I will do this because I am a lone SEO consultant and not the owner of an SEO company, and people should ideally only talk about what they know. I have worked with an SEO company so I do know what the structure is like, but businesses are more than structure. Some of what I will say will be "my" story, while other parts will be the stories of other people who are SEO professionals and who have made their mark in the industry.
In The Beginning
I entered the Internet as a web designer, working with graphics and code/script. I loved hanging out on search engines simply because I could find anything I wanted. Since my college days I have spent hours searching for arcane bits of knowledge in order to put information in the departmental news letter.
When I became a web design professional, designing for paying clients instead of friends and family, my first paying client (my father) asked me to get him "traffic." From worrying about databases and how best to use flash animations I was suddenly saddled with the responsibility of making sure that the web site I was working on (with a team of two other designers) would be visited. It was then I discovered search engine optimization. I soon discovered that this "traffic" issue was no insignificant problem. Every client I met with was more interested in increasing ROI than they were in what color scheme to use on the site.
These basic beginnings led to a deepening interest in SEO and also to my going back into copy writing, on which I base my SEO campaigns. If you ask what I did to become an SEO who on an ongoing basis optimizes three sites at any one time (while working on web development projects), I would probably reply "not much." There are no schools for search engine optimization per se, though there are courses on search technology, Internet marketing, web copy writing, web design and a myriad of other topics that could strike your fancy. But for the netizen intent on becoming an SEO professional, there is nothing that beats getting traffic into a site; no degrees can beat results.
When starting off, you can be involved in any field you like; the first SEO professionals were web masters and web developers. Some are web programmers; currently the majority I know are Internet marketers selling their products or affiliate products on the net. Your average SEO is a copy writer, a coder, a webmaster or an Internet marketer (including small business owners who take time out to learn SEO).
Most enter SEO so that they can sell products, theirs or someone else’s. I did it so that I could offer a back end service to my web development clients, and now to promote online businesses. Glenn Murray, an Australian copy writer, probably went into Search Engine Optimization in order to promote his own sites on the search engines, add three number one rankings to his resume as an SEO copywriter, and prove himself as an SEO copywriter.
Michael Perdone went into SEO after successfully optimizing his wife’s site. What distinguishes an SEO professional from an Internet marketer is results on the SERPs. A marketer may use opt-in lists, referrals, cold calling and various other methods to promote a web site; the SEO professional uses the search engines.
Like I said, there is no hard and fast rule in how to become an SEO professional. An unhealthy interest in the vagaries of various search engines is necessary, as well as some technical skill (think of staring at tea leaves and trying to read the future). A knowledge of Internet protocols is useful, HTML coding skill and knowing what works and what doesn’t — for example, beautiful AJAX-enabled pages are useless to search engines, which only crawl on page content and don’t bother with content added dynamically. But there are some skills that are invaluable in SEO.
One: Strong Copy Writing Skills
Search engines want content. People do "web" search and not image or video search when performing searches online. To optimize for key words means those key words must be contained on your web site. Since you are the SEO expert you cannot afford not to write copy. Your favorite word processing package should be good enough to use to help you practice write articles on various subjects on the web, write SEO copy for your website, become a blogger, build an impressive copy writing resume and get links back to your pieces (as well as get respect from your peers).
A working knowledge of content management systems (hence languages such as PHP and databases such as MYSQL) and also how blogs work is good but not essential.
Two: Web Analytic Skills
You must be able to track and define your users behavior when on your site. This is so that you can see how successfully you optimized your site, and what "turns on" your users. A particular site I edit provides a broad range of software offerings but our web stat software showed that some particular programming languages received more attention than others. Some "long tail" keyword phrases (5 words or more) were surprisingly successful over the long term, which gave an idea of what should be targeted in future key word campaigns. Software packages such as Onstat for web hosts and Counterize for word press powered blogs.
Three: Personality Traits
More important than particular skills is a personality ethos (or way of doing things). This third point is probably the most important set of skills an SEO professional must possess. You can think of them as traits instead of skills. They are invaluable; if you disregard everything else you can’t disregard this.
As an SEO professional, you must read voraciously on SEO, Internet marketing, new technologies, changing and emerging trends and everything search engine related. Most importantly you must know what’s new in search engine optimization and also which way is up. Permanent subscriptions to Search Engine Watch, Search Engine Land, WebProNews, Webmaster World and SEO Chat are not merely advised; they are absolutely mandatory. To become a search engine professional you must have an appetite for learning that would be dangerous if applied to food.
Another trait to acquire is strong communication and teamwork skills. Unless you are really multi-skilled (know every conceivable programming language on earth and have strong copy skills on a divergent series of topics), you will be working on teams. Even as a lone SEO consultant, the design aspect of your clients’ sites should not necessarily be yours to handle. This is also true of programming and server side interactions.
If you believe a client needs a forum or a custom designed guest book, you do not have to be the designer, but you will have to communicate your needs to the web programmer. Programmers are usually geeky technical types who are overworked to start with, so they will appreciate clarity in communication. If you have any unfriendly qualities (and we all do sometimes), you will have to work so that they don’t show in your professional communications. Ideally you should eliminate them, but then your personal life is not really any of my business, is it?
Knowing how to use the search engines is advised. This way you can search for tools which allow you to analyze your competition’s performance on the SERPs, and discover automated ways to perform operations such as directory submission, article submission and also other analysis which will make you, the SEO professional, look very good to your clients when you are speaking in the lingo of the "industry" (as with every other field, SEO has its own particular terms). This is all basic stuff for professionals, but for anyone who wants to know the barriers of entry to SEO it is a good introduction.
Be Extremely Service Oriented
SEO is a service, and like all services, it’s not just about the product. It’s also about the after sales, the pre sales, the customer relations and customer satisfaction. No matter how good you get, if you cannot keep your customer happy, then you may not be around for very long. If you check the bad press about SEO companies, it’s mostly in the area of customer service, not in their product delivery. If you want glowing referrals and repeat business then it is advisable to be service oriented and be extremely customer focused.
In a Nutshell
Here are some things you need to do before you quit your day job and hang out a shingle! Get (and learn how to use) Macromedia Dreamweaver, register a reseller hosting package, learn HTTP redirect commands and subscribe to (and read) all major search engine newsletters. And most importantly, get a guinea pig site and rank it for a variety of key words (give yourself a year or two).
After all this, get screen shots of your rankings and print out your traffic server logs, get glowing testimonies from a set of reputable customers, set up a blog (and release your own newsletter) and then my friend, you should be able to handle an SEO task without quaking in fear that you will disappoint the client. And I honestly believe that there is more tan enough business out there for every one, so "the more the merrier."