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13 essential SEO skills you need to succeed

What is the greatest skill in SEO?

If you believe this tweet, it’s patience.

Although patience is a great answer, I would never say there is a “greatest” SEO skill.

Why?

Because SEO requires various hard skills (things you can learn or be taught) and soft skills (how you work and interact with others) to succeed.

As I’ve always found, asking many SEO professionals one question will get a wide variety of opinions. So I asked several SEO professionals what they would consider the greatest skill in SEO.

Here’s what they told me.

1. Research and troubleshooting

Dave Davies, Lead SEO, Weights & Biases  

  • “As far as greatest skills go, I have to go with the stock SEO answer: It depends. In this case, though, it really does. If the practitioner is content-focused, then writing skills combined with strong research abilities (both SEO and subject-based) would definitely top my list. If the practitioner is a technical SEO, then the most important skills skew to technical knowledge – but even that branches out.

    If they work as a contractor, then they likely need to have a broad understanding of different tech and a strong ability to research specifics and work with developers. If they’re an in-house SEO or platform-specific contractor, then they would likely need a stronger grasp of a specific stack, and possibly deployment capabilities.

    The one skill that every SEO needs is research and troubleshooting capabilities. If they can’t do that, their career will be short. Thankfully, if you’re reading this, you do your research.”

2. Critical thinking

Dan Taylor, Head of Technical SEO, SALT.agency  

  • “For me, one of the greater skills for SEO professionals to develop is critical thinking. The SEO ecosystem is awash with noise and claims, with varying levels of data and anecdotal evidence to support them. Far too often, much of this content and advice is taken verbatim and applied to own situations without a second thought, with the expectation that the implementation will yield the same results. A common example in SEO happens when working with a client (and other stakeholders) on a website redesign. More often than not, the designs, and some proposed technical implementations, will be taken from other websites without considering the ‘other’ factors that go into how a website ranks. Just because eBay, the BBC, Amazon, etc. do X, doesn’t mean X will work for Bob’s Hardware or Bob’s Finance Co.

    With critical thinking, SEOs should read a study online, see the inputs and outcomes, and then intentionally find other studies that contradict these results – and then form their own opinions and influence their strategies with application to the current client scenario.”

John McAlpin, Director of SEO Strategy, Cardinal Digital Marketing

3. Problem-solving

Elmer Boutin, VP of Operations, WrightIMC

Corey Morris, Chief Strategy Officer, Voltage  

  • “The greatest skill in SEO is problem-solving. It rarely goes according to plan. Adapting, finding new ways, and exploring all resources for technical, on-page, IT, UX and off-page factors are all critical to success. Using a checklist, and checking boxes, won’t get you far.”

4. Experimenting

Himani Kankaria, Founder, Missive Digital

  • “The greatest skill in SEO is experimenting. One thing that works for one business or industry is not necessarily what would work for another. You cannot judge that without testing. Also, most of the projects have different audience buying and browsing perspectives, technologies for the website UX, content, how we build the navigation, etc. So you need to keep checking what works for your website, client, or employer because SEO is ever-evolving, and one cannot learn or unlearn new or outdated things without experimenting. Sometimes, we learn from someone else’s experiments, so experimenting is a super duper skill in SEO.”

5. Business acumen

Trond Lyngbø, Founder, Search Planet 

  • “As an SEO consultant specializing in enterprise-level SEO consulting for enterprise ecommerce companies and omnichannel retailers, I value SEO strategies that are not SEO strategies for Google, but SEO for business performance results, productivity and economic growth. A solid understanding of business, business processes, workflow automation and cross-functional alignment is worth gold in this segment.”

Connie Chen, SEO Specialist, Moving Traffic Media

  • “Commercial awareness (ROI) and soft skills because you need to be able to translate the work that you’re doing into measurable impact for your stakeholders. You must also know how to distill technical ideas into concepts that make sense to those stakeholders.”

6. Adaptability 

Maria White, Head of SEO, Kurt Geiger

  • “SEO is a spectrum. As such, it is hard to dominate all skills (Technical, Data, Content, PR, Story Telling, Management and more). These skills change as Google and search evolve. Every Google algorithm shapes the way we do SEO. Given that the only constant is change, then the best skill to succeed is the ability to adapt. Changes are the norm when working in an agency: new clients, bigger clients, various budgets, fast pace and more. If, along with that, we add constant changes to the algorithm that involves changing the way we work, then here is where only those with the ability to adapt will not only survive but they will thrive.”

Holly Miller Anderson, Lead SEO Product Manager, Under Armour

  • “The greatest skill in SEO is adaptability. SEO is a learned skill from technical to content. But adaptability is a choice.”

7. Communication

Casey Markee, Owner, Media Wyse

  • “SEO requires an ability to clearly explain concepts and objectives, usually in many different ways, to many different people. Your ability to do so, professionally and emotionlessly, is a big part of your daily success.”

8. Ability to learn

Chris Silver Smith, President, Argent Media

  • “The greatest skill in SEO is the ability to learn. One constant in SEO is change – one must learn new things and flex to adapt to new ways constantly.”

9. Persistence

Ludwig Makhyan, Co-founder, MAZELESS 

  • “Persistence is the greatest skill, where you don’t get disappointed by failures and continue to learn, push to improve, engage with other teams and cooperate for the greater success of the business you represent.” 

10. Cross-collaboration

Jon Clark, Managing Partner, Moving Traffic Media

  • “Cross-collaboration is an incredibly valuable skill. SEO is one of the few skills/roles that sits at the crossroads of nearly every department in an organization: design, development, content, UX, PR, marketing, engineering, quality assurance, analytics, and more.”

11. Understanding the user

Mike Grehan, SVP of Corporate Communications, NP Digital

  • “The greatest skill of an SEO is to fully understand the “information need” of an end user. They don’t start their research as a consumer or a B2C customer or B2B, or anything other than a human being trying to solve a problem. Help Google to help them – and Google will surely help you!”

12. Inquisitiveness

Mark Jackson, President and CEO, Vizion Interactive

  • “An inquisitive mind. In SEO,  you can be a technically gifted and super bright person or a content marketing expert, but if you lack an inquisitive mind, you may not be looking at a project from all the possible angles.”

13. Ability to know what matters

Olaf Kopp, Co-founder and Head of SEO, Aufgesang

  • “The greatest skill in SEO is “ranking experience.” You can do a lot in SEO. But only 20% of that ensures 80% of success. Only with enough experience in knowing which tasks are effective, in which case makes the difference between good and average SEOs.”

Joe Devita, Managing Partner, Moving Traffic Media

  • “The ability to stay focused on the optimization signals that matter rather than be distracted by all the noise.”

New on Search Engine Land

About The Author

Danny Goodwin

Danny Goodwin is Managing Editor of Search Engine Land & SMX. In addition to writing daily about SEO, PPC, and more for Search Engine Land, Goodwin also manages Search Engine Land’s roster of subject-matter experts. He also helps program our conference series, SMX – Search Marketing Expo.

Prior to joining Search Engine Land, Goodwin was Executive Editor at Search Engine Journal, where he led editorial initiatives for the brand. He also was an editor at Search Engine Watch. He has spoken at many major search conferences and virtual events, and has been sourced for his expertise by a wide range of publications and podcasts.



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