Why The BEST Way To Learn SEO Doesn’t Exist Yet

Not everybody is born an SEO prodigy. Most SEOs as kids did not envision search engine optimization as their future career (we obviously need to do a better job at glamorizing the profession). Because there are so many ways to fall into SEO, there are an equal number of ways to learn SEO and each is convinced that his way is the best way.

When asked, what do you tell people is the best way to learn SEO from scratch?

  1. Just DO it!
  2. Start a site and figure out what works
  3. Read SEO blogs
  4. Read an SEO book
  5. Watch SEO tutorials on YouTube
  6. Follow SEO experts on Twitter
  7. Go to SEO conferences
  8. Take online SEO courses
  9. Get active in SEO forums
  10. Find someone willing to teach you
  11. Some combination of the above

As an agency SEO, I have heard each of the following recommended to new employees. I’ll also add that telling someone to “just do SEO” is really disingenuous advice.

How I Learned SEO

I was lucky enough to be brought into an agency setting with next to no SEO background. There was no formalized training. I was instructed on specific SEO tasks and given more of the same to do. I was told to read SEO blogs and borrow a copy of SEOBook. I was told to start conversing on Digital Point forums.

What I actually did was quite different.

I went online and bought Search Engine Optimization For Dummies and read it cover-to-cover. My wife created quizzes for me from the chapters as I went so I would remember everything. In month 2, I went through Conversion University and passed the Google Analytics IQ test. In month 3, I bought my first domain and spent more time swapping out WordPress templates than writing actual content. Not ideal, but many of you can relate.

Now, whenever someone asks me how to learn SEO, I always recommend they read a book. Some SEOs I know will thrash me for this, but SEO has a lot of pieces and without having a foundational knowledge, none of the pieces will have any context. While I learned on SEO For Dummies, I now recommend Kris Jones’ book for its detail and breadth.

What’s Missing?

To me, the ideal way to learn SEO is 3-fold:

  1. Gain a foundational knowledge of SEO
  2. Apply the principles to a website with monetary goals
  3. Stay current by testing and reading industry literature

One of the biggest barriers to entry right now in SEO is the technical challenge of building a site worth optimizing. Many SEOs cut their teeth on a WordPress site or blog, but there’s nothing to optimize, so it’s really not the ideal workshop for learning and testing SEO. The big gap right now is that the skill disparity between building a good-looking, functional site (especially an ecommerce site) and doing SEO on that site is HUGE.

What the industry is missing is a turnkey ecommerce platform with the simplicity of many third party blogging platforms that comes pre-populated with good looking category and product pages and the ability to customize all of the SEO-critical information. Most of the “internet-business-in-a-box” solutions right now are either scams or too inflexible to be valuable.

eRetailers like Amazon.com have put a lot of resources into helping their affiliates sell products and have provided all of the functionality to embed products and code onto existing sites. Why not go a step further and create the actual platforms that would enable affiliates to sell products right out of the gate? Amazon could even partner with WordPress to create a basic hybrid system that would smooth entry into the ecommerce world and make them that much more money.

I know it’s wrong to hope for more competition, but I feel like having an ecommerce site that can go up as quickly as a blog (and look as normal) would be awesome for the industry.

  • Good SEOs would get even better.
  • New SEOs would get up-to-speed more quickly.
  • Search results would become more relevant (assuming an increase in unique content).

What do you think? How did you learn SEO and was it the right kind of training or do you wish it had been different?

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  1. Eric Miltsch says

    Nice original listing…

    Another one to add is: Do it wrong.

    If you’re really interested in learning and getting better, learn from the things that simply didn’t work for you & your clients.

    • Scott Cowley says

      That’s a true statement. However, two different books I’ve read recently, ‘Rework’ and ‘Switch’ both emphasize that we learn more by success than by failure, so be cautious about giving too much credit to “trial and error.” Thanks, Eric.

  2. John says

    Very interesting post, Scott! I’m a (relatively) new SEO, but a trained web developer. I think you’re right on all of these fronts, and I agree with Eric that you should do it wrong as well. That’s how I have learned best!

    Start by reading a book (I read the Beginner’s Guide to SEO by SEOmoz), and then go do it. Read the articles that come out (gobble them up, as we say in Virginia) and apply those tactics. Find what works, let the rest go, and keep moving forward. Don’t be afraid to try new things, or to take the time to figure out new ways of doing old tasks.

    Thanks for the list!

    • Scott Cowley says

      Thanks for sharing, John. “Keep moving forward” is critical, since Google is truly a moving target. When sites were hit by the recent Panda update, some site owners are sitting around, hoping that their pleas for reinclusion will be heard by Google. The successful ones will be those who lost rankings and are responding quickly by doing things differently, rather than waiting for someone to come to their own rescue.

  3. Mitchell Wright says

    I learned from reading forums and blogs. I would recommend people stay away from Digital Point though. There is so much garbage that you would have to wade through. I’m currently moving into a lot of testing on my own personal sites.

    • Scott Cowley says

      Testing is the only way to go. I don’t think Digital Point is all bad. It’s a great place to learn about domains for sale and create partnerships that can benefit your site and clients, but there is a lot to wade through. Which forums and blogs were most helpful to you?

  4. Michael Auty says

    Nice informative post, I’ve recently come into the SEO world. Pretty much is the same was as you (agency setting no background, heck I didn’t even know what SEO was until I did some research)

    I’ve started reading blog’s (that’s how I ended up here) and read the starters guide on SEOmoz, have to say though the list has added quite a few things for me to do and try , I should be an SEO expert in no time!

    • Scott Cowley says

      I do think that the SEOmoz starters guide is a great place to go and could replace reading a book for many people. What I’ve found is that my investment in learning is often tied to the money I pay for the resource. As funny as that may sound, it means I probably dedicated myself more to learning SEO through a book because I dropped $20 on it, than had I gone through the SEOmoz guide. Thanks, Michael.

  5. Joe Affiliate says

    Maybe I don’t understand your reasoning…is Magento not easy enough to customize, play around with, use templates, etc just like WordPress? Sure, it’s a different taxonomy – but it really is quite easy after you learn the taxonomy.

    WordPress + the WP-ecommerce plugin is another way to accomplish this…in the product link you can drop your amazon (or other) affiliate link and have product pages up fairly fast. This is a fairly clean option too where you customize your description, title tags, etc w/ AIOSEO or any number of wordpress SEO plugins.

    I don’t see any big gap there at all because I can list maybe 5 to 10 other combinations/solutions that are extraordinarily easy to implement for an SEO or newbie affiliate…but perhaps I misunderstood your angle?

    • Scott Cowley says

      I see where you’re coming from with the ecommerce question, Joe.

      Think of how easy it is to install WordPress. Most web hosts have 1-button installations via Simple Scripts or other means, and then the rest is just templates and content. There is no ecommerce equivalent to this simplicity. I understand ecommerce sites are more complex than blogs, but wouldn’t it be great to have a 1-button instant installation of a platform that sells books, for example? No ecommerce platform can do that right now. Hope the explanation helps. Thanks!

  6. Kelvin Jones says

    In the most part I agree, but the web moves so fast that books on seo date too quickly. Go for books on human interaction and psychology. Ultimately tje search engines are all trying to understand and mimic us.
    It is also weird how people fall into the profession… I studied graphic design and never thought I’d design websites but once I started I found that there was a lot more to be learnt and went with it. I now work along side an ex rugby player who I’m bringing up to speed with what I know and he’s working on cpc’s, ppc’s which works well. We both love seeing happy clients and watching tje graphs move. Sad bad rewarding all round.
    Regardless of SEO all newcomers should also learn about conversion, that’s the ultimate goal in all of it and not just read and do, there are so many posts saying how to canonicalize and handle pages and do titles and links but we all need someone who understands it to bounce theories off of and challenge new ideas before keeping in.
    Agree with the comment above, trial and error and learn fast.

    • Scott Cowley says

      Thanks, Kelvin. Your point about books becoming outdated is nowhere more apparent than in the SEO industry. A two-year-old book would still be talking about Yahoo and MSN, right?

  7. Dan Hunt says

    Getting into SEO happened because we decided to live full-time in an RV. Having internet jobs would be easier than finding new work as we moved around. My wife got her job first, with a web hosting and development company. She didn’t want to do the SEO projects her company took on, asked me, showed me, and I was off and running.

    Very shortly after taking over those SEO efforts, I realized that there were huge gaps in what I was taught. Going to the internet and trolling came up with tons of bad information. Fortunately, the people with good information kept popping up. Between internet browsing, joining the 30 Day Challenge, reading books, taking classes, SearchEngineNews, and especially by learning through the work that came my way, my skills have improved significantly. Having never worked/mentored with someone in SEO, it has at times been a trying experience, and used to be very inefficient.

    My background is business and I tell clients I am not a computer geek, that if I need to learn something I will or will find someone to do it for me. A surprising discovery is that I am a data geeek, loving to spend time understanding what has happened and deciding what to do about it.

    The business background is a huge plus. I get to talk with owners and managers on their level and help set realisitic goals for what brings them value. This is especially so with the rise of inbound marketing.

    Most of my work comes through other vendors, which helps as we move around. Getting my web site/blog off the ground will help expand my reach.

  8. Gareth says

    I started out with a broad Internet Marketing book, and then read Search Engine Optimization for Dummies. They really laid a good foundation.

    I am amazed at the accessibility that there is for ‘dummies’ like myself to tools like WordPress (whether for blogging or CMS), SEO and Amazon Associates (and simply being able to host a domain). My friend who is is an electronic engineer and programmer says that it is scandalous what I get to do so much cool stuff with my very limited html knowledge.

    Many thanks Scott.

  9. Tom on Steel says

    I am learning from a friend/mentor. He helped me get my site going and he still does help me out here and there. But now I do lots of the work all only own. I read forums and blogs etc. I think one needs to read a lot and stay current with what is going on

  10. Steven TRACY says


    I’ve been a successfull salesman for the past 25 years in France.

    In 2007 I really started to get interested in websites and ranking.

    I bought an SEO e book with all the basics of SEO and I manage to put my clients on the first page of Google ever since.

    I agree that you have to start out with a method to learn the basics and keep on reading articles and posts to stay up to date.

    I’m planning a partnership with a few clients on e-commerce projects.

    I’ll be their salesman on the web.

    That’s what SEO is about for me.

    A good SEO is just like a good salesman because it’s all about finding out what the client wants and bringing it to him through keyword search and marketing.

    And the tools we have as of today are great to target a market.

    Thanks for all your posts from seo.com

  11. Samuel James says

    Scott, nice read. Well, to answer your question, I am still learning. My bosses are “gurus”, and they assign me tasks to do in order to learn the industry and assist some of their clients. I will get that book, because it seems I struggle with making sense of the trade. I make videos, blog post, write articles, etc., but as far as understanding that it drives quality traffic and increase Pagerank, I don’t know the actual specifics.

    • James Cordeiro says

      Samuel I suggest you take a read of a recent blog post I did, it provides links to a whole bunch of writings, papers and other informational areas specifically focused to SEO and all writeen and provided by Google or other. Information is free and extremely educational for beginners. It is what I provide to my protege’s who do beginner SEO work with You Go Media clients. I called it the SEO Ten Commandments http://seoblog.yougomedia.com/seo-ten-commandments

      If SEO.com doesn’t want to post this link or information, at least provide the same information to your users, its beneficial.

  12. says

    Thank you,

    I am building my website and I found this article really useful.

    I like the list you make. I will start to follow it for my site. I build my site for my home business ( Monitium ). And I want to be SEO friendly.

    I start to look around a few weeks ago, to have all the info. To find good artcile on SEO is hard. A lot of time people use it just for page ranking and nothing really important on thier site.

    Good work and keep up!

  13. jehzlau says

    Great article about learning SEO. I learned SEO thru experience and by reading available search engine optimization articles online. I haven’t read any SEO book yet, but I guess everything that is in that SEO book is also available in various online resources. :)

  14. says

    I started out doing online reputation management and then jumped over to pure SEO. My best advice is to always be testing and looking for an opportunity somewhere you normally wouldn’t look. I read SEO blogs all day every day and I follow everyone in the industry. The knowledge is out there, now it’s time to implement!

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