Braden Becker’s journey to becoming an SEO specialist at HubSpot is a slightly unconventional one. In college, he studied Writing & Rhetoric, which helped him land his first job as a copy editor at a B2B trade publication. As he progressed through his career, Braden pivoted to content marketing, where he worked as an editor at a SaaS company and then as a content manager at the world’s largest environmental services firm.
You might think someone like Braden would continue to climb the creative career ladder in content marketing. But today he actually spends more time in Ahrefs than he does in Google Docs. As the historical optimization lead on HubSpot’s Blog Team, Braden’s main responsibility is to identify blog posts that are falling in organic traffic and optimize them for search engines to rank higher on Google. He’s even sharpened his SEO chops enough to co-create the SEO strategy for all of HubSpot’s blogs.
Traits of an SEO Expert
As a writer and editor for most of his career, SEO had always been in the periphery of Braden’s work — as it was a subject he had a solid grasp on but not necessarily a lot of expertise in.
Today, though, SEO is his central focus.
Braden, along with other SEO specialists at HubSpot, Aja Frost and Victor Pan, offered their advice about what it takes to become an SEO expert and the paths they took to get there.
Some SEO specialists don’t start out with the intention to dedicate their careers to SEO. Some start completely by accident. Let’s go over how HubSpot experts started theirs, and what you can do to start yours.
1. Develop your skills.
“Getting a job in SEO ideally requires two things: content creation skill and analytical skill. Most SEO professionals today have one of those and develop the other,” Becker says.
SEO experts are skilled writers with creative instincts. It’s helpful for those in the SEO profession to have a strong writing background because it takes creativity to optimize content in a way both Google and audiences will comprehend. In fact, Becker has noted that his writing background helped him get his start in the SEO industry.
“My background in writing and editing helped me get my foot in the door, but a willingness to focus on the structure, mechanics, and intent behind my writing is what I think secured my role as an SEO specialist for HubSpot.”
Braden’s story of pivoting from a creative career in content marketing to an analytical one isn’t as rare as you might think. Before Aja Frost became a senior SEO strategist at HubSpot, she was the editor of HubSpot’s Sales Blog.
“I taught myself how to do keyword research and competitive analysis as the Editor for HubSpot’s Sales Blog,” Aja says. “The Sales Blog’s traffic had been flat for a year and a half — I noticed that the only posts that consistently generated views for us were getting all of those views from search. So I began looking for sales-related keywords we could rank for that would help boost organic traffic.”
So, how do you start developing your skills to be SEO-ready? Here’s what Aja had to say about her strategy for keeping her SEO skills sharp.
“To refine my SEO expertise, I constantly read. I’m really interested in technical SEO, so I look for blog posts, white papers, and research about site architecture and navigation, website speed, and everything that goes into that, including structured data,” she says. “SEO by the Sea, Sistrix, and Blind Five Year Old are all great technical SEO resources, along with (unsurprisingly) the Google Webmaster Blog. I’m a member of a few SEO subreddits (/seo and /bigseo are the most active). And I follow a ton of SEOs on Twitter — they drop random factoids or insights all the time.”
Like Braden mentioned, a lot of SEOs start with one skill and start developing others. So, whether you’ve got an analytical mind and want to start a blog to practice writing, or you’re a seasoned writer looking to train your technical mind, having a balance in both will help you in your SEO career.
2. Research the field.
In addition to initial research about SEO, it’s essential to keep up-to-date on the latest industry changes, so you aren’t using outdated optimization techniques Google doesn’t understand.
For example, when Aja noticed the Sales Blog traffic was flat, starting SEO research helped her uncover why: she wasn’t delivering content audiences searched for.
Aja doing research about SEO led her to discovering ways to improve the blog’s performance.
SEO is always changing, so it’s crucial to keep updating your knowledge on the topic.
To build his fundamental knowledge of SEO, Victor Pan, the head of technical SEO at HubSpot, cites reading as one of the best habits he’s gotten into.
“I used to be a voracious reader on all publicly available information on SEO. I had an RSS feed of search-related blogs and news websites I would go through for a whole hour every day,” he says. “Mere exposure to ideas makes unknown problems in SEO easier to tackle when you have other people’s experiences or frameworks to build from.”
For Victor, reading was one of the best ways to develop his SEO fundamentals. Alternatively, Aja took courses to broaden her knowledge. How will you use your time to research SEO?
3. Regularly test your SEO knowledge.
Putting theory into practice gives you the practical knowledge and experience needed to level up as an SEO. In this way, SEO is kind of like playing a sport. You can read all about hitting a baseball or throwing a football, but if you never practice, you’ll never reach your full potential.
To stay ahead of the curve in any industry, reading the latest news and research is hugely beneficial. But as an SEO, when everything is constantly changing, reading isn’t enough. To gain the practical experience that’ll truly take your SEO skills to the next level, you need to constantly test industry assumptions and your new ideas.
“I test a lot of things to refine my SEO expertise. Should your brand be in your title tags? Is internal anchor text worthwhile to still do in 2020 to move rankings? What happens when you purchase fake social “signals” — do you see an increase in organic traffic?” says Pan.
“Failed experiments taught me just as much as successful ones, and it made me a much more confident SEO whenever I would make any improvements to content. Just because, in one instance, making a change resulted in an improvement, doesn’t mean that change in another place will also result in an improvement— which is why we have to test and grasp causation over just correlation.”
4. Take a course and get certified.
Earning a certification ensures that you have the proper knowledge in a certain area to successfully practice on your own. It also gives you credibility when you network on professional sites such as LinkedIn. When doing initial SEO research, Aja found courses she could take in order to get a certification for SEO, which opened up more doors.
“This led me to experiment with SEMrush, AnswerThePublic, Google Analytics, Google Search Console, and of course, HubSpot’s own SEO tools. I read a ton of blog posts and eventually got my Google Analytics certification.”
If you decide to take a course, discover which one will provide you with the skills you need to advance in your SEO career. For instance, if you find that a certain course doesn’t go in-depth about subjects you need help in, it’s probably not the course for you.
To get a head start on courses you can take, here is a list of three, two of which are part of a certification track for content marketing and inbound marketing.
5. Find a method/tool that works for you.
Similar to finding resources that work for you and your skill set, it’s imperative to find an SEO routine or tool that will become your foundation. For keyword research, SEOs like to reference their personal arsenal of tools.
For example, in addition to HubSpot’s SEO tools, some of HubSpot’s SEO experts also use tools, such as SEMrush, for additional research.
You don’t have to use every single tool that exists to conduct your SEO tasks, you just have to make sure the tools are helping you accomplish your goals and giving you accurate practice with the subject.
If you don’t know where or how to start searching for tools, here’s eight you can check out. Remember, you don’t have to commit to eight, just to the one(s) that’ll get your job done. Use what will keep your research well-rounded, accurate, and easy to comprehend.
6. Grow your network.
Becoming an expert in SEO also means growing your network of fellow SEO professionals. There’s SEO groups on LinkedIn you can join, subreddits Aja mentioned, like SEO, and conferences you can attend. Broadening your circle of SEO experts grows your knowledge and credibility in the field.
If you become enough of an expert, you can also speak at conferences in the industry. For example, Braden and Victor led a session at INBOUND — their presentation, “How to Grow (Your Organic Traffic) Better” introduces SEO changes, how to adapt to them, and how to use some basic SEO methods to optimize content.
To get started building your network, look at the resources you have available. If you have a LinkedIn account, you can start making those industry connections. You can also watch YouTube videos for quick SEO tips and engage with other learners in the comments to pick up tips from peers.
Based on Braden’s, Aja’s, and Victor’s stories, becoming an SEO expert doesn’t mean you have to start and finish your career as an SEO. Pivoting from one role to an SEO role and developing your expertise from then on is entirely possible — you just need to be willing to learn and adapt.