Building a T-Shaped Web Marketing Skill Set

As Google have refined their algorithms to encompass a broader set of authority and user experience signals beyond just links, crawlability and relevance and have found methods to destroy the effectiveness of scalable manipulation, forward-thinking SEOs have evolved their skill sets ahead of the curve of these innovations.

Everyone else has had at least one “oh sh*t” moment.

Being an outcome-focused industry, we’ve been in a constant state of adaptation to the search ecosystem. “Whatever it takes to build rankings and traffic” has been a moving target.

This Ain’t Your Daddy’s SEO

Heading into 2013, Post-Penguin, most SEOs have embraced the notion of delivering marketing strategies, not just SEO tactics, and as an industry we’re starting to recognize that these strategies deliver multi-pronged benefits across multiple channels.

We’ve gone from keyword research, content optimization and link building to audience research, content marketing and PR/outreach. And on-page/technical SEO is important as ever, with added complexities and opportunities like structured data and authorship. What was once a relatively basic and limited set of deliverables and disciplines has expanded at a good clip.

How Broad Can We Get?

In a recent Whiteboard Friday, Rand included his proposed list of “what should be included in the SEO’s job:”
  • UI/UX
  • Speed
  • Accessibility/Responsive Design
  • Content Strategy
  • Branding
  • Press & PR
  • “Classic SEO” (keywords, links, URLs, etc)
  • Hundreds of other things...
Assuming “Classic SEO” sums up an SEO’s responsibility ~10 years ago, things have gotten complicated.

You Can’t Master Everything

My second SEO job was for a small web design agency who dabbled in a few* other services. I will never forget the back of our business cards.
Providing excellence in: [list of 50+ on and offline marketing services].

* OK it was more than a few.

How could a team of five people provide “excellence” across fifty diverse services? It isn’t plausible. It’s laughable.

Likewise, how can SEOs claim all of the above as our domain? (Hint: we can’t.) Try declaring ownership of every one of Rand’s diverse set of disciplines, and you’ll get pushback and little respect from clients and stakeholders.

That said, without cross-discipline understanding you’ll run into that old “forest for the trees” thing. 

And if all of the above influences SEO (what we’ve been hired, what we’ve promised, to improve), what do we do?

We cultivate T-shaped skill sets.

A concept championed by global design consultancy IDEO’s Tim Brown, the T-shaped individual has “a depth of skill that allows them to contribute” as well as “the disposition for collaboration across disciplines.” (Source)

I-shaped individuals, who may be rock stars in their expertise, haven’t build basic competence across disciplines. As a result, they need to stay in their wheelhouses or risk the failure to deliver value when they stray. They also have a hard time building value in a team environment.

Generalists (T’s without legs to stand on) don’t earn respect from experts, and that means lack of support and pushback on initiatives.

T-shaped individuals can tackle diverse projects with creativity and agility while maintaining high effectiveness - because they know enough to implement the knowledge of experts and know when to bring them to the table.

1. Find Your Focus and Dive Deep

Accepting that we can’t achieve mastery across a breadth of skill and knowledge sets, we need specialize and cultivate deep knowledge in one discipline. Else we risk being generalists (people for whom those with deep expertise have a hard time building respect).

We may never get to the point of renowned expertise in this area, but the more experience we accumulate with solving a given set of problems, the more knowledge we gain into a specific technology or methodology, the more valuable we become to our colleagues, the more authority we amass.

When SEOmoz decided to add local SEO to their solution set, David Mihm got the call. They didn’t just acquire the technology, they asked David to stay on and help them build out their content and software around this pervasive and difficult set of problems. And it wasn’t because he’s built basic competence in local SEO, but because he’s a recognized expert on the topic.

2. Develop Cross-Discipline Competence

The utility of knowledge is relative to the problem at hand. You don’t need to be a level 10 expert to carry things forward. It’s more important to recognize when and where deeper expertise is needed and have the wherewithal to bring it to bear on your projects.

We stand on the shoulders of giants. The web is a vast library of knowledge and tools, instantly accessible, served up by people who dive deep into topics, build solutions and share them with the world (often free of charge). The ability to adapt and adopt where you can’t build is key.

Tim Ferris thinks being a “jack of all trades” is a good thing. I might not agree this is true for all of us (where would we be without the masters?), but his spirited approach to figuring out how things work efficiently, leveraging the knowledge of experts, is precisely right for building competence across disciplines.

Sometimes this need only goes as far as being able to “talk the game.” The ability to sell clients and stakeholders on the importance of a given problem/opportunity is often more important than ability to deliver the work yourself. Where there is perceived value, resources are available to bring the right people and technology into the fray.

3. Build a Team/Network To Shore Up Your Weak Points

It helps to have a ready network of people with deep expertise complementary to your own, who you can involve in your projects from the outset or at least call in when a problem arises that they’re uniquely suited to solve.

My confidence in Distilled isn’t derived from some “secret sauce” or proprietary technology we’ve got churning behind the scenes. It comes from knowing we have people with deep expertise across a wide set of related disciplines, who stand ready and willing to help plan projects, brainstorm ideas and solve difficult problems.

When it comes to Video SEO, Phil is top notch. For deep technical issues and tools/hacks, Tom is at the top of the game. Rob is an operational powerhouse and an expert in SEO for AJAX. Mark owns creative. Adria is our in-house outreach guru.

For agencies, this is not just about recruiting and attracting T-shaped individuals covering a range of related disciplines, but building processes and assets that support collaboration between them. For individuals and in-house folks without a lot of internal support, it’s about cultivating a network of specialists you can turn to when a project fits.

How has a T-shaped skill set helped you make things happen?