Identifying SEO Experts, Part 1: Beginners

I’m often asked, “What is a search expert?” Previously, I outlined the characteristics of an SEO (define) firm. Yet an SEO firm’s success depends on the skills and talents of its individual search experts.

SEO professionals often have a wide variety of skills, such as copywriting, Web design, and link development. SEO firms vary as to which skills are more important. Some firms specialize in search-friendly copywriting, which is certainly critical. Others have more technical expertise, such as IP delivery.

Search professionals also use buzzwords, such as “SEMPO membership,” certification/training from a colleague’s academy, or even a colleague’s name when they apply for a job at an SEO firm. Do membership and training affect search expertise?

In this three-part series, I’ll present my thoughts on what constitutes a true search expert. Part one addresses the beginner level, part two the intermediate level, and part three the advanced/expert level. I’ll also include some personal observations.

The Art and Science of SEO

SEO is the art and science of designing, writing, coding (in XHTML), and programming a Web site to increase the likelihood Web pages will appear at the top of search engine queries for selected keyword phrases. An SEO professional’s end goal shouldn’t be positioning, but rather attracting qualified traffic.

Web pages must primarily meet the needs of their intended audience. The target audience should be able to find a page’s content quickly and easily via search engines and Web directories. Achieving these goals involves creative copywriting and site design skills (art) and effective coding, programming, and analysis skills (science).

A true search expert has a combination of artistic and scientific skills. Classifying the search expertise level is actually a rather daunting task. To make it more fun, I began with my subjective “Mom” experiment.

Gauging Search Expertise With the “Mom” Test

I decided to try a totally subjective, unscientific test on search-friendly copywriting. Test subject? My mom. I chose Mom for very good reasons:

  • She’s a special education teacher. She’s certified to teach grades K-12 for special education, regular education, and gifted students. Her specialty is language arts.
  • She’s good at following directions. If I give her an assignment, she’ll follow directions and ask questions if she’s unsure about the assignment.
  • She’s a good writer.
  • She’s an Internet newbie.
  • She’s cute, precious, and adorable. (Mom told me to write that, although these aren’t characteristics of my experiment.)

I assigned Mom to write a persuasive 400-800-word essay comparing sea otters with river otters. I gave her a 10-word (phrase) vocabulary list. She had to use words from this vocabulary list throughout her essay. She had to give the essay a title 40-70 characters long. The essay had to be divided into sections with headings and include photos with captions.

After she finished the essay, Mom had to write a 200- to 250-word summary that accurately described the essay’s contents and persuaded me to read it.

The result? The content was 100 percent search friendly: focused, keyword-rich, descriptive, and persuasive. It was exactly what a search-friendly copywriter might write.

Afterwards, I asked Mom a simple question, “Do you consider yourself a search expert?”

Her reply, “Absolutely not.”

If a search professional had the same skills as my mother, I’d rank his SEO expertise level at beginner to beginner-intermediate. A search expert also has technical skills. Without those technical skills, a search expert can’t advance further than the beginner level.


I don’t discount the talents of skilled, experienced copywriters. I appreciate the variety of writing skills involved (ads, content, etc.), particularly the ability to write catchy, informative headlines. Yet I don’t consider copywriters, even search-friendly copywriters, to be search experts. Search-friendly copywriters with solid technical skills belong in the intermediate level.

Next: identifying intermediate search experts.

Meet Shari at Search Engine Strategies in Toronto, Canada, May 4-5, 2005.

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