Identifying and Filling Your SEO Skill Gaps — Whiteboard Friday

The author’s views are entirely their own (excluding the unlikely event of hypnosis) and may not always reflect the views of Moz.

In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Helen shows you how to find and address gaps in your SEO skills so you can continue evolving and developing your best SEO self.

infographic outlining ways to fill your skill gaps

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Video Transcription

Hi, I’m Helen, Head of SEO at Car & Classic, and I am here today to share some top tips on how to identify your SEO skills gaps and how to fill them. 

Now that sounds a bit rude, doesn’t it, suggesting you have skills gaps? I don’t know you. You might be an excellent SEO, and we’re sure you are. But you know that thing that we tell our clients and our bosses that SEO is really difficult and it’s always changing, and the algorithms, oh, no, they’ve developed again. Turns out that stuff that we tell our bosses and our clients to keep our jobs, it’s actually true, and because of that, we have to keep our skill set evolving and developing to keep up with all the stuff that’s changing in our industry and to make sure that we are our SEO best selves.

But SEO is kind of a broad subject, isn’t it? I mean, we often loosely classify it into on-page SEO, digital PR, and technical SEO. But can you be an expert at all three, given that they’ve got such a wide and varied skill set? Is that not a bit reductionist anyway because what about local SEO or enterprise SEO or edge SEO?

Take technical SEO. Where do technical SEO skills end and developer skills, engineering skills begin? I’m going to take a step back from that heavy pile of confusion that I’ve just landed you with and talk about types of skills, namely hard skills and soft skills. Now, I’m loosely classifying hard skills as those kind of SEO skills you need specifically for SEO jobs, things like being able to do keyword analysis or a technical audit, those kind of things that you can learn, you tend to learn on the job, and you can develop and grow at over time.

Then there’s also soft skills, but those are the kind of skills that are a bit more transferable, the kind of skills that would put you in a good stead no matter what kind of job you get, things like communication skills or stakeholder management. Those are really important to keep in mind because you’re going to need a mix of hard skills and soft skills in different ways depending on which SEO job you’re in.

So let’s take a think then. Given that SEO is such a broad subject, how do you know which skills you need to be good at? For example, if you’re a really good technical SEO, do you need to know lots about local SEO? Do you need to be really good at enterprise SEO? Do you actually need to know what edge SEO is, or can you just keep pretending?

1. What skills do I need? 

So step one really is identifying what skills you need for your role and your future career. So I would always start at looking at your current job. So what is it that you do on the day-to-day? I’d have a look over the course of a week, perhaps, and at the end of each day, just jot down the kinds of activities that you are doing.

So, for instance, you might have done a bit of a technical audit, or you might have had some meetings. Of course, you’ve had meetings. We all spend our lives in meetings. But jot them down and start to break them down into the skill sets that you need to be good at each of those activities. So let’s take meetings, for example. You might have had a client pitch meeting. What are the kind of skills that you need to be really, really successful at client pitch meetings?

If you could max out, if you could turn your skill level up to 10, what would those skills be for you to be really successful in a pitch meeting? But then perhaps in the afternoon, you did some training for the developers in your team. That’s still a meeting. There’s a whole different set of skills. There’s training. There’s communication. It’s a different skill set needed.

So just spend some time looking over the course of the week, breaking down all of the different activities you do in your current job, and try to analyze what sort of skills you need to do really well at those activities. But that’s your job now. What about your future career? What kind of skills do you need for that? So now I would start looking at some job ads. So maybe fire up LinkedIn, ignore those 20 messages trying to sell you guest post opportunities, and have a look at some of the job ads that are there.

But don’t look at the job ads that you could get at the moment. Look at the job ads that are a bit more aspirational. So if you’re a technical SEO, look at senior technical SEO ads or head of technical SEO. Start looking at those job ads for jobs that are a couple of stages above where you are right now and look at the kind of skills that they are asking for, the ones that they think are absolutely essential and those that they think are a bit desirable, because that will give you an indication as to what skills you might need in your future career if you’re going in the direction that you hope to go in.

And then, of course, you need to start breaking down some of those complex skills. I’m talking the kind of generic, nebulous kind of skills that we always seem to list on our job ads, things like stakeholder management. What does that actually mean in SEO? I mean, really, it means that you get your way, right, that that amazing SEO strategy that you’ve spent ages coming up with is bought in by the stakeholders that need to say yes to it.

That’s kind of what stakeholder management is. But if you break it down into its component skills, it’s about being able to communicate effectively and persuasively. It’s about understanding business needs and blockers. It’s about being able to understand development cycles and how your requests might fit into those. So stakeholder management, quite a broad skill, but start identifying what the component skills are of those complex ones.

And then finally, speak to your manager. Get them to give you a progression plan, set some goals for you. Help them to identify what skills you need for your current role, what they’re expecting you to excel at, and that will help you to come up with a total list of all the skills that you might need in your current and future roles. Great.

2. What do I need to improve?

So you know what you need to know, but how do you know whether you’re already really good at those skills or you need to improve at them? Well, I would suggest you start off by asking your colleagues. Ask them to tell you what you need to improve at. But you’re going to need to be specific because if you just ask them what they think of your current skills, they’ll say something like, “You’re really nice and you bake great cakes for the office, and you’re really friendly,” and it’s really edifying, but it’s not particularly helpful in this context.

So perhaps put together a bit of a survey for them because everyone loves impromptu surveys when they’re really busy at work. But ask them anonymously to feedback on the skills that you know you need to have for your role and ask them to mark you out of, say, 5 or 10 on how competent they think you are. Also do it yourself. This is your skills matrix. This is how you identify where you think you are in your competencies at these particular skills.

But I’d suggest you break it down further. So if you’re looking at, say, website migrations, rank yourself in terms of your theoretical knowledge of website migrations, but also your practical experience of them, because it might be that you have read every single blog on the Moz blog about website migrations, but you’ve never actually carried one out. So your theoretical knowledge might be really high.

You might have a great understanding of what goes into a website migration, but practically you don’t really have much experience of it. So you might give yourself a five for knowledge and a zero for practical experience. Get your colleagues to do that, do it yourself, and then you’ve got a really good idea of where you currently are in terms of your skill set. Also, ask your manager during your performance reviews to start ranking you themselves.

They might be a bit more objective. They might be able to give you an idea of the sorts of skills that they do think you need to develop in, that you’ve perhaps not identified yourself. They should really be able to help you measure that against the performance plans that they’ve put in place for you. And finally, go to conferences, read blogs, scroll through Twitter. Where do you feel out of your depth in those kind of conversations? Where is it that you think, “I have no idea what they’re talking about. They’re going on about edge SEO again.”

3. How do I improve?

Where is it that you think you actually need to improve your knowledge and understanding and perhaps practical application? Okay, so you know what you need to know. You know what you’re not so hot at. But how do you improve? Well, that’s step three, and I would suggest you start by surrounding yourself with thought leaders. So go to Twitter, or Mastodon, or wherever else it is that you cool kids hang out these days and find yourself some thought leaders to follow.

Now, these might not be people in the SEO industry, but they might be experts in other fields. But try to find people who really excel at the kind of skills that you want to develop. So if you want to get better at persuasive communication, follow some politicians. If you want to get better at understanding how development cycles work and how you can get buy-in from engineers, follow some engineering managers.

But start to understand from the people who really excel at those kind of skills that you’re looking to improve how they do things and how they develop and practice their skills. You can also find yourself a mentor. Now, this is great because you could have someone who really understands who you are and your direction of travel in your career. They can help you to identify where you’re currently a little bit weak and also help you to see where you’re improving.

Now, mentors can be quite expensive, or they can be entirely free. There are mentoring schemes out there, like the wonderful Women in Tech SEO one, and there’s others that you might be able to take advantage of. But find yourself someone, and it might be a former colleague or a former boss, or it might be someone that you currently work with. But find someone who you know is a step or two ahead of you in terms of their career and the sorts of skills that you want to develop and ask them to help you.

Training, we’ve all been promised these amazing training budgets when we’ve sat in job interviews. Let’s actually use them. So find yourself some training courses that are really specific to the skills that you’re looking to develop. Don’t just go on sort of generic SEO ones. But if it’s stakeholder management, find a course that covers that, or if it’s public speaking, find a course that covers that. Get feedback from your mentor, from your colleagues, from your boss.

Ask people to let you know whether they think you’re developing those skills or not. Have a look at your skills matrix. Make sure that you’re just not leaving it on your desktop to gather metaphorical dust, but actually brush it off and have a review. How have you developed over time against those skills that you listed out a while ago? If there’s any skills that you’re really, really hoping to get better at, you’ve got to try them out.

So whether that’s a public speaking skill that you want to develop, and you’ve just got to make that leap to asking whether you can lead a client meeting or whether you can lead a training session or even applying to talk on stage, you’ve got to try it out. And, of course, it doesn’t end there. It’s a continual process. You’ve got to go back to stage one. I would suggest that you maybe set yourself a reminder once a year to have a look back over this, make sure you’re still on track for the career that you want and you’re still improving those skills that you want to improve.

Thanks very much.

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