Becoming a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Specialist

Search engine optimization or SEO has emerged as an important industry in recent years due to the increasing power that search engines like Google wield.  As companies try to raise their rankings on Search Engine Results Pages (SERP), they are turning to a specialized marketing professional to accomplish this goal, the SEO specialist.  SEO specialists are tasked with designing, developing and promoting high quality websites.  SEO specialists are not typically of the builders of the website, but is more often a consulting authority.

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SEO specialists are charged with a number of responsibilities, depending on the company and industry, within which they work.  SEO specialists who work as freelancers or within a marketing firm, should have a number of important skills:

  • Website analysis–It is critical to the success of any SEO marketing campaign that the target company website conform to the latest standards for search engine optimization.  Keywords, backlinks, formatting and content are but a few of the important areas that a SEO specialist consider as he analyzes, redesigns and rebuilds a website.
  • Keyword optimization–Researching keywords and organically introducing them into a website is essential to a SEO optimized page.
  • Content generation–The keywords are important, but the textual, informational, and graphical content that constitute the page must also be produced by the SEO specialist.
  • Search engine parameters–This may be the most important job of a SEO specialist. Maintaining an updated understanding of what the major search engines, and especially Google, are using as criteria for SERP informs all of the design choices a SEO specialist makes.
  • Information technology skills–A skilled SEO specialist should possess a strong background in HTML, CSS, a number of programming languages and familiarity with a variety of operating systems and hardware platforms.
  • Client management–The SEO specialist must maintain a working knowledge of his employer’s or client’s objectives.  Any optimized site must, first of all, conform to the business strategy of the site owner.
  • Analytical processing–The ability to analyze problems, find appropriate resources and develop solutions goes to the heart of the SEO specialist position.

As the name denotes, a SEO specialist may focus on a specific part of search engine optimization. Some of the most important roles a SEO specialist may take on are

  • Content writer–Many SEO specialists acquire this skill early in their careers, as it requires less technical knowledge than other SEO professional roles.  The production of new and unique content is critical to raising a SERP, and may focus on producing short articles, web dialogue or other forms of online text.
  • Link builder--This is an SEO specialization that is growing in importance as more search engines have adopted backlinking as an important part of their search algorithms.  Developing authentic backlinks to the client’s website from reputable websites can be a complex proposition which requires extensive expertise and critical human management skills.
  • Web researcher–The Internet is a complex, dynamic environment that requires constant analysis and evaluation.  The research component of a SEO professional’s responsibilities can easily grow into a full time job.  These SEO specialists often provide background for content writers, web developers, and link builders.  They also provide valuable information about the latest SEO guidelines.



The most common educational requirement for an SEO specialist is experience with search engine optimization in a variety of online activities, including web design and web content production.  According to, the majority of positions for SEO specialists require the following:

  • Bachelor’s degree in business, marketing, communications or information technology
  • One to three years in online marketing
  • Knowledge of HTML, CSS and various programming languages

The speed at which the SEO industry changes is so rapid that the importance of formalized course study is questionable. Although education about web development, marketing and information technology may be important foundations, the majority of SEO methodology information will be acquired to online.  Many SEO positions will offer on the job training but will still require some post-secondary education. An outstanding work history may supersede any educational requirements for some positions.

Although formalized education in SEO related fields is not a necessity, the need for ongoing education is absolute.  Search engine optimization is a rapidly evolving field and requires SEO professionals to constantly re-evaluate and update skill sets and search engine criteria. SEO is a constantly changing interplay between the major search engines and SEO professionals trying to raise the online profiles of the clients they represent.  As Google, Yahoo, Bing and others modify their search algorithms to provide a more objective hierarchy of websites, SEO specialists reshape the digital profiles of the clients to enhance their search rankings.  This back and forth demands constant training and re-attunement to the subtleties of each new search engine modification.

Keeping abreast of recent changes in the SEO field requires ongoing education through a variety of means:

  • Conferences and workshops–One of the most important ways of acquiring knowledge about changes in search engine parameters is to discuss them firsthand with experts in the industry.  The opportunity to hear about emerging topics of discussion and ask critical questions of leaders in the field should be exploited as often as possible.  Due to the speed of change in this industry, the fastest way to learn of recent or impending alterations to the SEO landscape is through dialogue with individuals who may possess access to sensitive information.
  • Webinars and training videos–Valuable information about SEO techniques can be acquired through online informational videos.  Although most of these resources take time to produce and may be less than current, many of them offer important SEO strategies.
  • Blogs–Blogs may be a timelier source for current information about SEO methodologies than web videos but present a challenge for many SEO professionals. The number of available websites offering advice on search engine optimization is vast, so evaluating credibility and pertinence is an important issue when gleaning information from blogs.



The emergence of SEO as a profession has spawned a number of accrediting organizations that provide some form of certification for completion of their training programs.  Some of these organizations are considerably more reputable than others, with well-established universities providing the most legitimate certifications.  Academic certification typically involves the completion of a course or training program provided by a university or college. These courses may be available on campus or through an online portal.

A number of professional institutions provide certification upon completion of their training programs, one such company is

Unfortunately, there are no national or regional certification boards. SEMPO, or the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization, is widely considered to be the closest thing to an industry central body, and did offer certification courses, but recently discontinued its online institute for certification. Without a centralized sanctioning body for the industry that establishes professional standards, certification for SEO specialists is of questionable importance.  There have been suggestions of establishing such an organization from various members of the SEO community, but due to the nature of SEO, which many consider more of an art form than a science, it is unlikely to occur in the near future.

Occupational Outlook

According to the number of listings for SEO specialists have quadrupled in the past five years.  In the State of Search Marketing Report 2011, the North American search engine marketing industry will expand by 16% to $19.3 billion from the $16.6 billion in 2010. The report found that more businesses are relying on third party SEO professionals to enhance their search engine rankings. The increasing dependence on search engine marketing as a means of driving revenue growth has positioned the SEO specialist profession for rapid growth in coming years.

The rise of social media and mobile platforms will only increase the need for more SEO specialists with advanced expertise across multiple platforms.  More than 79% business respondents in an Econsultancy poll stated mobile marketing would be “highly significant” or “significant.”  The number of companies who were polled that were on Facebook rose from 73% in 2010, to 84% in 2011.

The outlook for salaries of SEO professionals is especially bright.  According to Crandall Associates, starting salaries for SEO specialists increased 17.5% between 2010 and 2011.  The average starting salary rose from $50,300 to $59,100.  Salaries across almost every experience level category rose during this period, and reflect the growing demand for SEO professionals.

Industries of Employment

SEO specialists are most often employed in marketing firms but are valued in nearly every business. Many also work independently, providing SEO services on an ad-hoc basis.


According to Robert Half’s 2021 Creative & Marketing Salary Guide, SEO specialists earn an average salary of $65,750, although those with a solid reputation in the industry and plenty of experience honing their craft earn average salaries that close in on about $96,000, the 95th percentile.

SEO specialists in content development and management, often referred to as web content managers, earn an average salary range of $55,750 – $89,000 (50th – 95th percentile).

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Professional Associations

There are a number of associations that serve the SEO specialist industry.

Top Firms

According to, all of these SEO marketing firms earned more than $10 million in annual revenue for 2011.

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