Why all web developers should learn SEO

Ian Lurie

When I wrote Why all SEOs should learn to program lots of people sent me compliments and praise. That was fun.

Now time for the hate, I suspect.

If SEOs need to learn to program, then web developers need to learn SEO.

Scream if you want. You can reach me on Twitter at @portentint.

Who this is for

If you build web sites that the public sees, then this is for you. If you build stuff that’s hidden behind forms and firewalls, or for Target Stores, this probably won’t help you a bit.

Learn SEO because:

It will make you a better developer

Truly future-proof SEO isn’t about spamming search engines. It’s about:

  • Clean canonicalization practices;
  • Accessibility—ensuring 100% visibility of appropriate content to web users and search engines;
  • Building fast sites;
  • RESTful URLs;
  • Smart information architecture, supported by equally smart database design;
  • Security—not letting casual browsers and search engines find stuff they shouldn’t.


A lot of that sounds like good development, too.

I know you’re not causing any SEO problems. But I still see lots of sites:

  • Linking back to the home page at ‘default.aspx’;
  • Loading pages in over 10 seconds;
  • Using AJAX as search engine repellent;
  • Presenting information structures that look like steel wool after 2 hours in a microwave.

Clearly it’s not you, but someone’s up to no good. Read the rest of this article and then check the guy you share a PC with.

It will help you understand why SEOs are such a pain

SEO is a huge list of things that are simple, but not easy. It’s an endless list of to-do items. Every one of them is a no-brainer if you’re a decent developer, and if you do them ahead of time.

Once the site launches, or that new feature goes live, fixing SEO problems gets tougher. You won’t have time. Your manager, who thinks SEOs are idiots, will run them around like headless chickens. Or something else. I know from painful personal experience that, post launch, there are always 10 reasons that a change to one line of code has to wait for at least six weeks.

On the other hand, 85% of your site’s search-driven clicks will come from organic search results. And a huge chunk of your site’s traffic will come from search. Screw up SEO, screw over the entire business.

That’s why we’re such a pain. This stuff is really important. And it’s easy for you, but really hard for everyone else.

It will teach you marketing, without giving you marketing cooties

SEOs that don’t suck are likely very similar to you. We’re geeky, creative and like building cool stuff. We like to win. And we want to eventually buy expensive cars and sailboats.

We’re also marketers. We learn stuff like personas, competitive analysis, that kind of thing.

If you want to talk to a marketer who won’t infect you with some horrific virus that makes you use terms like ‘engagement’ and ‘roll rate’ and (God forbid) ‘ROI’, talk to an SEO.

It’ll save you a lot of time. And misery.

At some point, your CEO is going to use Google to search for the products you sell. Then, she’s going to storm into the VP of Marketing’s office and say:

“Why the f—k don’t we rank for ‘briefcases’?!”

The VP of Marketing just started last week and knows his last 3 predecessors had a tenure of 1 year. Total. So he sas the only logical thing:

“The development team screwed up the site!”

Then the CEO will storm over to the VP of Development. But he has a ready answer:

“It wasn’t in the specification.”

That will lead the CEO back to the VP of Marketing, who will then hire an SEO consultant in hopes of saving his job.

The SEO consultant will draw up a huge list. Huge means 50-100 fundamental changes to your site.

That will lead to a meeting where you, the VP of Development, the VP of Marketing and the CEO confront the SEO while all trying to blame each other for the utter sack of SEO crap your site has become.

And, finally, you’ll have to work nights and weekends. Because the VP of Marketing’s job is in jeopardy. He’s kicking as much blame as possible to the VP of Development. That wouldn’t matter, except the VP of Marketing did some of this kicking in the last board meeting. So now the VP of Development’s job is in jeopardy. That really pisses him off. He’s made it clear your life will be a living hell.

Or, you can learn SEO basics, develop for them from the start, and make everyone happy. Your nights and weekends are saved!

Works for me, either way

I’m happy regardless. If you continue to treat SEO like a fungal infection, I’ll continue to get hired for lots of money to point out why the web site is a failure. If you build sites with at least a little SEO in mind, though, I get to concentrate on moving up in the rankings, instead of moving into them.

Your call.

Where to start

If you want to learn a little SEO, read this blog, or the SEOMOZ blog. They have a superb cheat sheet for developers, as well as a best practices guide. I rant about the last maddening mistake I saw, and sometimes post tutorials like this one.

Other stuff

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at www.ianlurie.com

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  1. Too true!
    I often compare SEO consulting assignments to going on a blind date with engineers. Some you click with instantly, but some have already decided you’re a jerk before you even show up.
    Having a basic understanding of SEO can go a long way to making these dates more productive and enjoyable.

  2. This article really helped me to put the ‘SEO’s should learn to program’ post into perspective. In both cases if you had said ‘X needs to understand and have some comprehension of Y’ I think I would have agreed completely. However to say ‘X needs to learn Y’ suggests that Devs should be able to do SEO without using an SEO professional and vice versa, and I’m pretty sure we have all seen the mess that happens when a professional in one industry pretends to be a professional in another.
    In programming especially I liken this to my understanding of french, I can order from a menu and read some road signs, enough to get along, but don’t ask me to converse…that’s pretty much my comprehension level of programming too

  3. absolutely! I hire my programmers based on their SEO experience.
    It pretty much should be a prerequisite for a higher-waged developer. These days it seems anyone can pick up a book and learn how to toss up a website. But with so many options for decent designers, they’ve got to realize SEO knowledge will be a huge factor in hireability going forward.
    Right on Ian, another great post!

  4. Yea, because even a “decent” web developer doesn’t have enough on their plate in order to keep up with in an ever-evolving IT world, having to design for mobile, cross platform, cross browser, designing for usability, information architecture, and keeping up with all of the latest trends in everything else… Now lets talk about programmers that are also involved in the aspect of designing and developing the web front end. Their responsibilities are even more extensive. I agree that it doesn’t hurt to understand SEO concepts, but it’s truly the responsibility of the Marketing team to come on board, work side by side with the devs when creating the website, and tell the devs what the business wants to achieve with the website, what kinds of terms they actually hope to rank for, and how to optimize the site for search engines and the kind of organic traffic that marketing wants to achieve. This article hits the nail on the head – SEO is a set of tasks, 50-100 items long, which can help the website rank better in search engines. But, as a web developer, I’m not going to sit back and dream up what the business hopes to rank for, and, more importantly, I should be concerned with the technical solution. How can I design and develop an app which enables the marketing team to publish their content, sell their products, AND allow the marketing team to make SEO changes without having to bug me every time they want to change the title, meta tags, header tags, and site content, so that the marketing and SEO team can do their jobs. The real reason why this doesn’t get done sometimes? Because corporations, in all of their short-sighted wisdom, like to cut budgets in areas they don’t feel are as important up front. Or, because a project is horribly managed, and ends up going over budget, past due, and then cuts are made even in necessary areas of the project just to try to rush it out the door.
    No, a good developer has a lot more to be worried about than learning how to do someone else’s job. It’s the developers job to implement the site according to the business specifications. If the business can’t step up and identify their own business and marketing strategies accordingly, then it’s their own fault.

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