Navigating an SEO Career
The unreasonable effectiveness of writing online
This is the SEO MBA - a newsletter about business & SEO, and this is the last installment in a mini-series on SEO careers. Catch up here:
Part 1: Why there are no VP SEO jobs
Part 4: Being mid-career sucks
Right now there’s a 10% January discount for the SEO MBA course. Enroll today.
Probably the most common career advice I give people is to start your own website. Just a little corner of the internet that you can tinker and play with.
If you’re working in SEO (or any digital role) I don’t see how you can really understand how things work without tinkering and playing around with your own site. From DNS to publishing content, being able to dip your toes in the water is valuable. Install analytics! Host a website! Write some HTML! Publish some content!
When I’m hiring for SEO roles I always look favorably on people who have their own site. It won’t land you a job overnight but it’s a great signal for your resume.
There’s a deeper idea here: “Writing on the internet” has a strange kind of power to change your life.
To see how, let’s look at how careers work.
Careers Only Make Sense In Hindsight
I know, I’m writing a mini series on “career advice” but honestly you should distrust anything that sounds black and white or clear cut. Careers are not linear or predictable - they’re messy and only make sense in hindsight.
As we progress through a career we look backwards and try to connect the dots. Humans are wired for stories. We try to construct a narrative and turn what was a meandering uncertain stumble in the dark into a poetic dance towards where you are today.
I think we all recognize this meandering path. But this isn’t actually useful in helping us navigate our way through… As my friend Brian Dell put it so nicely:
“This draws the map after the path. Those dots aren’t waypoints you move towards, they are lily pads you can manifest to walk across the water.” - Brian Dell
Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. Manifesting lily pads! But… how?
The tricky thing about careers and jobs is that they define who we are. Our identity is wrapped up in the work we do and the language we use to describe it.
Viewed through this lens, careers become slippery things - they’re not just about how senior we are or how much we earn, but they’re about who we want to be…
There’s an incredible book that explores this idea - Working Identity by Herminia Ibarra. In the book Herminia explores career change through the lens of iterative and multiplicative identities - we have multiple possible selves and we uncover opportunities through experimentation.
Herminia outlines 9 unconventional strategies for reinventing your career in the book:
Act your way into a new way of thinking and being. You cannot discover yourself by introspection.
Stop trying to find your one true self. Focus your attention on which of your many possible selves you want to test and learn more about.
Allow yourself a transition period in which it is okay to oscillate between holding on and letting go. Better to live the contradictions than to come to a premature resolution.
Resist the temptation to start by making a big decision that will change everything in one fell swoop. Use a strategy of small wins, in which incremental gains lead you to more profound changes in the basic assumptions that define your work and life. Accept the crooked path.
Identify projects that can help you get a feel for a new line of work or style of working. Try to do these as extracurricular activities or parallel paths so that you can experiment seriously without making a commitment.
Don't just focus on the work. Find people who are what you want to be and who can provide support for the transition. But don't expect to find them in your same old social circles.
Don't wait for a cataclysmic moment when the truth is revealed. Use everyday occurrences to find meaning in the changes you are going through. Practice telling and retelling your story. Over time, it will clarify.
Step back. But not for too long.
Change happens in bursts and starts. There are times when you are open to big change and times when you are not. Seize opportunities.
This whole process is essentially about iterating your identity and your career at the same time.
This diagram sums it up nicely from a book summary:
The book had a big impact on me and is a great read - I’d highly recommend it. But the book was published in 2003 and the internet is kind of invisible throughout the book…
Writing on the internet is deeply transformative
“Writing on the internet” aka blogging has been one of the most impactful things I’ve done for my career. Not just for the opportunities that it’s created - but for the identities I’ve experimented with…
It turns out that blogging is a perfect approach to navigating careers in the way Herminia describes. Specifically - I want to focus on points 1,2 & 6 above:
1. Act your way into a new way of thinking and being.
2. Focus your attention on which of your many possible selves you want to test and learn more about
6. Find people who are what you want to be and who can provide support for the transition. But don't expect to find them in your same old social circles.
Writing is an exceptional (low cost, low stakes) way to bridge your current identity and many possible future identities. Not only through acting your way into a new way of thinking but also attracting and connecting with new kinds of contacts and new networks.
Every blog post is an opportunity to experiment with new identities and new networks.
Choosing the right role models
I’ve heard from a lot of people over the years that the reason they don’t blog is because they’re afraid of becoming one of those people. They’re afraid of posturing and arrogance. They’re afraid of absolutes.
Unfortunately the SEO industry is crawling with low quality blogs. Websites promising your get rich quick schemes with pop-ups and ebooks and, and…
How do you create a blog and write online with integrity?
I wrote a post called “small b blogging” a few years ago that’s one of my favorites that I’ll quote from:
So what is big B blogging? I’d contend that too much of what you read on the web is written for large audiences. Too much content on the web is designed for scale, for sharing, for gloss and finish. It’s mass media, whether it’s made by a media company or an individual acting like one. So when people think of blogging their natural reference point is to try and create something that looks like the mass media they’re consuming. Content designed for pageviews and scale.
This is why it’s appealing to people writing on the web to get it in a prestigious publication, or place it somewhere with an in-built audience. i.e. Medium, Inc, Entrepreneur, Fast Company etc.
It’s so alluring to want to write something there because you’ll get more page views than if you put it on your own site and you’ll get the prestige of saying you were published in Fast Company (or, or, etc).
But what is lost by following big B blogging? By chasing an audience we lose the ability to be ourselves. By writing for everyone we write for no one. Too often I read things otherwise smart people have written for places like Fast Company and my eyes glaze over. Personal identity is necessarily watered down. Yes those places have large audiences but they’re shallow audiences. They don’t care about you at all. Your writing washes through their feeds like water.
Instead - I think most people would be better served by subscribing to small b blogging. What you want is something with YOUR personality. Writing and ideas that are addressable (i.e. you can find and link to them easily in the future) and archived (i.e. you have a list of things you’ve written all in one place rather than spread across publications and URLs) and memorable (i.e. has your own design, logo or style). Writing that can live and breathe in small networks. Scale be damned.
When you write for someone else’s publication your writing becomes disparate and UN-networked. By chasing scale and pageviews you lose identity and the ability to create meaningful, memorable connections within the network.
Read the whole post here: small b blogging.
Small b blogging is a philosophy of keeping things weird - of writing things you want to read. Inquiry over insight. Punk over polish.
And it’s a great way to create more meaningful connections.
Viewed through the lens of Herminia’s framework it really becomes a manifesto for identity and career change. Blogging as a way of navigating through uncertainty - of experimenting with who we want to be in an age when networks are how we find jobs and how jobs find us.
So if you’re uncertain about your next career move or don’t like the look of all the jobs you’re “supposed” to apply for then perhaps the move is to try out some new identities in writing…
When you get your blog off the ground send me an email, I want to read it, but only if it’s weird.
Thank you for this piece, and I'm taking your advice to heart Tom. I am starting my blog, and I will come back here with the link when I do