Is Your SEO an Expert?


What is an expert?

Just what defines an ‘expert’ and is your SEO consultant one?

What exactly defines an SEO expert? In fact, what is it that makes someone an expert in anything? It certainly is not the ability to stand atop the tallest website and scream out ‘Hey world, I am an SEO expert’. But, more importantly, how do you as a business owner make a choice about who to use for such an important task as the marketing of your website or business?

In search of expertise

This week I have been reading ‘Moonwalking with Einstein’ by Joshua Foer which has given me some better insight into just what it is to be an expert.

This is the author’s story of going from being a standard journalist to a memory master and competing at the USA Memory Championships in a single year. The backdrop is a world of memory masters and experts on experts who study just what it is to become and be an expert and I thought it would be fun to apply this thinking to what it takes to be an SEO expert.

So, what makes an Expert?

The book details studies of many different types of experts including memory masters, chess grandmasters and surprisingly the highly esteemed chicken sexers (I kid you not). It then looks at exactly what gives them their expert status and how that is attained and what kind of special traits (if any) these people have that allows them to become masters of their field.

What is surprising is that in a range of intelligence tests these people rank very average – they don’t have an exceptional IQ or any other intellectual benefit that would make them more likely to achieve expert status in their field. Sure, there are some smart people but on the whole, these specialists seem to be average folks just like you and I.

Good, old fashioned hard work

The conclusion reached is that rather than any pre-existing aptitude to becoming an expert in chess, memory or anything else, it is hard work, diligence and a single-minded approach to whatever it may be that they are trying to master over an extended time period.

For the chess grandmasters, they may have been playing daily for 20 years before becoming truly skilled and there is a quoted time of around 10,000 hours of study in one chosen field before anything close to expert status can be expected.

10,000 hours. 20 Years. Jesus. It seems that most folks selling SEO are kids. This at least makes me feel a little better about being 46 and my 22 years or so in the SEO and digital marketing game!

Memory, experience and expertise

So just what makes an expert and how can we ‘norms’ ever hope to become an expert in our chosen discipline? Well, the book details a study of chess grandmasters versus skilled but non-expert players. One would almost assume that the expert played a different kind of game and would look several moves ahead and play out the best move based on the possible outcomes but the reality was actually very different and the experts seemed to give the move less consideration than the standard players. In fact, the experts intuitively knew what to do.

How can this be, though? How can the ‘expert’ give it less thought and make the better move? Well, this brings us back to the memory and experience angle. The grandmasters had played thousands upon thousands of games. Every move, every situation, every outcome has been played out before many, many times with the results logged in the memory banks. The experts could then call upon this knowledge, without really considering any specific example and this allowed them to make the correct move based on that hard-earned experience.

The experts did not even always know why they would make such a choice, but burnt into their memory banks is the lessons learned from the past and the expert status is seemingly nothing more than the experience built over tens of thousands of games. It is this experience, this almost subconscious knowledge of the outcomes that allowed them to swiftly and accurately make the winning move and it is this recall of hard learnt lessons that is seemingly the very essence of what it is to be ‘an expert’.

Experts go with the gut

So, if the lesson to learn here is that anyone can become an expert in their chosen field given enough time, effort and consistency then just what the heck constitutes an SEO expert and when we really break it down, what skills does an SEO expert need?

Well, there is a bunch and obviously, having experience in the optimisation of websites along with the myriad problems they may have ranking is one big part of this but in my mind, that is only part of a broader skillset required.

If you are an SEO then part of your job is to match up search queries with (your clients) relevant content. So, to do this, the first step is always going to be to understand the way that people search and the language they use to do so. Language is a great and interesting topic and anyone who has done vast chunks of keyword research and fed back to clients will tell you that the terms the business may want to rank for and the language that people search with can be two entirely different animals. And then there is any number of factors that may modify this: colloquialisms, synonyms and slang can all add up to create a rich tapestry of search terms that we may have to consider for any given project.

Then, of course, there is the content itself and being an SEO often includes the editing or creation of content that can help our clients achieve their business goals (and us achieve our own) so you also need to have some chops when it comes to putting pen to paper (finger to keyboard did not sound quite as good).

The industry changes often and despite being a bunch of flighty characters that want their information in 140 characters or less there is no end of great books and online reading on SEO, analytics, strategy and website marketing that needs to be kept up with.

In many cases, you also may need a working knowledge of how websites are put together and experience with content management systems, web markup languages, scripting and databases will never hurt you in your effort to implement, test and refine our approach.

And all of this optimisation is nothing without measurement and polish so being a bit of a whiz with data, spreadsheets and analytical tools like Google Analytics are mandatory for any SEO who is serious about making changes that generate real business results & ROI for their clients.

On top of all of that, many jobs require you to be a keen detective with almost Sherlock Holmes powers of observation to solve the often perplexing mysteries relating to why a certain site or page is not performing as it should. The detective aspect is interesting in that a well-versed detective will know how to read a crime scene, and it is the experience that builds that skill and intuition and much like the SEO who has examined thousands of websites there is a skill for knowing just what the problem is from having seen it before and knowing what to look for or eliminate first.

So there you have it, the expert in SEO is some kind of wisecracking, technical, bookish, linguistic Frankenstein detective but I am not really sure how helpful that is for choosing someone to help you optimise your site.

Is anyone an expert?

So, who is an expert? Is anyone? Is SEO even a narrow enough term for anyone to be an all-encompassing expert of all they survey? I think not, it’s an umbrella term that just covers too much and whilst we can get skilled in certain areas and certain kinds of optimisation I am aware of no one that is 100% skilled and experienced in 100% of the jobs that an SEO may be called upon to perform.

So, I am forced to ask myself, am I an SEO expert? It is what I do after all and I have come from 22 or so years of experience with the web, online marketing, social media (before it had the cool name and kudos) and ultimately building and optimising sites for myself and others but am I an expert?

Well, there are certain things I can be sure about and many things that I have the experience to deduce before I tend to prove them with research. This experience allows me to survey the chessboard as it were and pick the right move so I am certainly able to troubleshoot issues quicker than someone who is new to the game but an expert, I would not be so bold to make that claim. What I can say is that I am always trying to improve, to get better rankings, to spot the similarities and hone in on the actions that will get the quickest results in the shortest time so I am certainly trying to get there.

is it helpful to think of yourself an expert?

Really, I don’t think so. We work in a new industry full of great minds and interesting people. In an industry where the goals are a constant moving target, mistakes can be costly and the competition can be fierce.

In such an environment, I believe that one is better served by remaining humble about one’s ‘skillz’. Also, you need a strong interest and ferocious appetite for knowledge coupled with a geeky love of the industry as there is just such a lot of good reading out there. If you are foolish enough to think you are an SEO expert then you risk falling behind and missing out on reading the experience, success and failures of others and you do this at your peril.

Who is the wisest man in Greece?

I was thinking this through and I believe that you have to stay hungry and have to keep learning, experimenting and polishing those skills this reminded me of something I read many moons ago about the great and wise Socrates. The story goes that Socrates was once asked the question “who is the wisest man in Greece?”. His answer to this was simply “I know that I know nothing”.

What does “I know that I know nothing” actually mean? Well, the agreed meaning here is that whilst you cannot be certain about anything you can be fairly confident about certain things.

SEO Expertise

SEO Expertise could be defined as exactly this – we know nothing, but we can be fairly confident about certain things.

Fairly confident about certain things – this to me is SEO in a nutshell: the algorithms and whims of the search engines are not public knowledge. We can do experiments, dig through analytics and our experience gives us hunches to act on but none of us actually knows how the search engines work and at times we have to operate on the edge.

The good folks at SEOMoz are always keen to remind us that whilst experiments may indicate that X causes Y this correlation does not equal causation. However well the number of tweets may line up with the rank of a given page, that does not mean those tweets caused that page to rank and that’s an important fact to remember.

Choosing an SEO expert

As a gigging SEO, some clients may want to play safer than safe, others, despite frequent warnings may urge you towards more aggressive and risky tactics in the hunt for rankings. As an SEO consultant, all of this builds experience and lessons to help construct a knowledge bank that we can call upon when presented with our latest problem. Much like how a great detective sees the criminal’s angle or a chess master just knows what the best move is an experienced SEO will often have a hunch and can then set out to back that up with a skilful analysis.

I guess the point of the matter is to choose wisely. The game is deep and varied and SEO for is a whole different game to local SEO for a small plumbing business.

So, if I was to offer any advice, ensure you choose someone who has spent a considerable amount of time (10,000 hours – 5 years +) polishing his trade and putting in the groundwork to be working towards that expert status. Find someone who has SEO skills that relate to the problem at hand and who can prove their long and weighty experience.

This way, you will end up with someone who is able to look at your site, make the right decisions for your business and make your SEO spend work as hard as possible as soon as possible.

Got an interesting SEO problem?

If you have got an interesting problem with your site or are looking at a challenging SEO project and need someone, who at least aspires to be an expert, and certainly has the 10,000 hours (and many more) in the bank, then get in touch or give me a shout on Twitter.


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