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What Qualifications do you need to work in SEO?

What Qualifications do you need work in SEO
Updated on 23 May 2023


Search engine optimisation is crucially important, whether you’re a small, local start-up or a huge global company, and it takes a qualified SEO* specialist to create and implement a successful SEO strategy that can transform the success of a business.

Research shows that 93% of online experiences start with a search engine. Users rarely know what they want and where to find it and rely heavily on sites like Google to point them in the right direction.

There are approximately 67 million internet users in the UK today, and 86% of them are using Google to find the information they need.

Google is one of the world’s biggest search engines, and in today’s fast-moving and digitally competitive world many can’t imagine a life without this easy-to-use and instantaneous help and assistance.

The search engine is worth over £1122 billion and shows no signs of slowing down. There are currently two trillion searches per year on the site (that’s 228 million searches per hour!)

Google dominates the market, and any business, new or established, should be doing all that they can to ensure that they find themselves favourably ranked on the site.

Outside of Google, YouTube and Amazon have cemented themselves in the video and eCommerce search engine arenas, with a combined monthly visitor count of over 430 million.

There are quite literally millions of internet users out there using search engines to find the information that they need, and SEO is imperative to maximising a website’s potential.

Organic search is the most prominent way for people to discover and access online content, and a good SEO strategy is essential for improving the quality and quantity of traffic to a website. When done well, it’s worth its weight in gold.

With so many recognising the need for an intuitive, well-planned and effective SEO strategy, the demand for specialists in the area has risen exponentially, and it’s now an interesting and lucrative career option for anyone looking for a future-proof job in the digital marketing industry.

Read on to learn all there is to know about launching your career in the diverse and fascinating world of SEO.

What is SEO?

You may now be asking yourself, what is search engine optimisation?

Search engine optimization is the process of improving the quality and quantity of website traffic to a website or a web page from search engines. SEO targets unpaid (organic) traffic rather than direct or paid traffic.

Like us, you’ll probably skip the targeted and paid-for results and skip straight through the organic listings. Businesses can go the paid search root to make sure that they’re the first thing people see when they’re using search terms related to their business, but it’s sitting at the top of the organic results that can really make the difference.

Google and other search engines want to present the best possible results for the user’s initial query. To do this, Google ‘crawls’ and evaluates web pages on a multitude of factors. These factors can be everything from the user experience (loading speeds and web page layout), as well as what is included (content-wise) on each page of the site.

Ranking high organically is the holy grail of SEO and proves to users you’re the most credible resource for what they’re looking for, that you’re a leader in your industry, and ultimately that you’re worth their time (and money).

To ensure a website ranks highly, all content on the site will need to be optimised in line with the strategy created by an SEO specialist. Content optimization is the process of making sure content is written and presented in a way that search engines can understand so that they can then serve it more effectively to the most relevant and largest possible audience.

In a nutshell, the goal is to create content on a website that is as attractive to search engines as it is to users.

These days SEO is considered an essential marketing activity and helps a business demonstrate authority and relevance. It is important for any business, new or established, and when done well can boost its reputation and revenue and can cement it as a key player in its respective industry.

What does an SEO Specialist do?

Things move at lightning speed in the world of SEO, and the role of an SEO Specialist today looks very different to the role ten years ago. A modern SEO specialist must be a problem solver and decision maker, with the ability to prioritize and develop relevant and engaging content — all with the end goal of increasing traffic to a site.

Content is king and a specialist working in today’s market will have an in-depth understanding of the importance search engines place on high-quality content that includes specific keywords and phrases, as well as the technical aspects of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ SEO including site loading speeds, broken links, and error 404 pages.

A day-in-the-life of an SEO specialist can include a range of activities, including:

  • Auditing a site and its content to see what can be improved upon, and where SEO can be used effectively to attract users and increase conversion/retention rates

  • Thorough research and analysis of competitors, target audience and the industry overall to identify relevant keywords with positive search traffic potential

  • Analysis and monitoring of Google Search Console and similar tools

  • Creating useful, high-quality content and optimising it for search engines and users

  • Adding meta and title tags, as well as relevant links to trusted, good-quality sites

  • Maintaining powerful SEO optimised websites and social media accounts

  • Monitoring and measuring the results of ongoing SEO campaigns

  • Forecasting results of potential campaigns and strategies

A good SEO specialist will effectively utilise all these smart SEO practices and more to ensure a website is found by the right people, in turn increasing brand awareness, site traffic and ultimately sales.

What skills do you need to work in SEO?

There are several analytical, technical and social skills required to get your foot in the door of the SEO industry.

These include:

Human-focused analysis skills

While undoubtedly a technical field, a successful SEO specialist should have a deep understanding of the human aspect of why someone is searching for a keyword or phrase, and natural curiosity into the reasons behind this behaviour can serve you no end. Being able to see why people search for things the way they do, how, and what they expect to find can set a great SEO specialist apart from the crowd.

These critical thinking skills can help identify a user’s intent, and by correlating this with data, you should be able to understand and target key phrases better and achieve a higher search ranking for the website in question. No two SEO strategies are completely alike, and every website is different. Being an empathetic and agile thinker will help you no end when it comes to creating intelligent, long-term strategies that work.

Strong communication skills

Working in SEO you’ll no doubt come across people who don’t understand its value and in turn yours. It’s critically important that you have the ability to explain complex ideas into concepts that SEO-illiterate people can understand and make decisions based on. This could be anyone from the owner of a company to a design colleague or freelance client.

A ‘show not tell approach is best, be it via infographics, case studies or graphs. A skilled SEO specialist should be able to explain in detail the “why” and “how” and make the importance of a solid SEO strategy abundantly clear.

When working in SEO almost always means working as part of a team, so knowing how to communicate well isn’t just an asset; it’s a necessity.

Research skills

Working in SEO, you can expect to spend some serious time researching, and it’ll help you a lot if you genuinely enjoy it on some level. While sometimes an arduous task, keyword research is key to the success of any project. By undertaking this you’ll have an insight into user behaviour and what drives them, which ultimately dictates online performance.

SEO efforts without adequate research into the client’s industry and audience are guesswork and are highly unlikely to yield good results.

You should be well versed in Google’s Keyword Planner and be happy to be constantly refreshing your skills. SEO is a long-term strategy, and if you’re not up to date on how Google works, it’s easy to fall behind and lose progress.

Strong writing skills

You need to be a good communicator to work in SEO which is the first reason why having strong and diverse writing skills will leave you in good stead. The second reason comes down to how wide you want to cast your net in terms of employability. When working as an SEO specialist, part of your job will be to explain to content writers what they need to do to create optimised content, in line with your strategy.

Now if you have professional, engaging writing skills — and an in-depth understanding of search intent - it can be beneficial for you to be able to create this content yourself. This won’t necessarily be relevant if you’re working in a larger team with dedicated SEO content writers but can certainly help in the early days of your career or if freelancing as a full-service SEO professional.

Even if you’re not writing a website’s content yourself, you’ll still need to have good writing skills to create specific keywords and write headlines, captions and more.

If you’re already clued up in the SEO department, then keyword placement, meta descriptions and titles are going to be a walk in the park! It can be difficult to organically weave keywords into your content without making it seem forced, but a good SEO content writer should be able to do so in a way that appeals to both Google and the content’s intended audience.

Problem-solving skills

At its core, SEO is a problem-solving game. You’ll need to look at a website, data and research and be able to identify the issues, and how they can be fixed via SEO. You’ll need to analyse data on thousands of keywords and truly understand the best direction for the campaign to go in to achieve the desired result, and you’ll need to figure out what kind of content best appeals to the intended audience, and why.

Once the project is well underway, you’ll need to look at organic traffic reports and pinpoint which of your tactics were responsible for any increases, as well as survey ranking drops and determine the root cause for the setback. An SEO specialist who can balance the qualitative and quantitative aspects of the role will be the one that succeeds.

Coding basics

You don't need to be a professional web developer, designer or programmer to be successful in SEO, and today many content management systems often have basic SEO functionality built in. You can technically do the job without touching code, but a good sense of how programming works, and the ability to do a bit of coding yourself, is always a useful skill to have. Learning HTML can be useful for tasks such as adding SEO tags to improve search engine visibility, while CSS can be used to simplify updates and emphasise keywords.

How far you want to dive into coding depends on your intended career path. If you’re freelancing it makes sense to add as many skills to your bow as possible, whereas if you only ever intend to work in a larger agency environment, your colleagues would be responsible for all coding aspects of a particular SEO project. 

Flexibility and decision-making skills

There is no clear-cut formula that works for every industry, company, and campaign. A good SEO specialist should be able to switch strategies between projects (or even within a project) at any given moment without losing focus. One size does not always fit all, and, what worked well for other companies won’t necessarily suit another. An SEO specialist should have the flexibility to think on their feet and change direction at any given moment.

Decision-making skills are also a must. Things move fast in the world of SEO, and it’ll serve you well to be able to be skilled and confident enough to make decisions on the go without needing to speak to a larger team to confirm you’re making the right choice. Google is constantly changing the way it crawls websites, and sometimes changes need to be made fast to ensure no progress is lost.

Proficiency in SEO-related tools

According to a 2020 study, 47% of employers expect SEO specialists to be experienced in using Google Search Console and Google Analytics.

Google search console allows users to measure a site's search traffic and performance, to see how visible it is, how ‘crawlable’, and if it is indexed properly. It’s a great tool for monitoring how any site maintenance and adjustments affect search performance.

Google Analytics provides statistics and analytical tools that aid in creating the best possible SEO strategy for a business. It can be used to monitor traffic and user data, such as the average amount of users spend on a page, bounce rates, and the number of visitors in a day or month.

Both tools are free for students, freelancers and small business owners, meaning you can play around with them as much as you like to get a good understanding of how best to use them, and how they both work. They’re valuable SEO assets and you’ll no doubt be using them regularly once working in the industry.

Proficiency in using Microsoft Excel is recommended (great for working with formulas and analysing data), and the all-in-one SEO suite SEMrush is great for diving into the world of keyword research. It allows you to look at detailed data on how many people are looking for specific terms and provides you with competitors’ strategies e.g., how much traffic they’re getting (and how much is organic), and what backlinks they’re using to optimise their site.

To make the most out of these useful tools, you’ll need to ensure you have a clear understanding of how search engines work, and how the internal process translates into search results.

Do need a formal qualification to work in SEO?

The golden question and the reason we’re all here —but unfortunately, we can’t give you a clear-cut answer for this one.

There are no specific qualifications, and no specific experience required to become a successful SEO specialist. Yes, you’ll need to have many if not all of the aforementioned skills, and certainly have a handle on the required software, but outside of that the door is pretty open to people from a range of industries and with a vast array of work experience and qualifications under their belt!

There isn’t currently such thing as an SEO degree in the UK, but many specialists will have studied business, marketing, communications, or IT ahead of deciding to specialise. While a degree isn’t required in the majority of cases if you have experience in these areas, you may find the transition into SEO a little more seamless. That being said, if you’re up to date with the latest SEO skills and can demonstrate you have them, almost anyone can succeed in the industry.

It’ll be your understanding of SEO, experience, and willingness to always keep your finger on the pulse that’ll ensure your success.

If you’re starting completely from scratch or switching from an unrelated career, it can be beneficial to complete a free course on digital marketing essentials, to gain a solid understanding of marketing principles on the whole. There are plenty of options online that’ll suit even the busiest schedules.

From here, a dedicated SEO course is your best next step. This will provide you with a greater understanding of what the job entails, without costing you too much time or money if you decide it isn’t for you.

Industry favourites include Yoast, Udemy, Coursera, and Hubspot. All of these free and beginner-friendly courses cover all the SEO fundamentals including website optimisation, link building, keyword research, site audits and more.

Paid options include the Online Search Marketing course from The Digital Institute of Marketing and the Search Engine Optimization Specialization course from Coursera and the University of California.

These courses can be completed in under six months (if studying around six hours per week) and offer a flexible way for beginners to become SEO experts. Both options offer official accreditation, and in-depth tutorials on all aspects of SEO.

If you prefer a more hands-on approach and need the culture of a classroom to motivate you, there are usually in-person SEO boot camps available in most major cities in the UK. Just head to Google (your new best friend) and see where and when a course is taking place that may suit you.

While online courses offer flexibility and allow anyone to learn from just about anywhere, it can be beneficial to be able to question an experienced professional in person and learn amongst your peers.

How can I become an SEO specialist?

Knowing the fundamentals of search engine optimisation, and how to use key SEO tools effectively and intuitively is the foundation on which your career in SEO will be built. No matter how confident you may be, you cannot skip or rush through these steps.

Once you feel comfortable enough to take on real projects but not confident enough to work in the role full-time, it can be beneficial to look for a work experience or internship role where you can learn in a working environment without the pressure of being expected to know it all. Search for local SEO, digital marketing or web design agencies that may have an opportunity that suits.

It’s not always fun, but practice makes perfect and spending as much time as you can studying SEO principles and learning how to utilise keywords in a way that gives the desired results.

The best way to do this is to set up your own website. The theory is one thing, but it’s putting what you’ve learned into practice that’ll take you to the next level, and closer to your goal of becoming a fully-fledged SEO expert.

Setting up your own site will help you see in real-time (and in a risk-free environment) what the impact is of each SEO technique you implement.

Visit Top Tips: Website Hosting and Top Tips: Buying Your Domain Name to learn the basics of launching your own site.

Using your own website as a case study, you can then create a portfolio of projects that showcase your SEO know-how and best work to potential employers. This is a great way of building up a resume of work to demonstrate your skills if you’re not able to secure work experience or an internship.

Combining a strong portfolio, with a well-written and up-to-date CV that showcases your SEO skills will put you in a good position when it comes to finding an employer.

Just remember — the internet never sleeps — and you’ll need to keep your skills fresh. Refreshing your SEO knowledge, CV and portfolio, in line with any new techniques or technical developments will help you stay on top in this constantly evolving field.

Can I learn SEO on my own?

While an undeniably complicated field in many ways, you don’t need to be an IT or marketing genius to learn SEO and become proficient enough to work in the industry. There are plenty of people working as SEO specialists who started at the bottom, and with hard work and willingness to learn have got to where they are today.

It’s all a bit Tony Robbins we know, but it’s true, and with dedication, you can absolutely teach yourself SEO (and technically without ever leaving your house).

Start with an online course, read as much as you can online, and practice, practice, practice.

There is no substitute for actually doing SEO yourself, so spend as much time as you can working on your website. Things may not always go to plan, but it’s these mistakes and setbacks that you learn the most from, and that will ultimately make you great.

How long does it take to build a career in SEO?

Depending on your circumstances it could take you anywhere from months to a few years to become a working SEO specialist.

When segueing from an already established career in digital marketing, business, or IT, and having the time and freedom to study and practice daily, you may become skilled enough to take on real projects in as little as six months.

If you’re working in an unrelated field and truly starting from the bottom, it’s no doubt going to take longer. Combine this with limited time and funds, and you might really feel like you’ll never reach your goal. But don’t be disheartened. The race may take longer to complete, but it’ll be just as good when you get there.

Why choose a career in SEO?

As of August 2022, there are over 5000 job adverts on Indeed looking for SEO specialists, executives, and assistants.

As more and more business owners become aware of the undeniable importance of good SEO, and how generating SEO-friendly content leads to more business leads, the industry has grown exponentially.

It is now one of the most sought-after careers in the digital marketing industry — the field is growing and employment opportunities are high.

One of the best things about a career in SEO is job security. Delivering SEO results requires consistent action, and when working with clients on a monthly, ongoing basis you’ll be sure to enjoy a stable income.

The average UK salary for an SEO Specialist starts at £31,000, SEO Managers take home around £38,000, and a Head of SEO can expect to earn around £53,000 a year.

No two days will be the same, and career opportunities are available with brands, and big and small agencies. You can also freelance, a great option for someone who wants the freedom to pick and choose the projects that suit them. Whatever your preference, you’ll be able to find a career in an environment that suits your personality.

SEO is about the long game and is a never-ending process of thousands of always updating and constantly moving parts. Bad news if you’ve not got the passion, patience or drive, but great news for job retention.

Ultimately SEO can make for a fantastic career for anyone who loves to problem solve, tackle an intricate project head-on, and see tangible, rewarding results.

Hello, I'm Natasia, and I'm a content writer for Shape.