Search engine optimization (SEO) is a fairly forgiving online marketing discipline. It’s a long-term strategy, so if you make one mistake, you’ll usually have plenty of time to correct it.
On top of that, your search rankings are the sum total of hundreds of variables, so you might be able to safely miss one or two without jeopardizing the effectiveness of your campaign.
However, there are some important lessons every SEO practitioner must learn early on.
1. Don’t try to outsmart Google.
First, understand that you’re never going to outsmart Google. SEO is about understanding Google’s algorithm and working within it to provide better content for your visitors and, hopefully, earn higher organic search rankings in the process. If you try to find loopholes in that algorithm, or rely on “black hat” tactics to inch your way up the rankings, it’s only going to work against you in the long run.
Too many newcomers believe they can get away with tactics like spamming links or stuffing keywords, but it never works for long; Google’s quality indicators have always been good, and they keep getting better, which means even if you get away with a tactic now, you probably won’t get away with it later – and you may find your website with an algorithmic or manual ranking penalty that can be exceptionally difficult to recover from.
2. The same strategy won’t work for everyone.
Let’s say you’re working with a single client, and you have everything in order. You’ve picked the right keywords, you’ve developed great content, and you’ve built great links to see fast growth. Now you acquire a new client, with a different brand and a different audience. Do you use the same strategy?
It’s tempting for SEO newcomers to copy and paste the same approach, but this is inadvisable; your clients (or employers) will have different goals with their SEO campaigns, different competitors, keywords, and other variables, and may respond to different variables in strikingly different ways. Learn from your past strategies, and use elements from them in your new campaigns, but avoid trying to replicate any strategy in its entirety.
3. You have to change how you talk about SEO.
The more familiar you become with SEO, the deeper your technical knowledge will become. You’ll have an internal dialogue (or a dialogue with your peers) that freely uses terms like “robots.txt” or “meta data” like everyone knows what you’re talking about. But when you report your results to a client, or a boss who doesn’t understand the technical side, you’ll have to learn to talk about these technical factors in a way that makes sense to a non-SEO-expert.
Spend some time preparing to talk in this other level of language.
4. People don’t always search the way you expect.
When you start brainstorming keyword ideas, it’s a good idea to put yourself in the mind of the average searcher, imagining what words and phrases they might use to find a brand like yours. You may also use keyword research data to indicate which keywords are potentially most valuable for your brand. These are sound strategies, helping you both quantitatively and qualitatively predict how your users might search in the future.
But you should know that users don’t always search the way you’d expect them to; prepare to be surprised, and to adjust your campaign as you learn what your users are really searching for.
5. Only trust what you can measure.
You may think you have an amazing piece of written content, but how much traffic is it attracting? How many comments has it encouraged? You may think you’ve built a high-quality link, but how is it impacting your domain authority? How much referral traffic are you getting from it?
Even though you might feel like you’re developing an instinct for how campaigns develop (especially in the later stages of your career), it’s better to only trust what you can objectively measure.
6. Audit and reevaluate everything periodically.
Just because a strategy worked for you last year doesn’t mean it will this year. Things change too quickly, from the nature of the algorithm that drives how Google search works to the consumer preferences that drive search patterns. Accordingly, you’ll need to regularly reevaluate your tactics, determining whether they’re still worthwhile and finding opportunities to improve. I recommend doing a full sweep of your approach annually.
Monthly check-ins, when you report on results, are also a good idea, to spot high-level issues or successes in time to respond quickly to them.
7. Reading and talking is the only way to stay up-to-date in this fast-moving industry.
Remember what I said about things always changing? Early in your career, you’ll learn that to stay relevant, you need to plug yourself into the community. You’ll need to read relevant publications, and talk to other people like you on a regular basis if you want to stay relevant and up-to-date with the latest strategies. If nothing else, you’ll get helpful tips—and proactive words of warning if you’re taking the wrong approach.
Are you familiar with these SEO principles? Good. You’re going to need them if you want to be successful. Though you’ll have many years to correct your behavior and accumulate assets like content and links to improve your campaign, if your underlying SEO philosophies are out of order, you may never achieve your true potential as an SEO ninja.