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Does Google need me to be a programmer to succeed at SEO?

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

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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