The 3 stages of SEO career development

Career development changes throughout each of the 3 stages in SEO. Learn how to learn!

Career development in SEO can be summarized by one axiom: “What got you here doesn’t get you there.”

Building sharp SEO skills when you start out is important, but that alone doesn’t bring you to the top of the game. It’s topics like project management, product management, and mental models that pull you forward. Pair it with strong leadership skills and you have a chance to play in the Premier League (or Bundesliga).

Early Stage

In the early stage, you learn the craft, which is all about theory and practice. SEO is an applied science. The more practical experience you gain, the faster you get good.

Of course, you can’t get around theory: information retrieval, SEO best practices, search engine history. Read blogs, books, and watch presentations. Optionally: listen to Tech Bound and tune into my Youtube channel. Optimally, do a traineeship at an agency or start in a junior position with lots of training and hand holding.

I started with a traineeship, where I had to start my own project. A blessing in disguise! I had learned and applied basic SEO years before that, but the guided practical experience was invaluable to me. As Indiana Jones says “get out of the library!”

At this and every other stage, I was lucky to work with and under strong mentors. A good mentor can double or triple your learning speed if you’re humble, open and willing to learn. In other words, a good mentor can double or triple your investments in time and money. It’s a great return! But it’s a two-way street. Drive is one of the most important traits of any career.

I was also taught how to reverse engineer a site - something I still routinely do today. Being able to teach yourself takes work but is powerful. The basic idea is to use a 3rd party rank tracker to analyze the best performing content of a site and making assumptions why it performs so well. Then, test your assumptions what imitating what the site does and measure the results.

The 3 best things you can do for yourself at the Early stage:

  1. Find a strong mentor
  2. Apply theoretical knowledge
  3. Reverse engineer as many sites as you can

Mid Stage

You reach the mid stage after 2-5 years, depending on how fast you learn. You have solid experience across multiple verticals and a good grasp of driving organic traffic. You might have a few gaps in SEO knowledge at this stage but can fill them quickly.

The way to develop yourself at this point is by running lots of experiments. Theory won't get you much further. It’s the challenging, gnarly problems that advance you.

Develop your own playbooks for different workflows and problems like a craftsman tool belt.

At this point, you decide to go down the management track or stay an individual contributor. Planning your career systematically means finding out which of the two tracks suits you and working on a portfolio of career-making projects. The latter is a list of ambitious projects and problems you solve. Keep a list of them and note down the impact you made. It’s the ammunition to make powerful impressions in hiring interviews.

I met and worked with multiple individual contributors who thought they wanted to go down the management path but then realized they hate it. It’s not uncommon and I have a lot of respect for people who are honest about it. Do yourself and others a favor and step back into an IC role if you figure out you hate management after 6-12 months in the role.

The 3 best things to do at the mid-level:

  1. Plan your career systematically
  2. Find out if you want to become a manager or not
  3. Work on career-making projects

Advanced Stage

Not everyone makes it to the advanced stage, which can take 5-10 years. That’s when you either build SEO teams or are one of the best individual contributors in the world. Many of the best ICs are engineers or could make a salary as one. As managers, they’re senior managers, directors, and VPs.

Advanced SEOs don’t get better by gaining more SEO knowledge. Instead, learn about yourself, leadership and business or deepen your developer knowledge. The exception is ICs, of course.

What I found to make the biggest impact on my professional development are mental models: biases, heuristics, universal concepts, principles. Developing my own principles, which never ends, has made a huge difference in the way I manage and think about SEO or Growth. You could call them “true and tried lessons”, a distilled version of your experience.

Mentors at this level can be your managers but you might also find inspiration in successful entrepreneurs, authors, or executives in other companies.

Many individual contributors at this stage also carry a bit of leadership responsibility. Not in the people managerial sense, but in being a role model and setting the tone for the team. That’s why it makes sense for ICs to invest in leadership skills, even if they don’t manage people directly.

The 3 best things you can do at the Advanced stage:

  1. Define and refine your principles
  2. Learn about mental models and leadership
  3. Learn how to build and scale and SEO organization

Universal things at every stage

Some things help you at all stages of your career.

Building relationships and participating in the community are crucial in SEO. It’s not just about networking and meeting “your future boss”, which can happen but mostly doesn’t, it’s about learning from others. Tapping into their experience. SEO is a crowd-sourced science. Along the way, you might form some friendships.

Another skill to develop is using the Google Workspace suite, or Excel, Powerpoint, and Word. It sounds basic, but being able to create poignant documents is very important because SEOs deliver more input (recommendations) than executing themselves. The deliverables are documents. You’d be surprised how bad some people’s document skills are. They never make it far.

Lastly, strong communication and empathy are vital. You need to be able to persuade clients or colleagues to prioritize your recommendations. Soft skills and business acumen open the door to impact. So, learn how to write and speak. Invest in learning data visualization and read a lot.

The work never ends. Luckily.