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Among my students taking my search marketing classes, I am often asked what kind of technical skills are needed to succeed at search engine optimization. I think they are especially intimidated because I was a Distinguished Engineer at IBM, so I definitely have more technical skills than the average SEO practitioner. Like with all consultants, when I am asked if you need to be a programmer to succeed at SEO, I say, “It depends.” But usually the answer is no.

If you think about what tasks you undertake in search marketing, they are more often about marketing than about search. Keyword research doesn’t need any programming skills. You need to know what your customers are searching for, and you need to be willing to brainstorm, to look at analytics, keyword research tools,and competitive sites to learn more. No messy coding needed.

Building quality content and attracting links and social media activity is also decidedly low-tech.  No matter how much Java or PHP you know, it doesn’t help. You need the ability to create high quality content that attracts the attention of others, and no software can do that for you.

But there are a couple of areas where programming skills can help:

  • Infrastructure. If the spiders are not indexing your content, you probably have some kind of technical issue bedeviling your site architecture–anywhere from incorrect redirects to overuse of Flash to poorly-formed URLs to JavaScript links…the list goes on and on. You don’t literally need to be a programmer to fix these problems, but it certainly helps.
  • Dynamic content. If your site is generated programmatically, where software uses templates and databases to construct your site on the fly, being a programmer can be very helpful–sometimes necessary–to optimizing your site for search. Even folks using vey polished tools such as WordPress need to modify the underlying PHP code once in a while. You can get away without being a programmer, but once in a while you’ll be stuck.

Now, so long as you have the budget to pay a technology person to take on the tasks you can’t do, you will never need technical skills. But if you are on a low budget, you might need to beg or borrow some help to optimize your site every once in a while. Every year that goes by, however, there are fewer and fewer reasons for technical skills in SEO, but they do remain.

So, if you have no programming skills, don’t worry. You’ll probably be fine.

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Mike Moran

About Mike Moran

Mike Moran has a unique blend of marketing and technology skills that he applies to raise return on investment for large marketing programs. Mike is a former IBM Distinguished Engineer and a senior strategist at Converseon, a leading social consultancy. Mike is the author of two books on digital marketing, an instructor at several leading universities, as well as a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research.

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