When I started at Distilled almost two years ago I had exactly zero real-world business consulting experience. What I did have, though was a portfolio of personal web development projects of which I was the sole proprietor, creator and webmaster. While some of these ventures were more successful than others the experience, understanding and scrappy marketing tricks I picked up along the way have continued to serve me well throughout my tenure here at Distilled.
Now you're probably taking a second glance at the title of this article and thinking: "So is this just 1200 words of Jacob calling himself 'great' again?" The following is simply this: In my time working with some of the best consultants in the business I've noticed that many, if not most of us dabble in our own web projects if and when we have the time. Moving from Webmaster to Web Consultant is just one of several paths that can produce high quality SEO team members. This just happens to be the path I'm intimately familiar with so I'd like to share some of the qualities I've recognized in myself and those around me that I continue to find useful month after month.
Webmasters are Jacks & Jills of All Trades
Site owners wear a preposterous number of hats. They are simultaneously Editor in Chief, Director of Marketing, Chief Engineer, Database Administrator, Head of Design, Senior SEO and CFO all at once. Those reading this article who currently hold just one of these titles may not appreciate the interconnectedness of each as well as a webmaster who has at one time or another, worn them all.
This ability to zoom out and really understand the entire picture gives a web marketer the ability to not only dig up the correct answers but to know which questions to ask in the first place. Perhaps you're trying to weigh the effectiveness of your Facebook fan page. One proficient in social media may look at the number of fans gained over time. An analytics geek may look at the number of referrals from Facebook to the domain.
But a consultant with the ability to put on several different hats at once could think to connect AdSense to Analytics, create an advanced segment combining Facebook.com and m.Facebook.com, and run a report showing how much revenue each share brought in per content type. And further still that same person could pivot to their Editor in Chief hat to decide which content to produce specifically for Facebook shares. All within the same mind: no unnecessary emails between various hat-wearers, no hesitation.
So the question in the above scenario might have started as "Is Facebook worth the effort?" when a better question from an all-hats-wearing webmaster might be "What sort of content could I (or do I currently) create that is effective on Facebook?".
Of course it's not as though the social media expert or GA geek couldn't have reached the same conclusions but this sort of mental ubiquity comes naturally to the seasoned webmaster. The ability to understand all of the complicated moving parts of a website's biology without having to defer to various experts can bring light to opportunities that would have otherwise been missed.
We all shell out the mega-bucks for our database engineers and our directors of social media and their perspectives are certainly important. But don't forget about Jack & Jill who, while perhaps aren't technically "masters" of one specific trade, nevertheless have the ability to effectively comprehend the entire machine as a whole because of their diverse skill set.
Webmasters Expect Infinite Agility
The internet marketing world likes to talk big about agility or "the ability to get shit done like... yesterday". Site owners are used to things happening almost instantly. Want to tweak a title tag? Give me 30 seconds. Time to create a page targeted at some new, lucrative keywords you just discovered? I'll be done before lunch. No committees, no bureaucracies, no garnering company-wide "buy-ins". As long as you can convince yourself of the investment: consider it done. This is what I'd call: infinite agility.
Most companies simply cannot function in this manner and probably shouldn't. The "Jack of All Trades" is often no substitute for a true master of a single trade for certain problems. But as a consultant it's often helpful to have that "pedal to the floor" mentality, I think. Our clients expect results in a timely manner and my experience as a webmaster puts me firmly into that "Why not right now?" mindset at all times, naturally.
The Power of Physical Experience
Everyone learns differently. But for my money nothing cements the importance of a properly configured robots.txt file like an improperly configured robots.txt file on your own server. Having your own, physical encounter with a robots.txt file allows you to speak intelligently about it and to provide the necessary details needed to make sure the job gets done for your clients. Heck, you could even write it yourself as opposed to forwarding the latest "How To" blog post on the subject.
You can read a blog post or three on "How to Set Up Google Authorship" or even write an article about it yourself. But if you lack the actual experience of having set this up it's much harder to troubleshoot the issue when they're not showing up two months later.
Ultimately experience is the difference between knowledge and wisdom. All of the Whiteboard Fridays in the world won't make up for it.
Many Webmasters Deserve an Honorary Degree in Marketing
The key to marketing in any medium is understanding what your audience wants and fulfilling that. As a webmaster you're forced to get down and dirty with that audience. You're responding to tweets, replying to blog comments, organizing writers and generally very much in touch with your average user. Those seemingly insignificant interactions with your Twitter followers day after day could help decide which piece of content to focus on next. I've had several wildly successful content and page ideas emerge from simple conversations with real readers. Sometimes these fleeting details can get lost in a game of email "telephone" between colleagues. An experienced webmaster knows how to put it all together.
Sadly though, it seems that the fancier a marketer's title gets, the less in touch they seem to be with their audience as they inevitably shed their responsibilities that include having actual "boots on the ground". I think a webmaster is less prone to commit this critical fallacy as he or she has seen the benefit of delivering what their audience wants first hand.
Reassurance Through Technical Competence
One of the most nerve wracking moments in any webmaster's career are those pesky server software updates that need doing periodically. You know they must be done for the good of the realm but nevertheless; your hand trembles, hovering over the "Upgrade to WordPress version 3.X" button knowing that this could be the beginning of a long, painful night with a broken website. Only a fellow webmaster can truly understand this primal fear. This perspective allows a consultant to empathize with their client's similar technical conundrums.
A good web consultant will tell you to make that CMS/Apache/PHP 5 update soon. A great web consultant has the ability and experience to actually become part of the team, giving specific technical recommendations and offering to order the pizza when things go awry as they sometimes do.
Those are just a few of the more basic webmaster traits that have come in handy as a consultant. I'm sure many of you reading this now have varying levels of hands-on webmastering experience. Please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.