December 28, 2008, 1:43 AM — There are many internet marketing resources out there that give out tips and pointers about increasing your website's rankings and traffic, getting back links, optimizing a PPC campaign, etc. Just do a Google search for "SEO" or "How to get my website ranked in Google" and you will get millions of results. Unfortunately, when you try a search for "How to become an SEO specialist?" you only get websites that offer help in finding a specialist or job postings. There are no resources for those who are wondering how to actually become an SEO engineer. Here are some pointers that I think will be helpful in actually becoming a professional Search Engine Optimization (SEO) specialist.
No matter if you want to be a freelance SEO or work for an agency, you will need to first prove (to a prospective client or employer) that you have some knowledge of the Internet Marketing field and show some results in getting websites ranked in Google and other search engines, so lets get started:
1. Learn the Basics of SEO
This step should be relatively easy. There are many sources out there that will explain what exactly SEO is and what activities are involved. If you prefer books, you can look up some kind of SEO book, like "SEO 101" or some such, but as I said, all this information is available online. Feel free to read up about the subject on my blog, the SEO and Web Design Guide. To learn the search engine optimization essentials, make sure to read on my article entitled: "Improve Google rankings of your website."
Start a SEO Website
Whether to a prospective client or an employer, you will have to prove that you have some knowledge and experience in the field and what better way to do that if not starting an SEO themed website? Don't create the website ad hoc - go through the actual Systems Development Life Cycle (SDLC) of the website. Start with the planning phase and have the whole concept ready before you start the design and coding parts. I'm a firm believer that to work in internet marketing you should manage at least one website from grounds up - from design and content writing to SEO and PPC.
Use your newly acquired knowledge to optimize your website - remember to write lots of quality content and get some good inbound links - submit a press release or two. Do your keyword research and decide what phrases to target. Don't shoot for the stars right at first, pick something that you can achieve relatively quickly just to show some results for your efforts. Target your geographical area. Good keyword examples would be "New York SEO Service", "Detroit SEO Consultant" or "Florida SEO Freelancer" for instance - Chicago SEO in my case. Rankings for such phrases might not necessarily bring you a ton of traffic but it's a start and you will have some proof of your SEO skills.
Build Your Portfolio
To close a deal with any serious client, you'll need some references - a nice portfolio might come in handy here. Go for some smaller, less demanding clients for start - the bigger fish will come when you make a mark for yourself. You can help your friends and family with their websites, pro bono or for a small fee - the choice is yours. You can also simply design some websites for yourself and get them ranked (if they start getting some nice traffic, you can always sell them or load them up with AdSense), just to have that portfolio ready.
Get Some Leads
By now you should have enough skill and credentials to go out there and get some new clients. Your website can be a valuable source of leads, if you don't get enough traffic yet, then a Pay-Per-Click network, such as Google AdWords or Yahoo! Marketing Solutions, might be a good source of conversions. PPC campaigns might turn costly, but if you can afford it, then you could kill two birds with one stone. On one hand you'll be getting clicks from potential customers and on the other you will gain valuable experience and insight into PPC management - a services that you can offer your future clients. Other ways of getting leads include the word of mouth (do as much networking as possible, invest in business cards and be extra nice to your friends and family!), freelance websites (client sends a Request for Proposal and freelancers submit their bids), email blasts (try not to cross the thin line on the border of spam), and cold calls, among others. If you decide on cold calling people, you'll have to steel your nerves. Many people don't appreciate being solicited and may have a few unkind words for you or will simply hang up on you, so don't get discouraged! A good tip for cold calls: look for people that do PPC (sponsored results on the right hand side of search engine result page), if they already spend money for every click then you know that those clicks are important to them and you are about to offer them FREE clicks!
Land Those Deals!
When trying to close the deal, make sure the client knows the full benefit package that he's getting - this will help double time if the client is already doing PPC - they understand the worth of traffic and you're about to considerably cut their costs. Another important thing is being honest. Don't try hiding every thing. If the client asks what have you done or what your plans are, be open about it. You can safely disclose your strategy to the client - they'll defer to your expertise and experience. If you are overly close-mouthed, your client may accuse you of lack of communication or simply lack of service (if you can't tell them what you're doing then you probably aren't doing anything). Besides, the client spends his hard earned money with you, so he or she is entitled to be informed.
Do Your Work!
Did you get that deal? Nice, now let's go to work. You should know what to do by now but lets go through it again - do your research (Word Tracker or Google AdWords keyword tool are great resources). Make sure you cover all the basics of on-page optimization: titles, meta tags, headers, bold text and inter-linking will give you basis for your further work. Write some good, keyword rich text but avoid keyword stuffing! Start your link building campaign - submit the site to DMOZ and other directories, start local listings and do a fair amount of link begging (hey, lets be honest.). When the website gets re-crawled - review and reinforce. Remember: content is the king, links are when the king goes to war!
Follow-up With Your Client
Make sure that you periodically follow up with your clients. A quick email or a simple call once in a while can do wonders in terms of customer satisfaction. If you're calling to let them know about some good ranking that you just achieved for them, have them open up Google and type in their keywords and tell you what they see - you may be pleasantly surprised at their reaction! You can always reinforce your emails with an attachment - a nice report from Google Analytics with increased traffic has a way of keeping a client happy.
Even the most satisfied clients have room for improvement. A redesign of their website might increase the conversion rate, optimizing their AdWords account may lower their cost per click (CPC), a nice press release may drive significant, and I mean SIGNIFICANT, increase in traffic for a period of time. If you've proven yourself to the client and gave him or her a good bang for their buck, they will be willing to listen to you. If you make your case and show them how the additional services that you provide will make them more money, they will go for it. Make them money and they will be more than happy to pay your fees - sky's the limit!
Get Referrals and Update Portfolio
Make sure that you have nice recommendations from your very satisfied client - stick them on your website, update a portfolio and shamelessly take advantage of it when closing a new deal. It is always worth the time and effort to write a nice case study after a successful campaign and upload it to your website - several nice ones and your conversion rate will soar!
Continue to freelance or look for a permanent position
At this point you should be able to tell which is more feasible for yourself - staying a freelancer (freedom, sweet freedom) or joining an agency (benefits+paid vacation time+sales team handy). By now you should have enough evidence to support your resume to get an agency job without much problem, so the choice is yours!
Go back to the first step and go over the cycle again
This time try just a little bit harder. Don't ever assume you know everything, because there is always room for improvement. There are new techniques and new ways of accomplishing your goals. Look at this as a process of ongoing improvement, we live and learn.
This, in a nutshell, should give you an idea of how to follow (no pun intended) the path of an SEO, whether agency or freelance. Feel free to share your comments and success stories. Good luck!