As a search engine optimiser you will come across programming every day in one way or another and while it isn’t a must have skill for a lot of roles, I believe it is essential to be able to program and have a good understanding of programming in general.
Some SEO roles require you to get hands on with the code and make the changes straight away, where as within other roles the actual hands on work is completed by the technical team/department.
Either way here are a few reasons why I believe programming is an essential skill to have.
Improve Working Relationship with Developers
If you can speak the language of the developers then it goes a long way to building trust with them. It is important for developers to feel that the work they are doing is contributing to the wider business objectives, so by being able to speak in technical terms means you can bridge that gap between business requirements and technical implementations. I am not saying everyone needs to be an expert programmer or website developer but it is important to understand how things work.
If you don’t understand how things work then how can you go about making things better?
Working on several large scale multi-national travel websites has taught me that changes to the site are much easier to make once you understand how the site has been built. If you want to change the H1 or Meta Title on a selection of pages, then if you understand that the pages are built based on templates then this can help you devise a solution with the development team which allows you to make the required changes. Possibly some kind of mini content management system would be useful?
Understanding how to program also means that you don’t go asking for changes that are either impossible to achieve, that take a long time to implement and provide little or no return on investment.
For technical people, getting things right first time and developing code properly is what drives them. For non-technical people, they are at the opposite end of the spectrum and are only interested in the end product. To achieve a successful product it is important for all parties to work together and ensure that code is developed in a robust way and in a way that meets the original specification.
Whether you lean a bit of Java, PHP, C# or ASP.Net, it doesn’t matter since it gives you an understanding of how things work. It will help you have a real conversation about a technical problem and enable you to understand why seemingly simple changes can actually take a few days work. On the plus side, learning to program is fun too!
Ability to use Macros in Excel
If you can program, then you will soon be able to pick up the programming language in Excel, VBA (Visual Basic for Applications). With this you can quickly develop tools which will make your job and your life much easier by automating the regular tasks or pulling in the required information quickly.
There are alternatives to using Macros in Excel, such as using Microsoft Access, but my preferred method is still traditional programming as it offers much more flexibility since you can integrate this information within a database.
As a search engine optimiser I have no doubt that at some point in your career you have needed to scrape a lot of information from a certain website. Weather that be for price comparison, scraping data from the HTML or just playing around for fun. Website scraping can be done at a basic level using tools such as SEO Tools for Excel, but if you want the more juicy data then you really want to be able to put this into a database and either use on your own website or use it for further research.
To Spot The Rodney McKay
If you don’t anything about programming then when you get told by the technical team that something can’t be done because “the CSS file is located on an external server” you will have no knowledge to be able to question what has been said. You will find a Rodney McKay in every organisation who will say everything is impossible to fix, so they seem like a savior when they solve the problem that didn’t really exist in the first place!
Knowing your onions and being able to question things is extremely important.
Using APIs For Extra Data
There is a lot of data analysis within the SEO industry and some of this can include pulling in data from external sources such as Open Site Explorer via their API, Application Programming Interface. Some other APIs that you will no doubt use at some point will be the free Google APIs.
APIs can be an extremely powerful tool to use when joining bits of information together and connecting online applications and will certainly help your normal SEO efforts by taking the manual work out of things.
Take what you will from this long winded rant about programming, but I can strongly suggest learning to program and learning more about how ecommerce websites work in general. All of this knowledge is never lost and it will help you bridge the gap between marketing, external demand (ie search volumes on Google) and the technical team.