The best way to learn SEO in 2021

23 minute read | Last updated on 15 February 2021

So you’ve read all about what search engine optimisation is and how it works. And now you want to learn SEO so you can experience all the amazing benefits of this fantastic tool, like increased organic traffic, more effective content marketing and higher profits. Well, read on and I’ll tell you exactly how you can most quickly learn SEO — including technical SEO, keyword research, link building, local SEO and SEO strategy.

Learning SEO

There are many ways to start learning SEO:

  • Buy an SEO book

  • Read a detailed SEO guide

  • Scour an SEO blog (or several blogs if you’d like varied perspectives)

  • Study the way Google’s algorithm works and how various activities affect ranking

  • Take a dedicated SEO course that’s optimised for beginners — ideally beginners in a similar situation to yours (e.g. a small business owner, an ecommerce site owner, a copywriter etc.)

  • Find an SEO mentor who’ll give you one-on-one training and guidance

Each method has pros and cons and the method that will best suit you, depends on your unique situation.

For example, if you don’t have any money to invest in your SEO education, blog posts are mostly free. However, many are very superficial, some are misleading (or downright incorrect), and you won’t get a start to finish education. You could study search algorithms yourself to get an accurate understanding of SEO principles, however, that’s incredibly time-consuming.

In addition, as with learning any skill, you need to make sure you get a good theoretical grounding and develop an appropriate skill set. Here are the key skills needed for SEO:

  • Target audience research, so you can truly understand what your intended audience needs from you

  • The ability to effectively use Google Search Console (and the equivalent tools for other search engines) to identify SEO errors and the keywords your resources are ranking for

  • Keyword research using an appropriate keyword tool, so you can identify appropriate keywords for your audience and goals

  • Competitor research, so you can beat your competitors in the search rankings

  • Content creation skills, so you can produce content that meets the needs of your audience and achieves your goals (or you can outsource this)

  • Analysis skills, so you can understand how your resources are performing and how you can optimise them to improve your ranking for specific keywords (and other key SEO metrics)

All the above methods can be used to learn theoretical and practical aspects of SEO. However, a dedicated course or an SEO mentor are the best ways to develop the practical skill set you’ll need to be successful with SEO. They are generally more expensive, though.

A mentor is the absolute best way to quickly learn SEO. However, it’s also a costly method that will be out of reach for most people. An SEO course is the next best option. It’s far more affordable and if you choose a good course, you’ll still get feedback from an SEO expert.

Note that there are free SEO courses available. Such courses are free because they don’t require any involvement from the teacher once the course is created. They’re pretty much the equivalent of a book or dedicated guide (or a well-structured set of blog posts). If you want to realise all the benefits of a course, choose one where you get one-on-one mentoring, group chats, and/or individual feedback on your efforts. The cost is well worth it!

How tough is the learning curve for beginners?

This is a question I’m often asked. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t as simple as many would like it to be.

The gradient of the SEO learning curve tends to depend on your level of technical and marketing knowledge. If you’re a complete technophobe and have never tried to market anything before, the learning curve is fairly steep. But the peak is absolutely attainable if you have the right resources and are willing to practice what you’re taught.

If you can confidently surf the net, have a shop and can post content on your own website or on social media, then the learning curve will have a fairly gentle slope. But you will still have to put in some effort if you want to master SEO.

Good quality resources and a great teacher make it easier to climb SEO mountain. If you choose the wrong resources, however, you’ll likely end up taking a great many detours along the way.

How do you know how much time to spend on SEO?

This is another question I’m often asked. Thankfully, it’s a bit easier to answer.

When it comes to on-page SEO (which is anything you do within a specific piece of content), you should be prepared to spend at least as much time on SEO as you do on the actual content creation. For written content, SEO often takes far more time than the actual writing process. (The exception is if you’re paying huge fees for AI tools that can sometimes do much of the heavy lifting for you — but there are risks involved in relying on such tools.)

Anyone who tells you SEO is only a small part of content creation is either doing it wrong or they don’t understand that many parts of the creative process, like target audience research, are integral to SEO.

For the best results, you should also be prepared to review your on-page SEO regularly — yearly is best for the average business — to ensure your resources continue to provide the best experience for your intended audience, since their needs can change over time.

When it comes to off-page or off-site SEO (anything that you do that’s not directly visible on the page, e.g. speeding up your website), it can take a few hours to get everything set up appropriately. (Although, if you have a large site with a huge number of problems, it could take days or weeks to fix everything.). And again, you’ll get the best results if you review that part of your SEO on a regular basis. The more often you make changes to your site or add new resources, the more often you might introduce SEO issues, and therefore the more frequently you should spend time identifying and fixing SEO issues.

SEO experts

Now, if your SEO efforts are to be effective, and if you’re to learn to make a big SEO impact quickly, you’ll need to study under one or more SEO experts. But how do you identify an SEO expert? With so many amateurs claiming to be experts, it can certainly be a challenge. So here are a few tips.

  • They should have a pretty standard title — something along the lines of SEO specialist, SEO consultant, SEO professional, or marketing specialist (provided SEO is one of their areas of expertise).

  • They should be able to demonstrate how they’ve helped clients with their search engine ranking and search engine traffic using ‘verifiable’ statistics (e.g. screenshots) and testimonials.

  • Ideally, their resources should also rank well.

SEO strategies

Now, a big part of learning SEO is SEO strategy. SEO tips will take you only so far. You simply cannot significantly increase your organic traffic if you don’t use appropriate SEO strategies.

Therefore, to learn SEO, you also need to focus on SEO strategy and SEO marketing strategy.

An SEO strategy is a framework for making decisions about how you will optimise your websites and content, so humans get the best experience and search engines can find and understand the value of the content. It includes things like your financial investments, operational priorities and hiring guidelines. At the granular level, an SEO strategy gives enough detail that it can be used by you (and everyone in your team if you have one) to prioritise your daily SEO tasks.

A cartoon of Kelly wade with stars over the eyes. It’s used for break-out tips and commentary.

Note, an SEO strategy is not an SEO plan!!! You can create an SEO plan from your strategy, but they are not the same thing.

To put this in context, an SEO strategy can, for example, enable you to plan where you’ll put your SEO keywords and how you’ll choose your SEO keywords. A successful SEO strategy might also include things like long tail keywords (niche keywords that only specific groups of people are searching for), a framework for anchor text, international SEO and key SEO tactics that’ll work well for your unique circumstances. It should also include information about your target audience.

To help you on your path to learning about SEO, here’s some basic strategic info that’ll help you choose appropriate resources to study.

Firstly, choosing keywords for SEO is all about knowing your target audience and SEO trends. There’s a whole raft of tools out there that can help you choose SEO keywords — but they’re only useful if you understand what your intended audience needs from you. If a resource you’re studying from just teaches you how to use a keyword research tool, look for a better tool because you’ll only ever get mediocre results.

To choose useful SEO keywords, you first need to understand who your ideal audience is.

Now, be careful with this. Your ideal audience isn’t necessarily the end users of your products and services. Take toys for instance. Kids are the end users, but it’s often parents who actually make toy purchases (especially for toddler toys). Similarly, in enterprise environments, the end user of a piece of software could be everyday employees, but the person making the purchasing decision is probably somewhere in the management chain.

Once you understand who your audience is, you need to understand what they need and what they search for when they’re looking for solutions to their problems. This is often called ‘user intent’ and this is where you start to choose SEO keywords. You see, SEO keywords are key words or phrases that are commonly used in the search queries that your ideal audience are entering into search engines.

This is where keyword research tools come in, as they can help you identify the exact search queries your ideal audience are using.

Once you have your SEO keywords, you can start placing them strategically throughout your resources. Knowing how and when to use these keywords is a big part of SEO, and it’s an area that’s led to a lot of abuse (black hat SEO) in the past and is still a driving factor in many search algorithm updates today. Here’s a good introductory guide to SEO keywords.

Strategically placing SEO keywords is also a key part of providing a good experience for your ideal audience.

To give you a very brief overview of keyword basics, the key is to place your keywords in areas that stand out to both the reader and to the search engines, and in ways that give a consistent experience for your readers. For example, your most important keyword needs to show up in the title, description and URL (or breadcrumbs) that show up in your search listings. That means you need to include them in the SEO title, meta description and slug respectively. That most important keyword also needs to be in the resource’s on-page title (the h1 title), one or more subheadings, the alt text of one or more images, and scattered naturally throughout any text or audio words.

The less important keywords need to be scattered throughout the same assets, but they don’t need to be used as often (and often there won’t be space for them in your SEO or h1 title). SEO keywords also have a place in the anchor text of any hyperlinks in your resources. However, they’re used a little differently in anchor text. For example, you might not want to use your primary keyword in any anchor links to avoid passing some of your ‘link juice’ to a competing resource. Here’s a great resource for learning about anchor text.

Anchor text keyword usage is a complicated topic that deserves an article to itself!

Once upon a time, black hat SEOs would put as many instances of each keyword into their text as they possibly could just so they could rank better for their chosen keywords. And they’d do so, even if that made the resource hard to read. This practice is called ‘keyword stuffing’, and it no longer works because search engines have upgraded their algorithms to be able to handle such dodgy tactics. In fact, many search algorithms now penalise keyword stuffing. So, using your keywords too many times, can actually lead your rankings to suffer.

Hopefully, this all drives home the importance of keywords when it comes to learning SEO.

Is coding required for SEO?

Those contemplating beginning their SEO journey often ask whether they will be required to learn to code. The short answer is ‘no’.

You can complete every piece of the SEO puzzle without ever having to write a line of code if you know which tools to use and what they’re meant to do.

However, SEO requires code, so it can be useful to understand some code basics, especially when it comes to applying schema markup in order to increase your chances of appearing in featured snippets. (Tools can create and validate schema markup code for you, but if code looks like gibberish to you, this process is slower and can be more challenging, especially if you need to troubleshoot anything.) Understanding very basic HTML can also help you understand how to structure content for better search rankings and results.

This is an important point to understand, so I’m going to reiterate it.

You can accomplish every SEO task without ever having to write any code, if you know which tools to use and what they’re meant to do. However, you’ll find things much easier and more straightforward, if you learn the fundamentals of coding.

It might seem scary, but the right SEO resources will teach you everything you need to know.

SEO technique

Another thing to be cognisant of when you’re planning on learning SEO, is that there are several SEO techniques you can employ, so you’ll be well served by learning the main ones. However, as I hinted at in the previous section, you want to make sure each technique you’re looking at learning is a white hat SEO technique not a black hat SEO technique.

Black hat SEO relies on dodgy techniques designed to game the system. Examples include things like keyword stuffing and backlink strategies that rely on paying many other brands to deliver a backlink with the same keyword phrase as the anchor text. Search engines are constantly fighting a battle against black hat SEO, and they regularly implement algorithm updates designed to penalise black hat SEO techniques. That means, when you use a black hat SEO technique, it won’t belong before you have to re-optimise your resources to account for changes to search algorithms.

White hat SEO, on the other hand, relies on quality content and timeless SEO techniques (like more natural backlink strategies) designed to provide a great experience for the target audience while helping search engines find and understand the value of content. When you choose to use a white hat SEO technique, you’re choosing a technique that will continue to be effective for years to come because it aligns your goals with the goals of search engines (which are to provide the best search result for each search query).

As an example, a recent Google update called BERT focussed on improving the search engine’s ability to understand the intent behind longer search queries. As a result of the update, websites with dodgy content suddenly found they’d lost traffic from long search queries. This meant people using black hat SEO techniques had to switch to a new tactic, but those businesses that focussed on producing content that addressed the key problems their target audiences faced, didn’t have to make a single change to their tactics as a result of BERT because their traffic stayed the same — or even grew.

So, when you’re looking for resources from which to learn SEO, be sure prospective material teaches white hat SEO techniques. Here are some examples of things to look for.

  • The material explains that the main purpose of using keywords in SEO is to help humans and search engines see how a resource is relevant to the human’s search query.

  • The resources include a discussion of unethical SEO services and techniques and discourage the use of them.

  • Detailed materials might include a discussion about the differences between landing pages designed for search and those designed for paid ads. You see, the SEO value of each is very different and therefore the SEO techniques used for each should not be identical. Unfortunately, many resources neglect this topic.

  • Somewhere in the resources, there should also be answers to common questions. For example, ‘does using bold on simple text mean the words are categorised as a keyword?’. (If you’re wondering, while bolding keywords can be a useful strategy, the mere act of putting text in bold does not automatically make it an SEO keyword.)

Small business SEO

Some people think SEO is only for big businesses. They feel that such large corporations have such big budgets to devote to content creation, social media and SEO, that small businesses and individuals couldn’t possibly compete. But it’s not true. Small business SEO is a thing. In fact, it’s a vital thing for success!

Small business SEO is important because small businesses can have narrower focuses, so SEO efforts can have a greater effect. And small businesses can often effectively target niche (long-tail) keywords that big businesses won’t bother with. And although each long-tail keyword may not attract a huge volume of search traffic, when you add several such keywords together, you can end up with really decent, and most importantly, laser-targeted traffic.

Many small businesses opt for buying SEO services. That’s fine if you’ve got the budget for a good quality SEO agency or dedicated small business SEO service. However, if you’re like many small businesses and can’t afford such an expensive ongoing commitment (good quality, yet affordable SEO services typically come in at around $500-2000+ per month), you may find it very useful to be able to do at least some of your own SEO.

Even if you choose to outsource some of your SEO activities to a professional (such as some of the technical SEO techniques), many aspects of SEO are very easy to incorporate into your normal operations. For instance, a local SEO campaign is very quick and easy to DIY, especially if you only have one physical presence or only operate in a limited geographic region. Since local SEO is vital if you want to show up in local search results, you won’t want to overlook this. (Local search is the term used to describe internet searches for geographically specific information. For example, if you do a search for ‘Chinese food near me’ or ‘yoga in Kingston’, they’re both forms of local search. Local SEO describes the specific SEO tactics and techniques you would use to ensure your business showed up in these types of searches.)

Being able to conduct your own SEO audit of your digital assets is another very useful skill. Any SEO company worth its salt can audit your online presence, but you can save a lot of money on regular audits if you can do them yourself.

SEO course

Given that the most efficient yet affordable way to access SEO training is to take an SEO course, you’ll probably want to learn more about SEO courses and the options available. In addition, an SEO course is the best way to practice SEO in an environment where you can get help if you get stuck, and where you can get feedback on your efforts. Unless you can afford a mentor, that is…

Now, before I go into the specifics of individual courses, I’ve had a few questions about SEO courses for ecommerce SEO in particular, so I wanted to quickly address that here. Your best bet if you’ve got an ecommerce business, is to do a general SEO course aimed at small businesses that either includes a module dedicated to ecommerce SEO or has an addon unit for ecommerce SEO.

The best SEO course in 2021

Ok, now let’s look at specific courses.

Coursera

Coursera offers a free 31-hour beginners SEO certification that’s listed on Google’s Digital Garage. This SEO training focuses on selecting keywords based on target audience search behaviour and on-page SEO analysis. There is some basic information about off-page and technical SEO as well.

While this course is free, when you sign up, you’ll be notified that it’s part of a broader SEO certification and that the platform charges USD66 per month after a free 7-day trial. The broader certification is heavily advertised throughout the free course.

The course consists of videos, readings and quizzes. There is an assignment, but it’s assessed by other students. The instructors do not offer any individual feedback. There is a forum where you can discuss aspects of the course with other students.

This course is by no means a comprehensive SEO training option, however, it could form part of a suite of educational materials.

Google’s SEO mini courses

Google’s Digital Garage includes 17 free mini courses produced by Google itself on several topics such as promoting a business with content, understanding customer needs and behaviours, making sure customers find you online, and understanding the basics of code.

These mini courses feature videos, tips and quizzes. Google does not provide any individual feedback.

Even taken together, these mini courses do not provide a comprehensive SEO training option, but again, they could form part of a suite of educational materials.

 

Hubspot Academy’s Inbound Certification

Hubspot Academy offers several free digital marketing courses that are often included in SEO course lists. However, the most relevant to SEO is probably their Inbound Marketing Course (which includes a certification), as they don’t actually offer a dedicated SEO course.

This course provides training in social media promotion, lead nurturing and conversion strategies, all of which are vital for digital marketing and include aspects of SEO.

The course includes lessons, videos and quizzes. Personal feedback is not part of the course.

This course could complement more specialised SEO courses.

SEMrush Academy certifications

SEMrush administers many free digital marketing exams, some of which cover SEO-specific topics. The brand also offers several free digital marketing and SEO courses. These are particularly useful if you’re planning on buying a subscription to SEMrush’s SEO software as they include sections dedicated to SEMrush tools.

The courses include videos, some text, links to blog posts and other free guides, and quizzes. The brand doesn’t offer any personalised feedback, however, you could get a reasonably well-rounded theoretical SEO education from SEMrush courses.

ClickMinded SEO certification

ClickMinded offers a paid SEO course and certification that covers on-page and technical SEO, keyword research, mobile SEO, link building, image optimisation, structure data and schema markup, local and international SEO, and analytics. It also includes mini courses in Shopify, YouTube, Amazon and Pinterest SEO.

The course mostly consists of videos, downloadable slides and quizzes. (If you don’t like learning from videos, do not buy this course.) Even though this is a paid course, students do not receive any individual feedback.

The course costs USD997, or you can pay $1997 for that course bundled with several other courses on topics like content marketing and email marketing. The price includes lifetime access and updates.

I took this training a few years ago when doing research for my own course and found it to be basic. It’s roughly equivalent to the various free resources available and ClickMinded freely admits this. Paying for the courses gives you a certification that could be useful if you want to start an SEO career or if you want to save time and learn in a streamlined manner.

MarketMotive SEO training and certification

MarketMotive offers a dedicated (paid) SEO training course and certification. It’s billed as an advanced SEO course, however it covers the basics like how search engines work and the types of SEO. The brand considers analytics and measurement to be an advanced SEO topic.

The self-paced version of the course is AUD899 for 180 days of access. The online bootcamp version costs AUD1200 for 90 days of access.

The course includes access to 15+ hours of live (instructor-led) online classes (presumably this is only included in the bootcamp option, however the website doesn’t make this clear), 30+ hours of self-paced videos and industry-based projects. To achieve the certification, students need to complete 3 projects and pass a test.

This course is aimed at people who want to pursue SEO as a career.

The Blueprint Training’s SEO course

The Blueprint Training’s SEO course offers a well-rounded course option for agencies and includes topics like client onboarding and templates for SEO proposals.

The course costs USD2999.

Master your Small Business SEO Course

The K. M. Wade Learning Centre is now offering a Master your Small Business SEO course that covers the full range of SEO topics in a way that’s useful for people who want to learn how to optimise their content for humans and search engines. (This online SEO course does not include training on how to win clients.)

The course includes videos, text, templates, quizzes, assessments, a student forum, live workshops and individual feedback. Even the first module, which is completely free, includes individual feedback for every student who submits their assignment. As far as I can tell, there is no other course out there that provides so much value for so little cost. I can’t even find a course that provides as much personal attention and individual feedback as this course offers.

Lifetime access to the entire course will be on special for USD537, and you can start it completely risk-free by doing the first module for free. The later modules are still in development, so if you sign up now, you’ll get massive discounts and a chance to shape the course to suit your needs.

When you complete the first module, we’ll tell you about the next modules, but you won’t get bombarded with advertising throughout the module. This course is not about us making money. It’s about you getting the SEO education you deserve and not paying huge monthly fees to get found online. If you don’t like the first module, we’re not going to pressure you into buying any additional modules.

How will you learn SEO?

So, now you know the options available to you, how are you going to go about learning SEO? Will you buy a book, scour blog posts, study search algorithms from scratch, enrol in a dedicated SEO course or find a mentor? Let us know in the comments.

Or, if you’re having trouble deciding, pop your questions in the comments, and we’d be happy to provide some advice based on your situation.