Degree Schmegree: Why Self-Education is Elemental to SEO Success



Why does everyone go around preaching that all SEOs must have a comprehensive understanding of HTML, Ruby/Rails/Javascript, photoshop, “The Elements of Grammar” committed to memory, marketing backgrounds, psychology courses under their belt, and a devilish grin to boot? Ain’t nobody got time for that. Instead, you have to acknowledge that SEO, technology, and consumer psychology aren’t one-off lessons but sciences that evolve as quickly as the passing day. For this reason, I cringe whenever I see search engine optimization courses advertised. Furthermore, it’s painful to me – it hurts me inside – to think that employers might take this as “credibility” over someone with SEO experience and real-world success.

One of the best way to steel yourselves against a bad SEO hire is to seek candidates with a relentless thirst for knowledge, not necessarily the one-man-band of tech skills. Don’t get me wrong: authority citations of all colors can only help, whether they’re SEO crash courses or not. What I’m saying is this: as a potential hire – when it comes to personal growth and expanding your mind – be all-inclusive.

It’s important to hire people that thirst for knowledge, especially so in SEO. Google’s Avinash Kaushik is known to frequently use the phrase “in their quest for knowledge” when speaking about UX, and rightly so. Please replace “in their quest for products” and “in their quest for a solution” with this.

What do you WANT to learn?

I’m truly fortunate to have a peer who enjoys and shares these nerdy-as-all-get-out lecture DVDs called “The Great Courses” with me. Holy flying poppy queens, they’re challenging and so enjoyable. Sweet Dr. Jennifer Paxton, bless you, because when I’m ravenously learning, I’m more easily inspired. I find as many avenues in my life to apply this new information to, even if it is Medieval history. Getting into an educational rhythm wherein I must consume a lot of enjoyable information in intervals makes me more focused, more calm, more confident; most importantly, it improves my ability to work in an industry wherein I must consume a lot of technical information.

high five

Delicious synapses!

Wait, what am I saying? That those “How Spelunking Made Me a Better SEO” posts aren’t BS afterall? Is that what I’m saying?

In a word, yes, but in a singular sense. Spelunking won’t make us ALL better SEOs; it’s just what turned someone else on, inspired them, fed their brain, and set off all kinds of other delicious synapses in their life. You need to set off synapses of your own. Will medieval history make me a better SEO? 100% without a doubt, yes, it will. But only because it inspires and enlightens me in ways that truly repair my brain and spirit. More on this in a minute.

Within relevance, though, what do you want to learn? How to design mobile apps? Does that seriously tickle your fancy? No? It bores you? Then why in the world are you doing it? Seriously? Stop that. It’s not going to make you any money because you don’t care. What do you care to learn? Do you want to improve your international clientele? Has world travel always appealed to you? Take a few foreign languages. Get on that Rosetta Stone like white on rice. Don’t let it be a flash in the pan, or else you’re more likely to let the things you love be flashes in the pan.

Trust me. As a serial quitter, I can verify this. Make things happen for yourself.

What do you NEED to learn?

I, for one, am a pretty epic public speaker. Epic in the bad sense. I suck at it. This year, I am going to facilitate more brainstorms and meetings with my coworkers, and work my way up to joining Toastmasters. I don’t yet know how developing public speaking skills could enhance my life as it’s something that I characteristically shy away from, but I feel like it needs to happen. Either way, this does not fall under something that I want to do. Perhaps it’s my hesitation, but it feels like a change I must make. This is very different from making yourself do really unriveting things just because you think you ought to.

What about you? What do you stubbornly hesitate to learn? What is it, that you buck up against with foolish pride, forcing a smile about why you “can’t” do something? Is it because the rest of us are wrong? Or is it you? And what is it exactly? What scares you? Don’t tell me – just do it. Do. it.

Things you probably do need to learn, though:

  • Basic social media outreach – how to make friends and win people over on Twitter and Facebook. You need to know what Pinterest, Instagram, and Google+ are too, but you don’t have to be a rockstar at them. Trying to rock at Google+ when you don’t care about it (or loathe it) is just going to be a time-suck with no foreseeable carrot at the end of the stick. There should always be a carrot.
  • Basic HTML – Do you know how to insert a link into a block of text into an email or a blog post without clicking that cute chain icon? It goes a little something like a href – and if this looks alien to you, you need to take the time to familiarize yourself with it and other basic HTML elements. And I promise it won’t be painful.
  • How to write interesting content. The world of SEO will do and say crazy things for a link. Like taking pictures of a sunny sky in Greensboro, North Carolina, or mailing a package full of nerf darts to a popular blogger. The least of these (on the craziness scale) is content production. If you don’t know how to write a post without using a comfortable formula or a Top Ten list, you need to reexamine the niche you’re operating in. Don’t you have any questions about the industries you work in? Find out the answers, or at least find more questions. Familiarize yourself with commonly used expressions and acronyms in your niche and develop your content like an actor would develop a character.
  • This, this, and this:Doh

Here are some of the best resource lists to tap into for your SEO self-education:
Blogs, Feeds, Follows, and Subscriptions for Keeping Up with SEO
145 Articles to Make SEO Your Bitch
SEO 101 Resources: Beginner’s Guides and Tutorials

What can you learn for free?

This is tough to navigate, especially in the educational sphere as a lot of educationally-oriented queries are asphyxiated with affiliate programs. The mobile app sphere is even worse – I’d daresay that Google’s own Play Store is the single largest spam resource in the free world. Ever tried to find an Android app that teaches you Portuguese, for example? It’s appalling, the time people will invest into producing free (worthless) ad-supported material. Just think of the sheer quantity of valueless apps parents are downloading for their children to use under the guide of “education.”

Try not to be what Aaron Wall calls a “freetard”. That being said, there are extremely valuable and legitimate programs online that are free of cost, widely available, and require nothing but your time. Rather than list them all out, I suggest you take a look at the list is available here (this links to one of my favorite Reddit comments ever.)

For the sake of specificity, I do recommend SEOs take CS50X: Introduction to Computer Science, from HarvardX. A free Harvard course with no pre-requisites that will increase your hirability in the tech sphere, especially when it comes to programming-heavy verticals, definitely dodges the “freetard” bullet, in my opinion anyway. I have not (yet) taken the course, but have heard from frustrated friends who struggle to hire decent SEOs and programmers recommend it. I plan to take it next fall and can hardly wait to dive in.

What else can you do?

Expand your existing Google alerts (and include your every scholastic interest)

  • “search engine” tutorial algorithm indomain:youtube
  • “panda update” competitive niche filetype:pdf
  • creative link building inurl:”2012″
  • guest lecture free “Greensboro NC”

The idea is to explore all of the different boulevards and mediums of knowledge discovery: video, social media, up-to-date blog entries, app stores (for new apps and methods of study), image search (infographics in their classic, pre-SEO form will never die – sod off about it, eh?) and… fill in the blank with about 13 other things that I’m missing here. Google Alerts is such an excellent academic tool because it routinely fetches and centers your research when you aren’t even looking for it. It feels like one of the most underestimated tools around, even by SEOs who are fully aware of ways it can-might-could-will help.

Interact with peers & teachers at every chance

Keep your eyes open for Tweet-ups, Google+ Hangouts (ugh, I know) and Q&A opportunities such as SEOmoz’s Pro Webinars, in which live chatters can ask questions. Go to Meetups (get out from behind a screen? Whoa, Nelly.)

Participate in forums as well as Q&A sites like Quora. Don’t be afraid to ask questions – I genuinely appreciate the experts who aren’t afraid to appear as if they don’t know everything about search. Sometimes being able to ask the right question, even if it goes unanswered, is the mark of a pro.

Little Tweaks to Augment Your Self-Education


Change your home search engine to WolframAlpha for just one week.
I dare you. It’s not just for data heads and queries such as “are snails territorial?” (not a proud moment, for reasons unknown) – you can find a lot of news and pop culture information, too. It will, at the very least, change your perception on knowledge retrieval and query creation – elements that disengage when we get used to using a single tool or tool set (always a bad idea.) Their Community Forums have a lot of potential and a few of them are thriving. Also, who doesn’t love a good rhyming dictionary?

No time to read? Listen to audiobooks in the shower/clean/eat dessert
Admit it. The Today Show isn’t as memorable as the books you read; why not replace one with the other? The arts are a much more positive way to measure your life than inescapable, depressing news and Kardashian pregnancies. The family dinner table is a place for discussion and bonding, so save story-time for breakfast or dessert. Candide pairs better with ice cream and sprinkles than steak and potatoes, anyway. If you walk to work, get those MP3s in your ears. Consider the moments of your day that are otherwise filled with silence or noise, and fill it with what LibriVox calls the “acoustical liberation of books.”

Don’t let your ‘Bucket List’ stagnate – actively pursue life.
If you haven’t written a bucket list yet, do it. Cheesy as it is. Keep it somewhere close, somewhere you’ll run into it frequently. Put it on your wall, or maybe your fridge. Some of mine include:

  • Sample as many boutique pizzerias in Rome as physically possible
  • Learn sign language
  • Sing in front of people other than my daughter

Don’t forget to make a work bucket list, too. An SEO might find the following on their own list:

  • Take a programming course
  • Develop a mobile app, it doesn’t have to be perfect.
  • Get a client’s content on the front page of reddit

Pay it forward, whatever “it” is, by helping and encouraging others to learn.
What’s a lesson you recently learned? You may, for instance, have learned how to thread a sewing machine or how to set up a reel mower, like this manly-like-nobody’s-business man. Make a tutorial, PDF, or a mini-infographic. Something that people (perhaps over a thousand of them) will see, and can share.

Reel mower tutorial


Immerse yourself in local art, for the sake of networking… and art.
One of my favorite local music discovery tools is Bandcamp. I can’t tell you how insanely proud I am to be a mover and shaker in the North Carolina musical arts scene, because we have so much awesomeness within it. I’ve also made many friends and found a few techie contacts in the process. True story. Facebook-stalking your friends’ Likes is also an effective, albeit slightly creepy, way to go about it, too.

Quick note: musicians are always interested in SEO. Musicians make great SEOs, too. Ever wanted to learn how to play the concertina? You never know, it might just improve your ability to focus and your ability to create great content, thus improving your SEO efforts.

And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have 50 broke but cool clients than one rich, asshat client.

Reddit + Explain Like I’m Five
This is the sub-reddit that sold me on reddit – trust me, it wasn’t cat pictures, sigh. Explain Like I’m Five (ELI5) takes questions on potentially complex or scientific subjects and breaks them down into very digestible answers. These questions have covered really fascinating topics such as, Why does FM radio sound pretty good and AM sound like it’s coming to us live from the 1920s? (link). You might also appreciate Explain Like I’m Calvin, for those Calvin and Hobbes fans out there.

Becoming an active redditor can increase your authority and trust in a vertical. For instance, you can ask questions in just about any sub-reddit (such as What is this bug? It’s probably a carpet beetle larvae) and you’ll usually get an answer from someone who knows what they’re talking about.

TL;DR Reddit is great for both educational purposes and increasing your authority in a niche.

I’d like to close with one of my favorite quotes about knowledge and self-improvement.

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who come alive.” – Howard Thompson

How can you apply this quote to your life? WHAT makes you come alive anyway? What is it that you love SEO for? Go, and do that.

About The Author

Rae Alton is the editor of Avant Greensboro.


  1. Caitlin says: - reply

    Awesome post, thank you! I’ve been searching for a free introduction to programming course for a while, thanks for the HarvardX link.

  2. I think you’re my new best friend.


    Sorry, there isn’t much else to say to this post. I agree a billion percent with just about everything you said. I visited your links and found the No Excuse List on Reddit, which is amazing. I found that Harvard course that I will probably start next time is runs around as I’m busy through Feb and prob can’t finish by April at this point.

    Last year I went through every job opening in my field and several related fields. I pulled out every qualification, requirement, skill and software necessary to do all of them. I sorted the entire list by how many times they were mentioned (ie. SEO jobs that mentioned “client interaction” or “link building”) and I started to learn everything I could, top down, about those subjects.

    This year is going to be all about statistics, analytics, data, programming and psychology. I spent most of last year learning everything possible about SEO, social media, paid ads, and “digital marketing.”

    Put on the “what you need to learn” list: Organizational skills (GTD, Inbox0, Trello) and basic WordPress (php/css) to manipulate beyond html.

    Great post – one of the more inspirational for my 2013 so far. Thanks! Off to social stalk you. lol

  3. Rae Alton says: - reply

    Hi there, new best friend! I’m so glad you enjoyed my post. It’s fascinating to me that you’ve taken the time to sort skills & qualifications by mentions in SEO job posts. Why didn’t I think of that?! That sounds like an article in the making. (Hint hint.)

  4. Great idea! I’ll get that written up. I always work too hard on ideas when the best ones are the things that are working, not the things I hope work someday! :)

    Saw you added me back on G+ – thanks new bestie.