Where Do New SEOs Go Wrong When They Set Learning Priorities?

Another question we received recently from the SEOBook.com community was:

What qualities are common in Aaron Wall, DaveN, Bob Massa, Jason Duke, SugarRae, et al, that new SEOs can adopt, to come closer to people like these in expertise. Where do most new SEOs go wrong when they set learning priorities?

I've asked these people to provide their views, which I'll get to shortly.

It's a great question, because the avalanche of SEO information that confronts the beginner can be overwhelming. How do you know what information is important? What aspects do you really need to spend you time on, and what information do you need to reject? What are the qualities that make for a good SEO?

Let's take a look...

Learning SEO

Most people stumble into being an SEO.

An awareness of SEO usually comes about when a person launches a site, only to find that the site doesn't magically appear #1.

Soon after, the webmaster will likely find themselves knee deep in SEO forums and blogs, where everyone has a viewpoint, and often those viewpoints contradict each other. Contradiction is rife in SEO. To understand why, we need to understand the history of search engines.

The first step in setting learning priorities for SEO is to.....

1. Understand The History & Context Of SEO

My own foray into SEO began with Infoseek.

Infoseek was one of the early search engines. Infoseek introduced a feature around 1996 , whereby they would crawl a site and update their index immediately. This feature made it easy for webmasters to game the algorithm.

I had just launched a small, commercial site. I thought all I had to do was publish a site, and the search engine would do it's job, and put me at number one! Unsurprisingly, that didn't happen.

So, I tried to figure out why Infoseek didn't think my site was great. I could see that there were sites ranking above mine, so there was clearly something about those sites that Infoseek did like. I looked at the code of the high ranking sites. Did that have something to do with it? To test that idea, I cut and pasted it their code into my own code and republished my site. Viola, I was at number 2!

So far, so good.

But why wasn't I number one? The sites that were ranking highly tended to have long pages on the same topic, so I added more text to my pages. Soon enough, with a little trial and error, I was number one. Predictably, Infoseek soon pulled this feature when they saw what was happening.

I was clearly not alone in my underhanded trickery.

At the time, I thought my cut n paste trick was an amusing hack, but I wasn't earning my bread and butter from the internet. I was working in the computer industry, and unaware of "SEO". I soon forgot about it.

A few years later, a whole cottage industry had sprung up around SEO. The search technology had become a lot more sophisticated. My dubious copy n' paste hack no longer worked, and the search engines were locked in a war against webmasters who were trying to game their ranking criteria.

There is an inherent conflict between the business model of the search engine, and that of the SEO. The SEO wants their site to rank, the search engine wants to rank a page a searcher will find useful.

That isn't necessarily the same thing.

Therefore, the search engines are notoriously secret about their ranking formulas. SEOs try and reverse engineer the formulas, or just guess the factors involved, which is why you'll see so many contradictory viewpoints.

So who do you listen to? What information is relevant?

2. Technical Know-How

Dave Naylor had this to say about doing too much at once:

Common qualities that's simple we notice the little things and understand the larger impact that they will have in long term,

And where do you most new SEOs go wrong when they set learning priorities?

From the new SEO's on the block that I chat too, they seem to run at a million miles an hour trying 100 different things at once, they need to slow get a decent data set of information and slowly pick though it and test small things at a time, and work out thing like why is it when I search for The FT in Google it returns Grand Theft Auto ?

Most people new to SEO place a lot of emphasis on the technical aspects. It's natural to seek out the secret recipe of high rankings. Whilst most forums obsess over these issues, much of what you'll read is irrelevant fluff. These days, SEO is more about a holistic process, rather than an end unto itself.

Start with a solid, credible source - like SEOBook's course for example ;) The cost of a well researched course is nothing compared to the time you may spend heading in the wrong direction.

Most people will benefit by applying the 80/20 rule. To rank in Google, you need to be on-topic, you need to be crawlable, and you need to have inbound links.

You could spend a lifetime trying to figure out the other 20%. Unfortunately, the formula is in Google's hands, and even then, only known to a few. It is reasonable to assume Google tweaks the dials often, especially once a common exploit makes the rounds. Take Dave's advice and take it one step at a time. Focus on the key aspects first - relevance, crawlability and linking - then methodically test and evaluate in order to expand your knowledge.

Bob Massa on not sweating the small stuff:

I honestly think the only way anyone can go wrong, new to online promotion or a seasoned veteran, is to not look too hard for tricks and magic beans from those who make their names posting those so-called tricks, in forums.

I believe anyone can be successful at online marketing or even traffic generation and search engine placement specifically, if they just stop looking for ways to trick machines and instead look for ways to connect with humans.

search engines are just computer programs and algorithms written by humans. The engine is only a tool intended to aide humans do things faster and easier that are important to their lives. I think machines can help with connecting humans BUT the humans are the target, the goal, the end that machines can provide the means to.

I think one thing that is common among the list of people you mentioned is that they all realize, understand and accept that concept.

3. Strategy & Goals

The opportunity in SEO lies in the fact that Google must have content, around which it places advertising. If you rank high, you get "free" clicks.

Of course, nothing in this world is free, and SEO is no exception. There is significant time cost involved in getting lucrative rankings. And that cost comes with a reasonable degree of risk. Google has no obligation to show you at position x, and your competitors will always try and eat your lunch.

Strategy is the most important aspect, and one you should spend a lot of your time on. Why are you trying to rank? Are there better things you could be doing i.e. building up a community? Do you have an on-going publishing model? How is your brochure-web site ever going to attract links? Are you building enough link juice to ensure your entire 500K page affiliate site gets indexed?

Check out my post on strategy and goal setting. The key is to take a holistic approach.

I think some of the general principals that apply to most of them are that they are: smart, curious, hard working, blunt, honest, and sharing. They also view SEO as a tool to help them achieve other goals, rather than having SEO be the end goal.

Where a lot of people go wrong with SEO is that they try to think in concrete numbers based on a limited perspective built off a limited set of data. Some things may happen sometimes, but there are very few universal truths to the shifting field of SEO beyond preparing for change. And the certain lasting truths do not provide much competitive advantage...that is built through curiosity, testing, hard work, and creativity - Aaron Wall.

4. Measurement

It's surprising how little time is spent talking about measurement, because without it, SEOs are flying blind.

One common metric is rank. It's not a very good metric, because it doesn't tell you very much, other than you've won the ranking game.

But so what?

What if that rank doesn't help you achieve your goals? What if every person who clicks on your link ends up buying from the guy who is advertising on Adwords instead?

This is why measurement, aligned with your goals, is important. If you track SEO efforts through to a goal, and most of those goals tend to involve making money, then you'll be head and shoulders above most of the forum hacks and pretenders. It doesn't matter what tracking software you use. Become an expert and tracking and metrics.


  • 1. Understand the history and context of SEO
  • 2. Learn your chops from a reputable source
  • 3. Clearly define your strategy and goals
  • 4. Become a metrics and measurement guru
Published: January 28, 2009 by A Reader in seo tips


Jill Whalen
January 28, 2009 - 3:18am

It warms my heart to read posts like this. Keep up the great work guys!

Ronald Jones
January 28, 2009 - 4:19am

Conversions & Traffic:

At the end of the day, these are the ONLY things that really matter...regardless of how you define a conversion.

For my part, SEO is but a small subset of the overall realm of Internet Marketing. Optimizing a web page for a search engine is not unlike writing a paper using MLA formatting & style guide.

Always have a test site where you can try new things. Keep what works, discard what doesn't. But remember that Pareto's principle applies to all business activities.

Optimizing text for humans; i.e. presenting your ideas in such a fashion as to address the reader's problem directly; paint a picture of how the reader's life would be improved with the elimination of said problem; then presenting a simple, effective solution to said problem...now THAT takes some doing.

Work to make SE traffic superfluous If Google went out of business tomorrow, would you still have a business? What does that say about the viability of your business model?

Getting traffic: just like doing business in the brick & mortar world, you've got to 1) get involved in your community & make some noise 2) become a trusted resource & share your knowledge 3) make customer service a priority

January 28, 2009 - 5:01am

I may have gone wrong by waiting a year before buying Aaron's SEO Book (e.g. from 06 to 07). The sales page looked spammy and my budget as a beginner was tiny so I passed.

A year later I got it, and reading it over found many things it took hours of reading forums, blogs and experimenting with personally to learn. That may have been better than reading something once n forgetting, IDK ... but it felt like a 'doh' moment at the time. Now I need to focus on having more dough moments ;)

January 28, 2009 - 8:11am

Great post for anyone who follows the advice inside. And thanks a hundred times for the answer.

I humbly request experts reading this post to enlighten us newcomers about their views. I think this can make another great case study here or on Sphinn.

January 28, 2009 - 3:35pm

Your post is dead-on, and your final point about measurement cannot be overstated...it is the way an SEO stays working. Ranking reports help to show "see - I targeted this, and we won" but conversion tracking is paramount to showing your true value to a company. When I can show a client that I drove in X number of visits from organic search and from these we had Y number of conversions, I am essentially putting a dollar amount on what i bring to the table. Suddenly ranking well for a specific keyphrase is not as important as increasing traffic and conversions (so making the holistic approach sexy is a much easier sell). This means I get more money and more freedom to lead the charge, in a word: job security. That said, it is still important to know how to rank a page, for things like branding, spin control and some vanity projects (ranking for specific things the boss wants to see).

But I can also say, this site is one of the best for connecting to experts who are willing to help a novice get started, and though many know the "sneaky" tactics, they are not what you learn by joining the community. Shortcuts are misleading, and ranking quickly is not the name of the game. Invest in good lessons from the right teachers, and you are spending wisely. I have always found that here, and can highly suggest it to anyone jumping in...$100 a month is much less than you can earn by employing your lessons.

January 28, 2009 - 11:15pm

This site is one of the best for connecting to experts who are willing to help a novice get started, and though many know the "sneaky" tactics, they are not what you learn by joining the community. Shortcuts are misleading, and ranking quickly is not the name of the game. Invest in good lessons from the right teachers, and you are spending wisely. I have always found that here, and can highly suggest it to anyone jumping in...$100 a month is much less than you can earn by employing your lessons.

thanks for that Martypants :)

January 29, 2009 - 4:52am

My main mistake was definitely reading too much (and thus acting too little!). I read SEObook two times on a vacation and then felt the need to buy way too many of the other books Aaron suggested and read through them and ended up not doing much practical work, but reading this reading that and reading some more (not just books, but blogs, too of course). Got to blame you for this one Aaron ;-).

But then again Im not sure if its that bad, because I can concentrate on doing without having to read much anymore, so maybe in 2 years time it will not really have been a mistake.

Oh and..even though I need to blame you or seobook for that, I got more great advice from it that easily makes up for that one small mistake - such as not overly focussing on the technical details but on the marketing part (instead of searching for magic technical tricks)....or not caring about pagerank - I think the first time I even looked at the PR of a site was one year after I was into SEO..and have probably done so..maybe..a dozen times at the most.....these kind of things have been hammered into my head by Aaron and seobook and Im glad about it hehe ;)

January 30, 2009 - 2:00pm

Great reminder that the majority of SEO is best handled by keeping it simple and focusing on the basics instead of all the new tricks that popup each week.

February 11, 2009 - 1:00am

This was great - and you're right, I've never met anyone in SEO who didn't back into it.
I think that anyone getting into it from the outset needs to understand the importance of keywords - especially if they can be researched and refined BEFORE building a site.
I know you probably cover this in detail in your courses, but a basic primer on this is in my series: Google keywords. Thanks again.

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