Elrod — SEO Manager @ Bigwing
    Paris Childress — Founder and CEO @ Hop Online
    Rob Kerry — Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer @ Ayima
    Ross Hudgens — Founder and CEO @ Siege Media
    Will Critchlow — Founder and CEO @ Distilled

    Now let’s get started!

    Free vs. Paid Education

    As an industry still in its infancy, most colleges don’t formally teach SEO. Luckily, you can learn everything you need online and through application, making a degree or college education in SEO unnecessary. In fact, the majority of SEOs are self-taught, using mainly free online resources to learn (many of these will be discussed in this guide).

    There is an incredibly helpful and active online community of SEOs. As you familiarize yourself with this community, you will inevitably stumble your way onto the websites of “SEO Gurus” selling courses that teach you SEO for thousands of dollars.

    The truth about these courses is that the majority of information they provide can be found online for free. So why would anyone pay for these?

    The answer is that a course can save you time. The information is bundled together allowing you to do your learning all in one place with a curriculum that is structured and keeps you focused. This prevents you from bouncing around from resource to resource and getting off track.

    Is a course absolutely necessary to learn SEO? No, definitely not. Will a course save you time? Potentially, as long as you take a course from a reputable SEO. A good rule of thumb to follow is to only buy a course from an SEO practitioner who makes money doing actual SEO, not just selling courses on how to do SEO.

    This guide is going to focus on taking the free learning approach, but if you are interested in a course, do your research before purchasing!

    Learning Philosophy

    The best way to acquire almost any new skill is to learn by doing. SEO is no exception.

    There’s no substitute for getting your hands dirty. 
    Will Critchlow
    Will Critchlow, Founder and CEO @ Distilled

    This guide will provide you the resources you need to learn the fundamentals of SEO. Once you understand the fundamentals, you need to begin applying your knowledge. There are two ways to do this:

    • Get an entry level job in SEO
    • Deepen your SEO knowledge by practicing on your own websites

    Entry Level Job in SEO

    There are two types of entry level jobs in SEO:

    • Work at an agency that provides SEO as a service
    • Work in-house performing SEO for the company you work for

    One of the major benefits of working an entry level job is that you will likely have a mentor helping you along the way. This can speed up the learning process and your development as an SEO.

    Here are some of the soft skills that would qualify you for a position in SEO:

    We look for the following attributes that usually indicate a person’s future success in SEO and Digital Marketing:
    • Passion for digital marketing — this is the most essential attribute
    • Cultural fit within our agency
    • Intellectual curiosity — knowing what they don’t know and wanting to fill those knowledge gaps
    • Analytical skills/approach — justifying all arguments with data and projected client revenue impact
    • Demonstrated ability to self-learn with limited guidance
    • Thought leadership — proactive upkeep of skills and industry trends, and willingness to share with teammates
    • Ability to work within a team
    • Communication and client-facing skills (especially over email and video conferencing)
    • Professionalism and integrity”
    Paris Childress
    Paris Childress, Founder and CEO @ Hop Online
    The most important trait we look for is passion about SEO. You don’t have to be an SEO guru, but you need to have the innate motivation to learn new things that this career path demands. SEO is constantly changing, faster now than ever, and we want to make sure new hires can learn the basics quickly and continue to learn and experiment for years to come. That means we’re going to ask which blogs, podcasts and newsletters you subscribe to, and which experts you follow to learn about SEO. 
    Everett Sizemore
    Everett Sizemore, Director of Marketing @ Inflow
    The primary things I look for in a candidate is an aptitude for technology, a baseline understanding of web development, and a desire to learn things on their own. 
    Kyle Elrod
    Kyle Elrod, SEO Manager @ Bigwing Interactive
    By working closely with those who are part of the internship, we’re able to find individuals who have the qualities we’re looking for: analytical chops, communication, curiosity, and initiative. Because digital marketing is a field still in its infancy, the previously mentioned qualities are more important than any specific skills for our entry-level positions. 
    Justin McIntyre
    Justin McIntyre, Director of SEO and Content @ Perfect Search Media

    Although SEO can be learned online, getting an entry level job at an agency or in-house can require some kind of degree.

    Here are some of the best degree to get if you want to pursue a career in SEO:

    • Computer Science or Computer Information System. You will learn the basics of web development and internet technology making the transition to the technical side of SEO easier. A number of the agency professionals mentioned that web developers make very good SEOs.
    • English (or another degree that requires a lot of writing). The ability to write well is an invaluable skill in SEO because great content is a necessity in SEO.
    • Marketing. A degree in marketing can provide you an introduction to all the elements of traditional and digital marketing and will give you a firm grasp on the psychology behind how consumers purchase.

    Learn By Doing

    Performing SEO on your own websites is a great way to practice and hone your SEO ability.

    Having your own website is a must, no matter what it’s about or how it ranks, as it means that you feel the pain of website owners and probably obsess over your visitor numbers or search rankings already. 
    Rob Kerry
    Rob Kerry, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer @ Ayima
    I would also highly recommend creating a WordPress site or blog and begin to familiarize yourself with the basics of SEO and content development. 
    Jim Bader
    Jim Bader, VP of SEO @ Investis Digital

    If you own a small business, do SEO on your business’s website. If you don’t have a business, build a personal blog or an affiliate site.

    The important part here is that you are applying what you learn.

    Contradictory Information in SEO

    SEO is an industry known to have a lot of contradictory information. Here are two reasons for this:

    • SEO changes quickly. Information that was true six months ago, may not be true today.
    • Google and other search engines keep the inner workings of their algorithms a secret. All we can do is speculate and test. The problem with speculation is that if an idea seems believable, it becomes eagerly accepted as truth without the data to back up the speculation.
    • If an SEO tactic worked for one website that does not mean the same can be successfully applied to another.

    How To Handle Contradictory Information

    • Believe only credible sources. The resources you will find below are all credible sources for SEO information.
    • Believe statistical analysis and be skeptical of anecdotal evidence. When evidence is anecdotal, always test it yourself.
    • Rely on multiple sources. Try not to only follow one SEO resource you really like. Mix it up and get information from different sources.
    • Test, test, and test some more. Don’t follow all the recommended SEO tactics blindly.

    What ‘Hat Color’ Should You Choose?

    White hat, grey hat, and black hat are terms used to describe the type of SEO tactics used. White hat SEOs follow the guidelines of Google and other search engines. Grey hat SEOs aren’t afraid to bend the rules a bit, while black hat SEOs blatantly break the rules.

    Most SEOs view white hat as a strategy that will stand the test of time. As long as you are following the guidelines, you don’t have to worry about Google or another search engine penalizing your website. If you are new to SEO, you should follow the way of the white hat.

    However, you should not ignore the tactics the grey and black hat SEOs are using. These tactics are usually manipulative and short-term, but can teach you a lot about how search engines determine rankings. Sometimes you can even use this knowledge in a white hat way.

    The SEO Essential Starter Kit

    Many beginners learning SEO can experience information overload. Have you ever wondered why there is so much information about SEO on the internet?

    It’s because creating content and ranking it in Google is what SEOs do! Of course there is going to be a ridiculous amount of content on the subject.

    The question is, where do you even start when consuming this content? Below you will find a number of what we believe to be the best resources for learning the fundamentals of SEO.

    Understanding The Basics

    The basics of SEO can be learned in just a few hours spent on the following resources. These will provide you a foundational knowledge of how search works and introduce you to the different components of SEO.

    1. How Search Works — This is a short 3 min video by Matt Cutts (the former Head of WebSpam at Google). In the video, Matt talks about Google’s approach to search and how Googlebot indexes and crawls the web.
    2. The Beginner’s Guide To SEO — This guide by Moz is one of the best starting points for someone brand new to SEO.
    3. Search Engine Book — Read this guide right after Moz’s guide to solidify your understanding of the basic components of SEO.
    4. Google Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide — This guide was written by Google and contains many SEO best practices for webmasters. You should definitely become familiar with this.

    You should also check out this video by Sam Oh.

    Keyword Research

    Keyword research is the process SEOs use to find what search queries consumers enter into a search engine for a given topic. You will find that there are a number of different ways to do keyword research, but there is no single “right” way. It will vary based on your industry, budget, and goals.

    Regardless of how you perform the actual act of keyword research, it’s important to understand a search query’s intent. Here are the three different types of search queries:

    • Transactional. When a purchase occurs, a sign-up is completed, or some other transaction is made by the searcher.
    • Informational. When the searcher is trying to find information about something.
    • Navigational. When the searcher intentionally goes to a specific website.

    Recognizing intent will allow you to improve keyword selection decisions and better serve your target audience.

    1. How to Do Keyword Research — This guide provides you a framework for conducting keyword research regardless of your goals, budget, or industry.
    2. Keyword Research for SEO: The Definitive Guide — This comprehensive guide by Brian Dean shows you a number of strategies for finding keywords and determining intent for your target market.

    Or, y’know, check out another top-notch tutorial by our very own Sam Oh.

    Competitor Research

    Carrying out competitor research is crucial to any SEO campaign. It is extremely useful to know what your competitors search strategy is for the following reasons:

    • Why reinvent the wheel? If you can reverse engineer what your competitors are doing to rank, you have a solid roadmap for success.
    • It will show you what your competitors are neglecting and allow you to capitalize on that.
    • It will give you a good idea of the resources it will take to rank your site and if competing is even feasible for you.

    Here are some awesome guides on how to perform competitor research.

    1. How to Carry Out a Detailed Competitive Analysis (With Only 2 Tools) — This guide shows you how to conduct a detailed competitor analysis using only Ahrefs and SimilarWeb.
    2. SEO Competitor Analysis — This guide by Nathan Gotch hits on a variety of different factors to look at when doing a competitor analysis… even offline strategies.

    On Page SEO / Content Audits

    On page SEO refers to the optimization of a website’s on-page elements. This includes the way a website is structured and coded, as well as its content. As a webmaster, you have complete control over your on-page elements so putting the time into getting them right is important.

    1. On-Page SEO: Anatomy of a Perfectly Optimized Page (2017 Update) — This guide breaks down on page SEO into an easy to follow checklist.
    2. Onsite SEO Guide — If you follow the link, you will see a opt-in button where you can download the “Onsite SEO Guide.” Matt Diggity does a lot of testing on his own sites, so this guide reflects what on page tactics are working best for him.
    3. On Page SEO: A (2M Keyword) Data Driven Analysis — This study by Ahrefs is one of the largest data driven studies about on page SEO. This will provide you a good understanding on what is important when it comes to on page SEO and in what situations.
    4. On Page Ranking Factors — Moz’s on page ranking factors explains the different on page elements and their importance in SEO.

    A content audit is an evaluation of the indexable content on a website. As you audit the content on a website, you are usually looking at a variety of metrics like traffic, backlinks, etc.

    Depending on these metrics, you generally make a decision to keep the content as is, improve the content, or remove the content.

    1. How to Do a Content Audit (Updated for 2017) — Everett Sizemore created this awesome guide providing you step by step instructions for completing a content audit.
    2. The Step-by-Step Guide to Conducting a Content Audit - This guide by Eric Siu is a comprehensive content audit framework that has some great linked resources within the post.

    Off Page SEO

    Off page SEO refers to the strategies performed outside of your website that can be used to improve your search engine rankings. When someone mentions off page SEO, they are generally referring to link-building or techniques that provide your website with some kind of coverage or exposure.

    1. Off-Page SEO: What It Is and How To Crack It — This post by Joshua Hardwick defines off page SEO and provides an introduction to a few off page SEO techniques.
    2. The Noob Friendly Guide to Link Building — In this post, David McSweeney lays out the basics of link building and then provides a number of resources where readers can do further reading into each topic discussed.
    3. Link Building For SEO: The Definitive Guide (2017 Update) — After clicking this link, the first sentence you will read is “It’s no secret that link building is the most important skill in SEO.” Brian Dean does a very thorough job teaching the most important skill in SEO in this guide.
    4. The Complete Guide to Outreach: 52 Curated Sources — Conducting effective outreach is an important part of link-building. This guide provides you with a ton of great resources to master outreach.

    Technical SEO / Website Audit

    Technical SEO refers to the technical aspects of on-page SEO like site speed, indexability, and mobile responsiveness. The term “technical” can turn a lot of people away from this aspect of SEO. Don’t let it scare you! It is not nearly as intimidating as it sounds.

    To understand and implement technical SEO, you do NOT need to be a developer or have some impressive technical resume. You just have to be willing to sit down and solve one problem at a time.

    If you are doing technical SEO and find that you are stuck, follow this process:

    • Google it! There is a ton of information online that will walk you through a technical SEO problem step by step.
    • If you can’t find an answer via Google, ask one of the many SEO communities on Facebook (these groups will be mentioned below in the continued learning section). These communities are usually very helpful and knowledgeable. If they don’t answer your question directly, they will likely point you in the right direction.
    • If the technical SEO issue is too far over your head and you can’t find help, you can go to a site like Upwork and hire someone to complete the task for you.

    Here are a few guides to get you familiar with technical SEO and website audits.

    1. Ultimate Guide: How to Make a Website in 2017 — WordPress is a software that makes building websites easy. The best part is that you do not need to know how to code to use WordPress. This guide walks you through the website setup process.
    2. Ultimate WordPress SEO Guide for Beginners (Step by Step)28% of websites on the internet use WordPress. Learning WordPress and how to perform SEO on the platform is a necessary skill for any SEO. This guide walks you through some of the most important things that need to be done for SEO on a WordPress site.
    3. Learn HTML and CSS — HTML and CSS are the two most basic languages of the web. You do not need to know how to write these languages from scratch, but understanding how to edit HTML and CSS is an invaluable skill for an SEO. This course by Codecademy does a great job introducing you to these two languages.
    4. Step-by-Step “Technical SEO” Checklist — This post compiled by Ryan Stewart provides you a checklist for a comprehensive technical SEO audit. In the post, he defines each part of the audit and then explains how to complete it.
    5. The Technical Audit Checklist Made For Human Beings — In this post by Distilled, you will find a link to a Google sheet that has an technical SEO audit checklist and links to resources on how to complete each checkbox.

    And here’s a quick SEO audit tutorial.

    SEO Tools

    SEO tools are a necessity to any SEO campaign. They can save you time and provide you with valuable insights into your own and your competitor’s websites. Needless to say, learning how to use these tools is extremely important.

    Below is an SEO toolkit we recommend that you learn and use. There are also a number of other great SEO tools that weren’t mentioned below. If you want to learn more about these other tools, check how this Backlinko post.

      1. Google Analytics — Google Analytics tracks and reports data collected from your website. To learn Google Analytics, check out Google’s training course on it.
      2. Google Search Console — This web service allows you to monitor the status of your website. Here is a post on how to set it up and begin using it.
      3. Bing Webmaster Tools — This web service is exactly like Google Webmaster tools, but it is used for both Bing’s and Yahoo’s search engines. Here is a guide on how to use it.
      4. Pingdom Site Speed Tool — A fast website is important for SEO and user experience. This tool displays your website’s load times and helps in determining how to increase your website’s speed.
      5. Screaming Frog — This tool will crawl your website and analyze key onsite elements. Here is a guide on how to use screaming frog effectively.
      6. Ahrefs Tool Suite — Ahrefs can be used for keyword research, backlink analysis, content exploration, competitor analysis, and much more. Checkout the recently launched Ahrefs Academy to learn how to get the most out of Ahrefs. Also take a look at Ahrefs’ SEO metrics explained and how to gauge keyword difficulty.

    1. Whitespark Local Citation Finder — Citation are an important component of a local search engine optimization strategy. Check out this guide to learn about citations and how Whitespark can help you with your citation management.

    Analytics and Reporting

    The ability to measure the success of your SEO efforts is crucial. Tracking and managing your website’s data can be done through Google Analytics and Google Search Console. There are a number of other analytics platforms, but these two web services are the foundation of where SEO analytics starts. Here are two guides that cover the basics.

    1. Beginner’s Guide to Google Analytics
    2. How to Use Google Search Console to Improve SEO (Beginner’s Guide)

    Conversion Rate Optimization

    SEO is the process that brings traffic to a website, but if you can’t convert that traffic into a sale, email subscriber, etc., there is no point in having it in the first place. That is where conversion rate optimization (CRO) comes in.

    Everything is relative and personalized in search today, so teaching them to think like a user, see what the user sees, and let go of all pre-conceived notions is more important than any specific technical training. 
    Kate Morris
    Kate Morris, Director of SEO @ Craftsy

    CRO is a process that utilizes user feedback, market research, and analytics to improve the conversion rate on your website. If the goal of your website is to get visitors to fill out a contact form, the conversion rate would be the number of people who filled out the form divided by the total traffic your website received.

    This CRO guide by Qualaroo does an excellent job explaining the basics of CRO and provides actionable steps to take when optimizing your website for conversions.

    Continued Mastery

    SEO requires you to constantly be a student because of how quickly the algorithms of search engine companies change. Here are some awesome resources to continue your SEO education.


    Certifications do not carry much weight in the SEO industry. The only certification that you should pursue as you learn SEO is the Google Analytics (GA) Individual Qualification. This certification will show you all the functionality and features that Google Analytics has to offer. Check out this post on how to pass the GA exam.

    Facebook Groups

    Facebook has a very active community of SEOs. Join the following Facebook groups to stay on top of industry news and ask questions.

    1. Digital Marketing
    2. Digital Marketing Questions
    3. White Hat SEO
    4. SEO
    5. Local Client Takeover
    6. Lion Zeal Mastermind
    7. Proper PBN Group
    8. Private Mastermind Group


    Podcasts are great for learning SEO while you are on the go. Here are some podcasts to check out.

    1. Duct Tape Marketing
    2. WebmasterRadio.FM/ SEO 101
    3. Search Engine Nerds
    4. Webcology
    5. The Digital Marketing Podcast
    6. Search Talk Live
    7. The Agents of Change
    8. Marketing School
    9. PNR: This Old Marketing
    10. Experts On The Wire
    11. Lion Zeal Show

    Blogs and Websites

    Blogs and websites are probably the most important learning resource for all SEOs, no matter your skill level. Here are ten blogs you should be following:

    1. The Google Blog
    2. Ahrefs Blog
    3. Search Engine Land
    4. Search Engine Journal
    5. Search Engine Watch
    6. Backlinko
    7. Moz Blog
    8. Search Engine Roundtable
    9. SEOBook
    10. Marketing Land


    The SEO industry changes so fast that books quickly become outdated. The majority of your SEO learning should come from online resources, but there are a few books that will help you conceptually understand the history of search, search engines, and how SEO has changed over the years.

    1. The Art of SEO — Written by some of the leading minds in SEO, this book can be thought of as the bible of SEO, as it is over 900 pages long. It provides an introduction to the basics of search engines and SEO, and then expands into more advanced topics.
    2. The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture — This book describes the lasting impacts search technology has had on cultures and industries around the world. It digs into how Google became the dominant company it is today and will provide you with a deep understanding of how search and search engines changed the internet.

    YouTube Channels

    If you enjoy learning from video, here are some YouTube channels to subscribe to.

    1. Backlinko
    2. Ahrefs
    3. Google Webmasters
    4. Google Analytics
    5. Search Engine Journal
    6. Eric Enge
    7. WEBRIS

    SEO Conferences

    SEO conferences can be a wonderful experience for people new to the SEO industry. Although these conferences are expensive, there are a number of benefits from attending like:

    • A better understanding of SEO
    • Learning about the latest techniques that are working in the industry
    • Networking opportunities

    Here are ten conferences that you should try to attend:

    1. Search Love
    2. Search Marketing Expo
    3. State of Search
    4. SEJ Summit
    5. PubCon
    6. Inbound
    7. C3
    8. MozCon
    9. Inbounder
    10. Content Marketing World is a website that allows users to facilitate offline group meetings around a particular subject. SEO meetups in your area are a great way to learn more about SEO and connect with other SEOs near you.

    Check meetup groups around the country, usually a few gems in the mix. 
    Greg Lucas
    Greg Lucas, Senior Partner @ Over The Top SEO


    Ignite Visibility recently released “SEO: The Movie”. This 40-minute film covers the history of search engine optimization portrayed through the experiences of some of the biggest names in the SEO industry.

    Final Thoughts

    So there it is. The roadmap to learning the fundamentals of SEO. What’s your plan now?

    A wannabe SEO will read a bunch of articles like this one, but won’t take action because they get side tracked by an article on “how to make money online.” Those destined for SEO greatness will find a way to learn regardless of the roadblocks.

    Paris Childress, Founder and CEO at Hop-Online stated that one of the most essential skills he looks for in a potential candidate for his agency is “Intellectual curiosity — knowing what they don’t know and wanting to fill those knowledge gaps.

    Now you should know what you don’t know. Time to fill in those knowledge gaps through your own research!

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