How do we rid the SEO industry of the scourge of underconfidence?

The SEO industry is a hopeful, accommodating and fun industry to work in, but under confidence is an issue affecting many SEO executives and consultants starting out in their careers. What can be done to rid the industry of this under confidence?

Representation of underconfidence as an image
Brendan Gilbert
Brendan Gilbert
September 4, 2023

There is a huge problem, or even crisis, of underconfidence among those at the forefront of the SEO industry - the SEO specialists, executives and consultants.

I know from first hand experience of leading one of the best SEO teams in the UK, and talking to countless others in the industry that these talented, clever people are getting sucked into a trap that I myself fell into a few years ago too.

A study by Kirsty Hulse at Roar! Training suggests only 4% of workers feel fully confident in the workplace, and I’m betting that’s no different in the SEO industry either.

You just have to search Google for SEO industry advice and the SERPs show endless articles about “How to overcome imposter syndrome?”

A recent study by Harmony Huskinson published on Search Engine Land suggested up to 90% of those in the SEO industry have experienced imposter syndrome.

But a common misconception is underconfidence and imposter syndrome are the same issue, they do intertwine with each other but they are different.

Imposter syndrome takes the headlines but I believe underconfidence is the root cause, and the bigger challenge for the SEO industry as a whole.

Imposter syndrome is what we think about ourselves. Underconfidence is about what we can or can’t do, what we know and don’t know.

Imposter syndrome affects anyone at any level, but underconfidence is a growing issue amongst newer members in the community, who come in and want to know everything before they start work.

But I don’t think we make it easy for someone starting out in the industry.

Don’t get me wrong, there aren’t many industries that share knowledge, theories and advice so readily and freely through many superb conferences, Slack groups and social media conversations - This is a real plus point of the SEO community and should be celebrated.

I just don’t think it's aimed at those starting out fresh into SEO.

This underconfidence manifests in contrasting ways - some want to know everything about every facet of SEO before they implement anything, meaning projects stall, clients get itchy and then through inaction, the executive or consultant now has work to do to placate the clients and get work on track. Now the pressure is on and the stress and anxiety builds.  

Indeed I’ve seen many of the best consultants spend all their time devising the greatest, most in-depth strategies for clients, but have no results from actual implementation to show for it. This starts to panic clients who are being ‘shown the world’ but not seeing any results, building distrust into the relationship and fuelling everyone’s stress further.

On LinkedIn, thought leaders like Steven Bartlett of The Diary of a CEO talk about this issue often, with Steven posting recently: “You’ll never be ready. Stop waiting for the ‘perfect’ moment and start DOING.”

Others stick to their lane of knowledge and miss on opportunities to boost growth for clients. So if an executive is not confident on content strategy, they may focus on technical SEO fixes for their clients which provide average results, knowing that potentially there is far greater business impact by boosting content on site.

Teams suffer too as underconfident SEOs may not wish to share ideas in meetings that are potentially brilliant.

This inertia of action is limiting for the consultant, the client and the industry as a whole - a negative spiral of effects that may actually be caused by an industry that is on the whole hopeful, positive, accommodating and fun. How can this be?

What are the potential causes?

As an industry, SEO is still very young, and most experienced practitioners are older than the discipline itself, yet it goes through constant transformation in styles and theories. Indeed, many have professed the downfall of SEO for almost as long. I can go on LinkedIn everyday and ‘experts’ are exclaiming to one and all that SEO is dead.

The nature of SEO

SEO is an evolving, agile beast and frankly, no one has all the answers. I’ll say it again, no one has all the answers, because we can’t know all the answers - Google doesn’t give anyone a complete, all-access guide on their algorithms.

We know through trial and error, the main frameworks that lead to organic success and that the fundamental core principles of SEO haven’t changed in all that time.

There are so many variables at play too - it is impossible to know and consider all the possible options at your disposal.

Social media and the danger of comparisons

We get fed all the success stories and none of the failures, mistakes and issues that SEO’s encountered on the long road to success.

Sidenote: That’s why Harry and I started Building, our podcast that offers a transparent look at our journey of building and scaling TwelveTwentyFive.

All of this noise distracts and can dilute the fundamental message that SEO, once you know the basic concepts is actually pretty simple.

As a young industry, SEO is often seen as an exciting career proposition for young people fresh out of education and the perception on social media feeds notions of overnight success, of SEOs knowing everything and the most complex solutions delivering outsized results.

The SEO industry knows how to #humblebrag.

These posts attract people into the world of SEO, but it can also break them when they stumble and hit a wall in trying to deliver successful organic strategies for their clients. “Mistakes weren’t advertised when I signed up” and these lessons can deflate new executives and start to make their development journey appear that much longer.

This crafted perception also drives levels of hero worship for top SEO thought leaders. Go to a conference and junior SEOs are clamouring for pictures with the likes of Rand Fishkin, John Mueller and more.

Before I get accused of criticism, in no way am I laying blame on anyone’s doorstep. I also admire those same thought leaders, and indeed learned much of what I know from resources like Moz’s Whiteboard Fridays.

But I can see why people start to compare themselves negatively against the heavyweights at the top of the ‘visible’ side of the industry.

I’ve also seen it with those exceptional SEOs leaders who don’t post on socials or speak at events. Their knowledge and experience in-house and at agencies can be intimidating for juniors and highlight a gulf in knowledge levels…

“I’ll never know as much as them.”

These newcomers are falling into a trap of comparing themselves to others and writing themselves off, without considering what the others have been through to get to where they are - the painstaking years of work, the multitude of mistakes they learnt from and perhaps their own battles with confidence.

I speak from personal experience too. A few year’s back, I became so disillusioned with SEO, my confidence was at an all time low, and it just felt like ridiculously hard work. I was ready to quit my career and hotfoot it up to the Scottish Highlands to live out my days in a shepherd’s bothy… But I overcame that temporary period and haven’t looked back since.

How have I changed my mindset? I come on to some advice later in this article.

Mindsets of different generations

I believe it is a generational mindset too. New generations come in and want an almost fast-tracked approach to success in the form of a ‘how-to’ or ‘road map’. SEO is not black and white - it is grey and will always be a theoretical coliseum of ideas.

Without a more tickbox style approach, there are more unknowns, so people don’t know where they stand and can’t visualise their progress leading to uncertainty that manifests itself in under confidence.

Take Gen Z SEOs, can provide countless fresh viewpoints and ideas, having been the first generation to grow up entirely in the digital age, and they should be trusted to do that in their own way, but under confidence is causing untold anxiety and stress at a time we know Gen Z value mental health and wellbeing above most other drivers.

Generational differences are not talked about enough in the industry and we can see different generations prioritise their drivers in diverse ways. Are we adapting to them in diverse ways too?

How do we help SEOs become more confident?

Advice for consultants

I think the biggest way to break through with confidence levels is to just get started - Once you know the fundamentals of SEO, go for it. I am a firm believer of learning by doing. The greatest lessons always come from mistakes. If you don’t allow yourself to make mistakes, you’ll never learn to be an effective SEO.

A key example here personally, is I learnt how to use and craft Google Data Studio / Looker Studio reports by just playing around for hours and building reports. I just got started and taught myself how to do it. I was treated as the in-house Data Studio expert, so would be inundated with questions on fixing report issues.

I’d sit down with others and show them my process for fixing issues and it was very simple - try different things until the problem fixed itself - loads of trial and error. You don’t have to know much to do that, you just have to get started and do it, and I was seen as an expert!

Also theory is great, learning the ins and outs of each minute technical element may make you feel confident as you ‘know’ everything but if it's not applicable to your clients, what’s the point?

Many of the elaborate technical examples thrown out on socials apply to particular, often massive, websites and for most junior SEOs, the level of technical SEO work needed on the sites they work on, is far less. The ultimate aim is to prioritise business impact for your clients, and often it's a core of SEO tasks that will make the most difference.

A key skill to building confidence is knowing how to find information. You don’t need to know everything about all facets of SEO. You just need to understand the context and know how to find examples and advice that fits what you need to do.If juniors are looking for more black and white approaches to understanding their knowledge gaps - there are loads of insightful resources that can help, but one of the best to help give that clarity is the SEO MBA SEO Skills Maturity Matrix. But again, matrixes like this aren’t exhaustive and it's not something you can ever ‘complete’.

Also, bear in mind the simple truth - Confidence will grow with time, work and more experience.

How the SEO industry could help build confidence in SEOs

Circling back to SEO’s being great humble braggers. That’s great and promotes positive inspiration, but we also need to be transparent and share the mistakes, errors and nightmares. Crucially, we need to show how we responded to those mistakes - perfect for junior SEOs to understand both mistakes happen, and how to respond to issues without taking a confidence hit.

With broadcasted SEO case studies and solutions, they are often mind blowingly clever but complex and time consuming. Even for me, with years of experience, I often see posts like this and think wow, that is clever. (Sharply followed with ‘Why?’)

We need to show newer consultants how to build their critical thinking, focus on the business goals of their clients and understand mental models like Occam’s Razor, where the simplest explanation is most likely the right one. 

We need to help SEO consultants understand their knowledge gaps and help them get comfortable with them. They need to understand EVERY SEO has knowledge gaps. See the above note about the SEO MBA Skills Matrix.

We could provide better focus to SEOs during reviews and 1 to 1s. If they have strengths, build on them and help those specialists become experts in niche areas. So instead of trying to learn everything to do with SEO, learn one key area to an absolute expert level, be it site migrations, Javascript, or say by sector such as eCommerce or recruitment agencies.
We should also celebrate that everyone in the industry is different and let newer SEO’s do things in their own way, or as we like to say at TwelveTwentyFive, “Swing your swing” in this exciting and very human game we call SEO.

What are your thoughts on underconfidence in the SEO industry? Am I barking up the wrong tree, or are you also seeing the effects of underconfidence when you work?


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