How to Teach Yourself SEO

by Peter Attia on April 24, 2012

I’ve always been put in situations where I’ve had to teach myself. The first time I ever drove a stick, my friends were too drunk to drive and we thought it was a good idea to journey 6 hours away to North Carolina. (and there we stayed for several months)

When I first got into SEO I knew absolutely zilch about it. I had never even thought about the concept of affecting search engine results. I also worked remotely, which meant I couldn’t just look over and ask someone a question.

seo teacher

I knew one basic concept “Links on site A to site B, give site B more visibility in search engines”. Other than that, all I was given was a spreadsheet of sites I should contact.

That was several years ago and since then I’ve learned a lot more about SEO and internet marketing in general. I put together this guide for anyone in a similar predicament.

Step 1. Read a Little

Don’t overwhelm yourself! Start slow with some beginner SEO reads and get a grasp of basic concepts. SEOmoz’s beginners guide is very safe place to start and doesn’t get too technical in any areas. If you run into something that is particularly interesting to you, dig a little deeper and do some research.

If you’re a little more savvy, I recommend reading Oli Gardner’s online marketing guide instead. It focuses more on specific forms of online marketing and does a great job of being very descriptive in as few words as possible.

Additional Resources:

Step 2. Setup

This will vary depending on what skill sets you already have, but there are a few basic things that everyone will need. In the beginning, stick to the things that work for you. Don’t try and force yourself to use something you’re not comfortable with.

The Basics
These are tools that will be very easy to use from the get go.

  • Excel:seo excel First and foremost you’ll need an excel program. This will allow you to view things like crawl reports as well as any reporting you’ll get from outsourcing. You’ll also need excel for keeping track of any outreach you may be doing for link building. If you don’t want to fork over the money for Microsoft Excel, Open Office is a great alternative.

  • SEO Glossary:seo dictionary For any beginner, The SEO Book SEO Glossary will be a very helpful reference for the slew of acronyms that will be thrown at you.

  • Page Strength Tool:page rank You’ll need a way to judge the strength of different pages, both for link building and figuring out which pages you should focus on. You’ll have various options here – it mostly depends on personal preference.

    1) SEOmoz Tool Bar – This will show you the Moz Rank and Page Authority for each page, which I think are the best signals to judge the strength of a page. The toolbar also shows additional information, however they won’t be available without a pro account.

    2) SEO Site Tools – This is a good one for Chrome. It conveniently shows you the page rank of the page you’re on right on the icon for the tool. This means you don’t have an annoying toolbar in the way of your browsing experience. On click, it will display the backlinks of a page as well as other information; including SEOmoz’s page authority and domain rank.

    3) Search Status – A nice one for Firefox. Similarly to Site Tools, it will display the page rank of each page you’re on right by it’s icon. On click, you can also get additional information; including WhoIs, Robots.txt, Sitemap, and back link information.

  • Keyword Tool:adwords icon You’ll need tools for keyword analysis and trying to figure out what you want to rank for. The Google Adwords keyword tool is a great one to start on and all the information is organized and easy to navigate through. I also like Uber Suggest for finding less obvious keywords. You can scrape together keywords from Uber Suggest and put them into Googles keyword tool to sort their search volume.

  • Rank Tracking Tool:rank checker When you’re just getting started you don’t need anything fancy to track your rankings. Rank Checker for Firefox is a great one to start with. It’s easy to use, but it won’t keep track of the history of your keywords. If that’s important to you, I suggest dumping the information into an excel sheet.

These tools will be good accents to certain skills and tasks you may already be a part of.

  • Firebug:firebug icon If you have web development knowledge, this is a great tool to have on hand. It allows you to highlight the code of specific parts of a webpage without leaving the page itself.

  • Illustration Tool:photoshop icon I always run into a situation where I need an illustrator program for one reason or another. It could be to make a quick button ad during link building, throwing together a quick design concept for a landing page, or to edit an image for a post I’m writing. Photoshop and Illustrator are my personal favorites, but they’re kinda pricey. If you don’t like pirating software, Gimp and Krita are great alternatives.

  • Adwords Editor:adwords editor icon If you have PPC tasks, this is a must. It shines in large scale PPC campaigns, but even if you’re only managing a small account, you should familiarize yourself with it. It allows you to easily upload hundreds and even thousands of keywords and campaigns quickly.

  • Skitch:skitch icon If you have to deal with clients or reporting, this is a great tool to have. You can throw together snapshot highlights and make quick notes for your clients. For example, you could take a snapshot of a ranking improvement and circle your clients site in the search results.

  • Twitter Tools:tweet deck icon If you’re working with Twitter, get something to manage your account. The reason I’m talking about Twitter specifically, is because it tends to be harder for people to get the hang of. Tweet Deck helped me out dramatically when I first ventured into Twitter, because it let me view multiple columns at the same time. For example, one column can display everyone I’m following, another one a list I created, and a third one for a certain hashtag. However, Tweet Deck isn’t great at managing multiple accounts. If you’re working with multiple accounts HootSuite may be a better alternative.

Step 3. Start Doing Things

If you’re truly teaching yourself, you need to jump right in as soon as possible. This is where you’re going to do most of your learning. You’re going to fail… a lot!.. Don’t get discouraged, but use those moments as a way to figure out what’s working for you and what’s not.


  • Stay away from any methods you’re unsure of. If something seems sketchy to you, don’t touch it until you have a better understanding of it.

  • If you have development skills, make a dummy site or two. This will allow you to play around and test out different SEO methods without worrying about negative outcomes.

  • Start with non-competitive keywords. If you’re doing something right, you’ll see immediate results with these keywords. This will help you learn what does and doesn’t work.

  • Keep track of EVERYTHING! If you’re link building – keep track of names, emails, conversations, dates, etc. This will help you see what communications, niches, and approaches are working for you. You may also find that something you’re recording could be useful for reporting.

  • Watch your analytics like a hawk. If you get a spike of traffic, figure out what caused it immediately! This will give you great insight into what you did right and also give you a chance to be proactive and try to leverage more traffic.

  • Dip your toes into social media if you’re not already. This will help you get more comfortable talking to folks you don’t know.

  • Do some work for free! I’m sure you have a friend that’s curious about starting a site for his band or something. This will not only give you a chance to learn, it’s a chance for you to familiarize yourself in a new niche.

Step 4. Get Active in SEO Communities

Start working with SEO communities where there are active mentors. YouMoz is a great place to start being social with other SEO’s who are both new and experienced. Everyone’s extremely supportive and willing to lend a helping hand.

seo community
Start writing posts on the blog as well. It can take a while to get your post published, but it’s a great way to get some feedback and constructive criticism. Plus, if you write an exceptionally good post, they will promote your post to the main blog. This will give you great credibility and a chance to connect with folks in your industry that you didn’t know.

You should also find the chance to get away from the safety of your computer and get active in public communities. Go to conferences or start attending a Meetup group. is a great way to find folks in your area that are into SEO and other tech industries. Just because you’re more interested in SEO, doesn’t mean you should ignore other related areas. This is a great way to get a better understanding of fields you will inevitably work with at one point or another.

Step 5. Start a Blog

Create the blog yourself. Don’t ask your developer friend to set it up for you. Get your own host and learn how to set up a site. It’s vital to be comfortable on FTP and editing code.

It’s ok to use a template! By no means do you need to dive right in and create an entire site from scratch. Find a template you like and figure out how to customize it to your liking.

Start writing as often as you can! At least once a week. If you can write more than that, great! Unlike publishing articles on YouMoz, you now have to figure out how to promote your content on a new blog that has no community. This gives you a chance to see what social media avenues work for you.

Don’t be afraid to be translucent in your writing. People are very grateful for actionable examples and information. If you’re testing out a new SEO strategy, use your blog as a form of documentation and explain what did and didn’t work. Expand on what else you could’ve done.

With a blog you’ll start to become a more active member in the SEO community. Not only will this help you become more recognized, but it also looks good on your resume or portfolio. It shows effort and dedication.

Step 6. Find a Mentor

Find someone experienced in the industry that you can rely on. This is part of the reason why being active in the SEO community is so valuable. It’s a great way to find experienced folks willing to take time out of their day to assist you.

This is not just for learning SEO, but for learning how to grow your professionalism: for example, developing your resume, knowing how negotiate a salary, advice on wether you should take a new position, insights on other agencies, etc.

Step 7. Read a Lot

Start soaking up knowledge everywhere you can. Search engines change their algorithms constantly, so it’s vital to stay on top of any recent updates. I suggest starting with RSS feeds. Put aside an hour or two each day and dedicate that time strictly to reading about SEO. I compiled a large list of SEO RSS feeds if you wanna tackle the entire list at once.

seo reading

If you don’t have the time to read that many feeds consistently, I suggest starting with these:

search engine land faviconSearch Engine Land – Blog | Feed

quick sprout faviconQuick Sprout – Blog | Feed

marketing land faviconMarketing Land – Blog | Feed

SEOmoz faviconSEOmoz – Blog | Feed

point blank seo faviconPoint Blank SEO – Blog | Feed

kiss metrics faviconKissmetrics – Blog | Feed

inbound faviconInbound – Blog

You should also start following SEOs on Twitter. I know the linked list may be overwhelming if you’re not comfortable on Twitter, but that’s the smallest I’m willing to make it. I recommend following everyone on that list if possible.

Twitter is a great way to discover random articles that are not just SEO related, but related to tech in general. It gives you insight on what other SEOs are into, as well as a chance to communicate with people in the industry.

Step 8. Do What You’re Good At

At this point you should have a grasp of what you can and can’t handle. Find you’re strong points and make them better. Leverage what you’re good at to get more out of what you’re weak at.

Don’t be afraid to outsource. If you’re content isn’t that good, then find someone to write content for you and use your other skills to make that content work.

Find ways to trade what you’re good at to help others. This is a great way to trade work with other people. If you’re good at promotion, but lack in design, then work on a co-op project with someone who’s good at design. This is an opportunity for both of you to learn off each other.


Teaching yourself is no easy task. Go into it with a positive attitude and don’t be afraid of fear. Don’t be so worried about messing up that you’re not trying new things. Put yourself in uncomfortable situations and learn from it.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Keith April 24, 2012 at 3:17 pm

Great list of blogs, and props for adding on there. It’s one of the best ways I’ve found to spot breaking news and trending topics in our industry.


Peter Attia April 24, 2012 at 3:23 pm

Agreed, I’m glad Inbound is going strong! There have been a lot of hidden gems on there.


Paul Norris April 24, 2012 at 3:37 pm

Fantastic resource Peter. Consider this bookmarked!
Can’t agree more with your point of getting used to FTP & learning some script and coding yourself. Its vital in this game.

The lines between SEO, web designer, web marketer, web administrator are all blurring. We all need to become better at just being the “web guys”, after all that’s what the clients think of us as!


Peter Attia April 24, 2012 at 3:52 pm

I completely agree. I think in SEO you need to be very savvy in several web related aspects. A jack of all trades. Especially now where people are starting to realize the benefits of concentrating on conversion just as much as traffic.


Sean April 24, 2012 at 3:57 pm

Dude this is an excellent learning/recap post :)


Peter Attia April 24, 2012 at 4:00 pm

Appreciate it Sean :) This is one I’ve been meaning to put up for a while.


Michael J. Kovis April 24, 2012 at 6:40 pm

I have to agree with Sean above, this is an excellent intro post Peter! May even utilize it in the future to help me with the education and training of those new to the industry.

BTW, what exactly is a “Senior Search Maketing Specialist?” Emphasis on the “Maketing” part. I noticed that typo in your author bio. Figured I would give you a heads up. :-)


Peter Attia April 24, 2012 at 6:46 pm

Haha! Thanks for the heads up! That spell error has been haunting me for months. I thought I had fixed it.

Also, if you’re looking for a training guide, I wrote this a while back. Not trying to promote my post or anything, but I think you might find it helpful –


Michael J. Kovis April 24, 2012 at 9:00 pm

Funny you mention that blog. I have had that bookmarked since the day it was published. :-)


Peter Attia April 24, 2012 at 9:15 pm



Jason Diller April 24, 2012 at 10:26 pm

I wish I had this 2 years ago. It took me 6 months to find seomoz and hubspot.


Peter Attia April 24, 2012 at 10:42 pm

Precisely why I wrote the post :) It took me a while to find and know which blogs and communities I should follow as well.


Jon Cooper April 25, 2012 at 2:17 am

Is my blog really worthy of that short, awesome list? :)

But thanks for the mention Peter, and some awesome, actionable tips you got here. Will definitely be tweeting this out!


Peter Attia April 25, 2012 at 2:45 am

Hah! Quit downplaying yourself. You’re blog is the most active link building centric blog I can think of. If you can name me one better, I’ll gladly replace it :)


Anthony April 25, 2012 at 1:15 pm

Great post! Weird how I recognise myself in it. Started SEO about 15 months ago, and learnt so much after creating a dummy blog…on blogger…i know, i know… But I now switched to my own hosting etc… to set up my french SEO blog for (french speaking ) people struggling with English ( and still learning every single day! Perhaps you could add it to your list for your french readership, hehe.

( you wrote “At least once a weak” instead of “week” ;) )


Peter Attia April 25, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Glad to hear it Anthony! You’ll be the one I turn to for any French pointers :) and thanks for the heads up on the typo! I’ve been making so many lately.


Scott Dailey April 25, 2012 at 1:16 pm

Peter, well done. I loved the beginning, middle, end packaging of this post. The best reads have a maturation – a story. This is very well crafted. Thank you.

~ Scott


Helen lagares April 26, 2012 at 5:00 pm

Wow, this is nice content! :) I would like to translate it! :)


Missy April 27, 2012 at 1:37 am

Hey, Peter:

How do you feel about the latest Google update – Titanic? Well that is what I’m calling it. (for snorts and giggles)

I for one, do not think the sky is falling, but everyone sure has made a big stink over this latest update. My gosh, I couldn’t go anywhere online yesterday without someone running around like a chicken with their head cut off over the latest and greatest SEO update.

What say you, Peter?


Peter Attia April 27, 2012 at 2:20 am

Hey Missy,

It’s still a little too early to assess the damage of the penguin update and I speak primarily for any “innocent” sites that lost rankings. However, I think if anyone is worried about it, they were doing something wrong in the first place.



Missy April 27, 2012 at 7:33 am

It seems to happen with every single update, everyone panics and acts as if its the end of the world. There’s a lot of fear mongering in the SEO world, I see.

Getting back to your article above, I too am self taught on SEO. Although I just stick with the basics, and still have lots to learn.

p.s. I read blogs like yours to stay in the loop as I run quite a few myself. But I learned long ago to not focus too much on this stuff or it will drive one insane. Lol.


Danielle February 19, 2013 at 12:41 pm

This is great Peter, thank you!


Peter Attia February 19, 2013 at 1:17 pm

No problem Danielle :) Glad you found it useful!


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