What Programming Is Teaching Me About SEO and Life

Screencap of HTML

Even if you have zero interest in programming or SEO, I’m convinced you’re going to be glad you decided to read this blog post.

And to make it a total no-brainer for you, I’m offering a 100% money back guarantee.  Sound good?  Keep reading.

Hello, I’m David and I’m a wanna-be geek

Sometime around Y2K, I decided to take an online class in HTML from the local college. When I learned HTML, it was ALL CAPS and the best-possible way to position page elements was using tables. Coders ought to get a chuckle out of that.

I thought I’d enjoy switching over to a career in web design because I’d had a lot of fun doing artsy types of things when I was younger and considered myself to be fairly creative.

But it turned out I sucked at web design, which was pretty deflating because I was sure I was going to be really good at it.

Over the ensuing years I’d mess around making crappy websites for myself just for grins and giggles – nothing serious, just flirting.

When I developed an unexpected, serious interest in SEO in 2008, I figured my background in HTML would come in handy – I could make my own sites and save on web designer bills – so I made some more crappy-looking websites.  I wanted to see if I could get them ranking highly, sell a bunch of stuff, and do that whole “get rich on the Internet” thing.

Seemed like a good idea at the time.

After much studying, trial and error (mostly error), I did end up ranking some websites on the first page and even #1 for some keywords. I was pretty proud of myself despite the emotional roller coaster ride of watching rankings fluctuate.

This is when I first realized that high rankings do not equal traffic or conversions (or getting rich) and I figured it was because ugly sites were probably scaring people away.

A web designer friend of mine, after she got up off the floor laughing at one of my sites, turned me on to WordPress – which showed me how to create far better-looking sites than my DreamWeaver-created train wrecks.

How to master programing in one simple step


Or better put, be prepared to fail… A LOT.

As I got into WordPress, I discovered that there was this thing called “PHP;” it was like the Wizard of Oz – making magic happen behind the scenes.  I wanted to know more about this thing.

So PHP is technically not a programming language because it doesn’t require compiling – it’s a scripting language – but stay with me here.

I hired a PHP programmer from my previous job to tutor me in PHP after work one night a week; for me it was like trying to learn Chinese – I was completely lost.

You see, my biggest mistake was thinking that I needed to learn PHP before I could do PHP.

Wait for all the traffic lights to be green before getting on the road

…And you’ll never go anywhere.

Road trips can be fun, and yes it’s good to have an idea of where you’re going and how to get there – but inevitably wherever you go you’ll have to deal with red lights, detours, or even road closures.

You don’t learn programming and then do it. You do programming and learn along the way.

The 5 Step Formula to Succeed at Anything

Sometimes it seems like I’m doomed in life to learn the same lessons over and over… and over again.

I think the best visual metaphor for our personal or professional development (or any context in life, really) is an upward spiral: you come around to and revisit the same things again, but from a higher level because you have more experience.

It’s the cumulative experience and upward movement that keeps us from chasing our tails – because if we’re not learning from our mistakes then we really are just running in circles.

When I wanted to learn SEO, I applied a process I’d learned some years before:

  1. Know your outcome
  2. Have a good strategy
  3. Take consistent action
  4. Observe the results of your actions
  5. Be flexible and make adjustments

The unspoken 6th step is “don’t quit,” by the way.

When it came to actually learning SEO, I figured why reinvent the wheel when I could just find an expert and discover what they knew? Shortcut to bigger bank accounts, here I come!

Amusing musings over presumptuous assumptions

Remember step two of the 5 Step Success Formula? Well, if someone else has already done it, why not copy that person’s success strategy?

I just needed to find someone who had The Secret Bag of SEO Magic Fairy Dust – then all I’d have to do is sprinkle it onto my websites and watch my bank balance grow like flowers in the springtime.

Just follow their recipe, right?

The flaw in that logic is there is no one-right-path, magic bullet to SEO success or winning at online marketing. There is no recipe for making the perfect SEO soufflé.

But I think there is a prevalent belief out there that looks something like this:

My website + SEO = Buckets of (fast & easy) cash

But SEO is not a “one and done” situation; just like you don’t go to the gym once and achieve all your fitness goals, you don’t “do some SEO to your site” and emerge victorious. Heck, even when you do achieve all your fitness goals at the gym, what happens if you stop exercising?

Sad Fairy

You must DIY

The ice cream diet: How’d that sound the first time you heard it? I bet you were skeptical, but also intrigued! Imagine skipping the gym for the ice cream store and still losing weight!

I’m no different. I have books with titles like “PHP Crash Course.” I like the sound of that – learn PHP in a single weekend. Yes, I also own “SEO for Dummies.”

But if you want to do PHP or Martial Arts or SEO, you have to be willing to hang in there and grind it out.

You have to go back to debugging your code when you’ve already pulled most of your hair out, and you have to go back to the Dojo when you’re still bruised from the last class. And, you have to make those iterative changes to your site and strategy SEO-wise.

No ships or planes take a straight line directly to their destination. In fact, they’re off course more than they’re on course, often having to adjust for wind, currents, etc. Take a small sailboat out by yourself sometime and try to stay in a straight line to some destination.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t occasionally ask for help:  if I’m hopelessly lost and have tried everything (and I mean everything) then it’s not a bad idea to reach out to others. It’s not a sign of weakness. But if I can figure the issue out for myself, I’ll be better off in the long run because I’ll learn more.

The Zen of Almost Everything

A friend of mine said the other day, “I learn more about myself playing a round golf than I really want to know.”

I can relate. Currently it’s PHP that’s re-teaching me things like humility, patience, and persistence.

I thought I already possessed those traits to some decent degree, but after the fourth time I threw my computer out the window, I realized I’ve still got a ways to go on that front.

Up the spiral we go. If you happen to overhear any sudden outbursts of expletives along the way, it’s probably just somebody trying really, really hard to progress and learn. Don’t hold it against me, er, them.

What about you? What pull-all-your-hair-out experiences are teaching you more than you wanted to know about yourself? What made you say “yeah!” out loud or “hmm” inside your head in what you’ve been reading here?

I can’t wait to hear about it.

Oh, and if you’re looking for that refund, remember this: 100% of zero is still zero.

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  1. David — Do I know you? You just described the last 18 years of my life! 😉
    What has allowed my business to survive is just the attitude you describe. Dive in and do, fail, figure out why and learn. Rinse and repeat!
    For folks like us that’s a challenge and even downright exhilarating — for others pure torture…

  2. David, I feel your pain! So many people seem to do this weird and frustrating journey with SEO and internet marketing.
    I am currently doing a fair bit of failing myself with SEO. I have a site that had staggered up to page 2 rankings for main (and competitive) keyword. I have been very white hat, building quality links slowly, plenty of good content. You get the drift. This week my site has disappeared completely from the rankings.
    I dont know about throwing my laptop out of the window, but the things I would like to do to Google must remain firmly in my head.

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