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How to Train SEOs for the Future of Search


Natasha Burtenshaw-deVries

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Search has been evolving for years, but I think it’s fair to say that the pace of transformational change has accelerated recently! As the SEO industry adapts and evolves, the way we train SEOs has not kept up. To be honest, it was never very good in the first place.

In March 2022, I took on the task of training and managing a direct report for the first time as well as teaching my first continuing education course in SEO and paid search. While I had previous experience in education to provide me with a good foundation to tackle these new challenges, it still came with a steep learning curve. 

March 2022 was also when I learned that while there are many resources on how to teach yourself to do SEO, there are very few resources on how to teach others how to do this. 

While this makes sense in a largely self-taught industry, it didn’t help me navigate my new teaching and training responsibilities. I had to reflect a lot on my own SEO journey to replicate and improve that process for others, come up with a lot of teaching and training materials myself and if I’m being honest, make up a lot of stuff on the fly.

While it was, and still is, a challenging and exhausting process, I love it. The most consistent piece of feedback I get on my courses is that I am “very enthusiastic about the subject.” It’s also really opened my eyes to how desperately the SEO industry needs better training and how little it’s even discussed.

SEO is changing, so there’s no better time to change how we teach people to do it. This is especially important as the industry grows and more people will be in the place of having to train and support less experienced members of their teams. In this article, I’ll share my thoughts on what’s wrong with how we train SEOs right now, how that needs to change for the future, and practical tips and exercises to train other SEOs yourself.

How the SEO Industry is Changing

As search itself changes, the SEO industry must change with it. While I could write a whole series of articles on this, here are a few of the key changes that will need to take place (or are already happening!):

An Increased Need for Meaningful Subject Matter Expert Input and Collaboration

A higher volume of content online has not led to higher quality content. To combat this, Google is looking for stronger and stronger E-E-A-T signals and understanding who’s actually behind the content.

As we all know, it’s not always possible to get our subject matter experts (SMEs) to actually write the content themselves. But it’s no longer enough to simply publish it under their name or sprinkle in a quote or two. Instead, we need to incorporate their insights throughout the briefing, research, writing and editing processes which will be a significant change for many of us.

Increased Focus on Mid and Lower-Funnel Searches

For a while now, Google has been stealing clicks for easy-to-answer and more generic top-of-funnel searches (like “what is seo” or “how to increase website traffic”) with featured snippets and other SERP features. Search Generative Experience and chatbot search are only going to accelerate that — rapidly. 

Top-of-funnel keywords have always been a staple of the SEO world to help fuel growth but those days may be coming to an end. We’ll need to adapt our strategies to focus lower down in the funnel, and figure out how we fill and nurture that funnel without all of that top-of-funnel traffic we’ve grown accustomed to.

The Need to Demonstrate the ROI of SEO

This is more of a reflection of the state of the world than search itself but nonetheless, the need to clearly demonstrate the ROI of SEO has never been more pressing. It will no longer be enough to only focus on keyword rankings and organic traffic. SEOs need to be more dialled in on ROI than ever so their budgets don’t get reallocated to channels that can more easily connect clicks to conversions.

New Ways of Measuring Rankings and SERP Visibility

As the way that users interact with the search interface evolves, how we measure rankings and SERP visibility will need to evolve with it. I mean, what does it even mean to rank first anymore? Is an SGE result #1? What about the links in it? Does a featured snippet rank #1 or is it just 0? 

It remains to be seen how Google adapts Google Search Console measurement to this new world of search. Third-party tools will also need to adapt. There are more questions than answers at this point, but how we measure SEO performance and the tools we use to do so are without a doubt about to go through an overhaul.

And finally, the change that this article is really all about:

More SEO Teams and Fewer Lone Wolves

A big reason behind my move to a new agency was a desire to not be the only SEO on the team, a desire I’ve heard from many other SEOs. While I don’t see full SEO teams becoming the norm across the board, I do think lone-wolf SEOs will be less common than they’ve traditionally been.

Agencies are building more robust SEO teams, companies are investing in SEO to the point where more than one in-house specialist may be needed, and SEO is popping up more in management and executive-level titles. SEO is far from dead! 

That means SEOs will need to build processes and workflows not just for themselves, but for their newfound teams. There will also be a need to train and support the career growth of more SEOs than ever, particularly entry-level and early-career individuals instead of only hiring at the intermediate level or above. 

This may not impact our actual SEO work, but it will affect how we go about our work days and the resources and processes we need to do our jobs effectively.

Now that we’ve taken a look at the world that SEOs operate within and how we can expect that to change, let’s turn our attention to the training aspect (after all, that’s probably why you’re here!).

How We Train SEOs Now

I hate to say it but how we train SEOs right now is reflective of the industry itself — there are a lot of people doing great things but yikes, there’s a lot of room for improvement. 

A few characteristics of how SEOs are trained and grow their skill sets in today’s landscape are:

Most of Us Just Train Ourselves

The lone wolf SEO tendency starts from the beginning because let’s be real, most of us taught ourselves SEO! A huge lightbulb went off in my head when I first took on the task of training a direct report — I knew SEO and how to explain concepts but had no idea how to train them to do the whole job themselves. 

As SEO teams grow, this will become more of a challenge as more SEOs are tasked with the training and career growth of others who have never had this process modelled for themselves.

Over-Reliance on Tools 

How many of us have seen someone “do an audit” by simply running a site crawl and sending over the results?

“Learning how to do a technical SEO audit” shouldn’t equal “learning how to use Screaming Frog.” Many SEOs have been taught that it’s okay to let the tools do the work for you — that running the tools is the work. Yes, tools exist to help but good SEO work requires human interpretation, prioritisation and analysis beyond what the crawler spits out in its report. 

Teaching Cookie Cutter Strategies and Inflexible Systems

A benefit of SEO is that it has a low barrier to entry and you don’t need to attend a traditional, formal educational institute like many other careers. We’re also fortunate to have so many SEO creators and educators who share their knowledge and courses. Unfortunately, many SEOs learn a sole approach or system of SEO through an online course or a creator they follow. 

While I’m not criticising these learning materials, many learners presume what they learn is the way to do SEO and go on to apply it in a cookie-cutter manner to different websites. These individuals do not realise how SEO needs to adapt to different industries, locales, revenue models, and individual websites due to being taught a single, inflexible approach to SEO from the start.

Too Much Focus on Keywords, Not Enough Focus on User Needs and Search Intent

Keywords are not abstract things that we sprinkle throughout a website and somehow lead to traffic from Google. Keywords represent users' needs — human needs. 

When we ignore that, we ignore what we need to do on our websites to reach users when they have that need (i.e. how do we rank high for that keyword so they click on our website) and how our business can help fulfil that need (i.e. how do we provide what they need, from free informational content to selling them a product or service, that will help them achieve the goal of their search).

Too many SEOs are taught to do keyword research in a tool-reliant, robotic way instead of putting themselves in the user’s shoes (or should I say at their keyboard?) and thinking about how they might search when they have needs that your business can fulfil.

Not Enough Focus on Analytics and Measuring Success

Many SEOs measure success through keyword rankings and organic traffic and leave it at that. Unfortunately, that’s not enough as the SERPs evolve and the need to demonstrate impact and ROI increases.

In today’s world (especially the post-UA world), to be a good SEO means having solid data literacy skills. Unfortunately, this is often viewed as a more advanced skill instead of a foundational one for SEOs.

How We Need to Train SEOs for the Future

Based on how search is changing and the many issues with how we currently train SEOs, we need to adapt our training to prepare for the new world of search and help more people than ever join this wonderful, wacky industry of ours.

We need to train SEOs of the future to be:

Focused on User and Search-Intent First, Keywords Second

Keywords are not abstract concepts. They represent user needs, and if we don’t teach the next generation to centre that in their keyword research process then we’ll never achieve meaningful growth and business success. 

I’ve always loved Google’s micro-moments — if you think about what your users want to know, want to do, want to go and want to buy when doing keyword research, you’ll be dialled in on their actual needs and searches. I’ve found that the four types of search intent (informational, commercial, navigational and transactional) can feel very abstract at first, so micro-moments are a great way to make keywords feel more tangible and grounded in a user-first approach.

Grounded in the Fundamentals of Relevance, Authority and Indexability

Good SEO doesn’t have to be complicated, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. We need to focus on teaching SEOs the fundamental best practices, not just the fastest and easiest tactics. Just like SEO itself, training is an investment. Taking the proper route, not the fastest one, always results in better long-term results.

Grounded in Data and More Accountable to Business Goals

Data-driven SEO is no longer a buzzword, it needs to be our reality. Teaching SEOs data skills from the start is an important step in making this a reality and creating better transparency, accountability, and proving the ROI of our work.

My 5 Favourite SEO Training Exercises

Training people is much easier than it sounds. Here are my favourite training exercises that I use in my teaching and on-the-job training:

Start With How Search Engines Work

You can’t optimise for search engines if you don’t understand how they work, so I always start with this.

Don’t get too complicated or technical — simply break it down into crawling, indexing and ranking. How do search engines discover and crawl content, what’s the index and how does it work, and how do search engines decide what to rank. (Cue my “Did you know that Google doesn’t crawl the internet every time you make a search, they crawl their index of the internet?!” line).

I like to frame search engine crawlers as being similar to humans — we just want websites that load fast, have good content, that we can easily navigate and don’t have a bunch of broken links or errors. This has been a successful way to prevent people from overcomplicating or obsessing over the crawling process.

How Search Engines Work: Crawling, Indexing, and Ranking from Moz’s The Beginner’s Guide to SEO is a great resource to teach this concept at the right level of detail.

SERP Scavenger Hunt

What I’ve coined the SERP Scavenger Hunt is a staple of my SEO course. I love this activity for teaching search intent as well as the importance of actually opening up the SERPs to observe and learn from the results. All you need is a list of 5 or more keywords and a device to conduct searches on.

SERP Scavenger Hunt Process

  1. Create a list of 4 or more keywords with different search intents (see examples below).

  2. Provide the list to your trainee and ask them to write down what they think the search intent is without doing a search. (Note: search intent should be classified as informational, commercial, navigational, transactional, local or mixed)

  3. Get them to do a search for each keyword and write down what they think the search intent is after observing the top results and SERP features. 

  4. Compare the results and discuss their findings.

Sample Keyword List

Example #1 - Purple Shampoo

This list is straightforward with clear distinctions between the intent of each keyword. Although the first time I used this, apparently the main takeaway was how much they learned about purple shampoo!

  1. Purple shampoo

  2. What is purple shampoo

  3. Best purple shampoo

  4. Buy purple shampoo

Example #2 - Mixed

This list is a little trickier to guess the search intent for, but makes it even more valuable for teaching. For example, “Starbucks store locator” often trips people up, they presume it’s a local search but it’s actually navigational as people want to go directly to the store navigator tool on Starbucks’ website.

  1. What is SEO

  2. Starbucks store locator

  3. Starbucks  

  4. Fitness mirror

  5. Red running shoes

  6. Best iPad

Analytics Scavenger Hunt

Why do a quiz to test your knowledge when you can do a scavenger hunt instead? Functionally, it’s a quiz but with a focus on going into the tools to find a specific answer instead of just testing knowledge and their ability to remember things. 

I find that teaching analytics principles is relatively easy but actually using the tools and finding what you need is much more difficult. The scavenger hunt is a great test of their understanding and encourages them to fully explore the platform.

To run an analytics scavenger hunt simply create your questions, create the quiz format (using a platform like Google Forms or a Word document), have your trainee complete it and then review the answers together. 

I suggest customising this activity to your analytics stack, the specifics of their role and the type of websites you work with. 

Here are some examples of questions you can use for Google Analytics, Google Search Console, and your keyword research tool of choice.

Google Search Console

  1. Which search query had the highest number of impressions? Which query had the highest number of clicks?

  2. What is the average position of the page with the highest number of impressions in June 2023?

  3. How many URLs are indexed?

Google Analytics

  1. What percentage of all users in November 2022 used a mobile device? What was the year-over-year change?

  2. How many users from organic search landed on the homepage in the first quarter of 2023? 

  3. What was the total revenue from organic in April 2023? Which product generated the highest amount of revenue from organic?

Keyword Research Tools

  1. For [], which unbranded keyword in Canada has the highest estimated traffic? What is the ranking of that keyword?

  2. For [], which of the following keywords has the highest monthly search volume in France? What about in the USA? [example 1, example 2, example 3]

  3. How many featured snippets does [] rank for in the USA?

Doing an Audit Without Any Tools

Pick your jaw up off the floor because yes, you can do an audit without a technical SEO tool! I teach and expect this at a basic level for all my students and trainees. It reinforces foundational technical SEO knowledge and the connection to user experience, reduces overreliance on tools, and empowers my students who may not have access to paid tools. 

No, this isn’t perfect. No, you’re not going to catch every technical issue this way (especially on bigger sites or JavaScript-heavy ones) and you would never actually do a proper audit without a crawler. But I think it can still be really valuable.

Here are some of the questions I like to ask:

  • Is there descriptive text on the page that naturally includes target keywords?

  • Is there only one H1 on the page? Do they use headings to structure their content?

  • Are the title tags descriptive and unique? Do they contain target keywords?

  • Have they provided meta descriptions?

  • Are there broken links that lead to 404 errors?

  • Are there internal links between pages?

  • Do images have alt text?

  • Can the content be indexed?

  • Is the site responsive and fully functional on mobile?

How can they evaluate these things without a crawler to do it for them?

  • Navigate and observe the site
    to uncover broken links, the state of internal linking, the quality of the content, and keyword targeting.

  • Use your browser’s inspect tool
    to evaluate headings and alt text, as well as the responsiveness and functionality when simulated on mobile devices.

  • Turn off JavaScript in your browser
    . For individuals with more technical knowledge, this can help them understand the role that JavaScript plays in the site and how much of an impact it may have on crawling and rendering. For those focusing on the foundations, I encourage them to ask “Based on what I see here (meaning fewer visuals, no interactive content etc.), is it clear what my page is actually about?” If not, then you likely need more text-based content so search engines (and humans, especially those using an accessibility device like a screen reader) can better understand the content and rank it for relevant searches.

  • Use one of the many free SEO browser extensions
    (such as The SEO Pro Extension by MarketingSyrup) to easily view title tags, meta descriptions, heading structure, alt text, meta robots tag to check for indexability, Core Web Vitals scores and more.

Live, Supervised Implementation

Editing Shopify code, updating robots.txt files, installing new plugins, troubleshooting uncooperative websites...these tasks can be difficult to teach and delegate because of the complexity and, in some cases, risks involved.

Finding the balance between hands-on learning and not breaking things is something I still struggle with. Sure, breaking things and then figuring out how to fix them can be a great learning opportunity (hypothetically speaking, ha!). Still, I have a responsibility to my clients and my team to prevent that from happening.

To overcome this challenge, I will sometimes supervise teammates (in my case, via screen share) while they implement something on a website. This empowers them to do the task hands-on while my direct supervision is a safeguard against things going sideways. I also find this can be the confidence boost they need to take on new tasks.

Worst case scenario, if something does go wrong then I’m able to step in immediately to fix it. It can also mean less time troubleshooting or figuring out the situation if I was already there to begin with. 

Final Thoughts

Training an SEO is a challenging but rewarding task, and one that we’ll all be faced with more often as our industry grows. 

By reflecting on your own learning journey and where our industry is going, using the tips and exercises in this article and continuing to have the hard conversations about how we train others to do SEO, we can work together to give new SEOs a solid foundation that will serve them for years to come and upskill our industry as a whole to keep dealing with whatever Google throws at us next.

Natasha Burtenshaw-deVries

Natasha Burtenshaw-deVries - Senior SEO Lead, Flywheel Digital

Natasha is the Senior SEO Lead at Flywheel Digital and a Continuing Education Instructor at George Brown College in Toronto. After starting her career working with children, she now brings her love for teaching to her students, team and clients.

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