If You Want to Be a Digital Marketer, Learn Web Development

I ended up in marketing nearly by accident. My plan was always to be a developer—it still is—but I knew I eventually wanted to start a company, and I so I knew that I would at some point need to learn a bunch of other stuff in addition to pure programming: sales, marketing, economics, accounting, business law. So when I was offered a marketing job, despite a work history full of building websites by hand and utterly lacking in anything even containing the letters “SEO”, I took it.

This gave me an interesting background for a marketer, where though I was extremely junior, I understood all the technical jargon that made my coworkers flinch. And looking back, I think my technical background was a boon to me; so much so that I recommend taking at least one beginner web development class to anyone who wants to be a digital marketer.

Why Learn Web Dev?

Knowing web development is so useful for digital marketing because the two are hopelessly intertwined. For example, take the two most important pieces of metadata for SEOs: the meta title and description tags. Knowing where they are in the code, how they show up on the SERP, and how Google indexes them is extremely helpful to use them effectively for on-page SEO. Take another example: it’s all well and good to know by rote that appropriately sized images will make your page load faster, but if you understand the reason—that CSS takes a moment to resize the image, and if you give it an appropriately-sized image, it can prepare it faster—you’ll know exactly how to fix the problem. In general, being able to read the code when you “view source” on a webpage, along with knowing the general architecture of the internet, will help you immensely.

If you’re currently working in marketing or you’re planning to start soon, you may be thinking, “okay, in theory that sounds nice, but I’m already working so hard on marketing itself, and I don’t have time to learn to code – isn’t it super time-consuming and hard?” Fortunately for you, the answer is no, it’s not harder than any other marketing skill – if you have the right resource. And I have the right resource for you right here: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript Web Publishing by Colburn, Kyrnin, and Lemay. This book taught me a majority of what I know about HTML and CSS, which says at least something given my portfolio. It has one oddity: it doesn’t tell you how to actually host your site on the web until chapter 24. You’ll want to read that chapter very early on – probably either right before or right after chapter 1. Getting used to pushing your changes live with FTP is both easy (you can teach it to a 7-year-old) and important. Besides that little quirk, this is one of the best resources I have ever found for HTML/CSS/JS, and definitely the most useful for beginners. It even has a nice section on SEO at the end!

Learn to Use Chrome’s Developer Tools

Besides building your own websites, there is a techie tool that’s also helpful if you’re going into digital marketing: Google Chrome’s Developer Tools (or “DevTools”).

You can access the Developer Tools by clicking the three dots in the top right-hand corner of the Chrome browser, then selecting “More Tools” about 3/4 of the way down the menu, then selecting “Developer Tools” from the bottom of the next menu. The developer tools are a window that pops out from the right-hand side of the screen, and they’ll let you do all sorts of awesome stuff, including seeing in real time in a real browser what would happen if you made certain edits, without ever changing the real source code. You can do this with not only your own website, but with other peoples’ sites, even those which are way more complicated than yours. Here’s a nice tutorial to get you started with Google DevTools.

These tools are very useful for the beginner web developer or digital marketer because they’ll let you toy around with massive, complex sites without having to build those sites from the ground up yourself. I tend to just open the DevTools on random websites and play around with making changes to see what they do. It’s not a systematic process, but it’ll improve your web development skills, and it’ll also be fun. Who said work couldn’t also be play?


Do you agree that digital marketers should learn to code? Do you have more useful tools for beginner web devs (those who are or aren’t marketers by trade)? Let me know in the comments!

How to Write an Article for a Client’s Blog

One avenue of digital marketing that is simultaneously time-consuming and rewarding is writing optimized articles for your clients’ blogs. This is time-consuming not just because writing polished articles takes a while, but because doing it correctly requires significant background knowledge of your client’s industry. Still, there isn’t much that will benefit your clients’ organic search rankings more than well-optimized, relevant, regularly posted blog content.

Do Background Research

In order to get started with this process, you’ll need a significant background of knowledge. What does your client do? What is the problem they solve? How do they solve it differently than their competitors (both those they would name in response to the question “who are your main competitors” and also those who rank higher than they do for their core keywords; otherwise called “named” and “organic” competitors)? Who are their customers? How do those customers use their product or service? What is the jargon in their industry? You’re writing these posts on behalf of your client, so you had better be, if not an expert, at least very knowledgeable about their product, customers, and industry.

Once you have this information and have decided what keywords it would be best for them to rank for, you can do a content gap analysis to see what kinds of topics your client doesn’t have articles or blog posts on that their named and organic competitors do. There are a handful of tools which can do this; my favorite is Ahrefs.

If you work for a marketing agency, you probably already have both of the above pieces of information on file.

Pick a Title

Once you have all the background info, the first step in content writing is to pick a title, topic, and format. These can and should go together: if the title doesn’t clearly tell your readers what the topic and format are, then it’s not that good a title. Reading the title “Top 10 Tips for Painting with Oils”, I expect a bulleted list, possibly with pictures. Reading the title “How to Write an Article for a Client’s Blog”, I expect a medium- to long-form article, or possibly a video, telling me how to write articles for clients’ blogs. By contrast, “Introduction to Programming in Python” is a subpar title because I have absolutely no idea what kind of content I’m getting. That could just as easily be a podcast, an article, a video, or even a book.

Since you can convey all three important aspects of the content with a well-written title, this is what you should present to your client. Once they’ve approved it, you can move on to the next step: running a Clearscope report.

Run a Clearscope Report

Clearscope is perhaps the single most important tool for optimized content writing that there is out there. Given a keyword, it will search that and related terms and scan all the top results for those terms for the most commonly-used keywords and other phrases, then output these results into a report. In the Clearscope report, you’ll find specifics on what competitor articles they found, what rough level of complexity those results have (in terms of a elementary-college grading system), how long the results’ content is in terms of word count, and what keywords they found were most relevant to the one you started with.

But the most important thing that the Clearscope report will give you is a nifty editor, similar to that in a CMS like WordPress, with a list of keywords and phrases on the right-hand side.

You will be using this editor, along with your previous keyword research, to write your content. Clearscope, while useful, is not a substitute for thorough keyword research. Without keyword research, not only do you not know which report to run, you’ll likely miss out on all sorts of great keywords if you use it by itself. All Clearscope gives you is a list of phrases—not keywords, just phrases—that are common in organically competing content. That’s it. So, keep your keyword list on hand next to the Clearscope editor while you write.

Write Awesome Content

At this point, you’ve taken all the measures you need. You know what kind of content your audience probably expects given their query, you know what pages are already ranking for that keyword, and you know how to make up the difference. Now, it’s time to write what Moz calls 10x content: content that’s 10 times better than anything out there right now.

As you write, you’ll notice that Clearscope is politely highlighting relevant phrases you’re including from its list, as well as giving you an updating word count, readability level, and “content grade”. The content grade is based on how many of Clearscope’s relevant phrases you’re using. Its suggested minimum of B- is a bit low for my tastes—I tend to go for A- at a minimum, with most of my content at either A+ or A++— but you should never optimize your Clearscope content grade at the expense of your user experience. After all, your customers will never see the former, but most (if not all) of their knowledge of your company comes from the latter.

Publish It

Now that you have your 10x content with a nice high Clearscope content grade, you’re ready to publish! Before you do, though, make sure you’ve got three pieces of meta nicely optimized: title, description, and URL slug.

The meta title is shown in the browser tab and as the clickable link on the SERP (Search Engine Results Page, the “ten blue links”). Your CMS will probably auto-generate one for you (frequently in the form [h1 title][separator such as – or |][blog name], but that need not be the one you use. For an example, see Split’s homepage: the h1 tag contains the phrase “Split powers your product decisions with a unified solution for feature flagging and experimentation.” But the meta title tag is “Split: Continuous Delivery, Feature Flags & Experimentation”.

You only have about 50-65 characters to work with in your title tag before search engines will cut it off with an ellipsis, so you only have room for the page’s core keyword in your title, assuming you’re also including your brand name (which you should). Think of your title tag like a billboard, designed to attract your prospect’s attention in a concise, intriguing way.

The meta description is shown as the blurb of text below the link on the SERP. (At least, when search engines decide to put it there. Sometimes, in order to answer the user’s query better, they’ll take a section from the page’s body text and use that in place of the meta description.) This is useful as an additional, slightly longer pitch to your users. Some SEO tools will tell you to keep it under 160 characters, but a lot of the time search engines will index up to 320, and unlike the title tag, where an ellipsis can be annoying, an interesting meta description cut off with an ellipsis can increase suspense.

The URL slug is the part of the URL that signifies the specific page: https://www.example.com/articles/this-part-is-the-url-slug/. It should be descriptive: a good rule of thumb is that a human should be able to look at the URL and know what the page is about. Many CMSs will auto-generate a slug for you based on your h1, but like the meta title, you need not use this. For example, this incredibly interesting article has the h1 title “The Dark World of Affiliate Marketing, Black Hat SEO, and…Mattresses?” but the URL slug is /the-world-of-affiliate-marketing-black-hat-seo/.

You’ll want all three of these elements—title, meta description, and URL slug, in that order of importance—to contain keywords. But your primary goal with all three is still to provide the most relevant, interesting, and useful search experience to your prospects and customers. Your end goal is sales, not search engine rankings alone.

And Then You’re Done!

You’ve got excellent content containing keywords and phrases your organic competitors are ranking for, and all your meta info is optimized for both users and search engines. That’s it!

A Partial Guide to Modern Marketing

In the past month, I’ve gone from not having any idea what keyword research is to being able to name four different keyword research tools off the top of my head and have a coherent discussion comparing their benefits and drawbacks. Because trying to keep it all in my head is really not the sort of thing I do, I wrote up a little guide detailing the organic SEO process as I currently understand it, after a full month of Intense Marketing Startup.


There are two types of SEO: on-page and off-page. On-page SEO happens on the website and thus in your direct control as the webmaster; off-page SEO must involve other people. They must always be done in that order, since you can’t get others to interact with content that doesn’t exist.

Fundamentally, on-page optimization involves creating popular content. To do that, you need to know what your audience wants to see. This is both an exercise in knowing what topics your audience is interested in and knowing what format they’d like to consume that content in. Since you’ve presumably niched down enough to know the former, and since the latter is more up to each person’s personal preference, you begin with the former and experiment with different types of the latter until you have something that works.

In order to start creating content that your audience will enjoy, start by figuring out in significant detail what they want. Your best way of finding out what they want is finding what they search for: the process of doing this is commonly called “keyword research”, since the phrases input to search engines like Google are called keywords.

To do keyword research, start with some stuff that you presently think your audience would search for, and search in a tool such as KW Finder. Scroll down their list of results, checking any boxes for results with high “search volume”: average number of monthly searches for that particular keyword. Then export those results, pick a few that seem particularly good, and search for those terms. Keep at this until your fingers bleed. You’ll thank me later.

After this, organize your newly-made master keyword list by topics. I find it easiest to do this by cutting and pasting Excel, visually formatting things into lists until I have a set of topics. Each topic becomes a page or, if there are a decent number of high-volume keywords in that set, a cluster of pages. The largest cluster of highest volume keywords that you most care about ranking for, you reserve for your homepage. These are the keywords that are central to your product: not only the ones your audience would search for any reason, but the ones your audience would search for with the express intent to buy your product. (Or watch your video or read your article or download your whitepaper or whatever it is you want them to do. In the industry we call this action a “conversion”.)

Once the keyword list is organized by topics, use that to create your website organization. More central pages, containing content whose keywords are more relevant to rank for, should go closer to the root directory than more tangential pages. This is because Google gives more search weight to pages closer to the root. While you’re at this, make sure all your URLs are intelligible, not long strings of letters and numbers. Rule of thumb: a human should be able to look at the URL and know what the page is about.

This brings us nicely into the other miscellaneous bits of head-tag trivia which matter significantly for SEO. Search engine “spiders” (probably called that because they “crawl” the “web”, ha ha ha) are still robots, so there is a decent amount of techie trivia you’ll need to understand and fix in order to make your site perform well for SEO.

Head over to ahrefs.com and do a quick site audit, noting down the 3XX pages (page redirects), 4XX pages (missing pages), meta description tag problems (too short or nonexistent; too long is not a problem since their definition of “too long” is incorrect), title tag problems (too long, too short, nonexistent), and h1 tag problems (too many, nonexistent). Some of these things will be seen by end-users (they’ll notice missing pages, or a title tag that’s too long, since the title tag is the actual clickable text of the search result when it comes up), some of them won’t (depending on the page style, end users can’t tell the difference between an h1 and an h2), but they all matter for SEO. Fix as many of them as possible.

A momentary note on creating content: Make sure your content includes words. This may seem obvious, and yet it’s fashionable at the moment to create text-minimalistic pages with tons of images and fancy graphics. This is an SEO nightmare. Google isn’t great at interpreting images yet, so without alt attributes, all those fancy graphics are useless for a search spider, and while they might wow a human audience, good luck finding one when you’re stuck in the deserted wasteland that is page 2 of Google.

Once you have good pages with relevant verbal content arranged in a sensible organization that’s easy for search spiders to crawl, you can move on to off-page SEO. This takes many forms, the most prevalent of which is standard link building.

Because an outbound link can take a user off a page, Google counts outbound links on pages as sort of “votes” for the pages they link to. Having a significant number of inbound links to your site from reputable, relevant sources is akin to having a significant number of votes from influential people in your field. And likewise, bribing for either votes or links is bad, but asking for them nicely can prove useful.

The art of asking nicely for links from reputable, relevant sources is called “link building”, and the standard method is to get on Ahrefs, search for a domain that’s related to yours – it could be a competitor, or an expert in your field – and click on “backlinks”. Make sure links are “dofollow”, as a “nofollow” link gives no “vote”; in English, unless your site exists in multiple languages; and one link per domain, to prevent duplicates. If there are still several thousand results and you need to narrow further, use criteria like filtering for a certain type of website (blogs, ecommerce sites, forums, etc), or filtering the results to include the first word of your most important keyword.

When you’ve exported these lists for a number of comptitors or domain experts, stick them all in a spreadsheet and start systematically going through them. To do that, click on the link, but before you read the content, try to find the author’s contact info. Since the end goal is to send them an email, if you don’t have their email (or contact form or whatever kind of personal contact), the whole exercise is moot. Once you have their email address, then you can read the article to see if you’re likely to get a link from them for your client. If so, draft up a nice email that gets straight to the point, containing these four things and nothing else save some nice-sounding phrasing:

  1. Exactly what you want them to add. I’m talking act as if you could directly push your changes live to their site right now, what would you change? Leave nothing at all up to them; spoonfeed it all right to them. Rule 1 of getting people to do what you want is making it as easy as possible.
  2. How adding this link will help them. If you’re also proposing copy additions, make sure you note that too. Don’t be long-winded about it, just imply that their readers will appreciate the additional info.
  3. The exact links, to both their page which you are referencing and the page you want them to link to. When you do this, don’t do links with anchor text: when receiving emails from people they don’t know, nobody wants to click a link they can’t see, since it could be malware or something. Instead, put the entire link, even if it’s long, in parentheses. Being able to see the link content will put people more at ease.
  4. A signature with your full name, job title, company, and email address. This is another way to put people at ease. By knowing who you are and who you work for, and having your contact information, they trust you more.

A common pitfall that you’ll need to avoid with SEO is running down rabbit holes. You will always have more data than you need, and if you try to incorporate all of it, or be anything less than optimally efficient with it, you will spend your entire damn life on one project. This is the reason that you should find the contact info before you read the article: if you spend all that time reading thousands of articles that may or may not actually get you links, you waste a ton of time. Thus is the peril working with the internet.

And as a final note: there are many, many things you can do with a website where it is crucial that you implement SEO processes as you do them. One of these is a site migration: one of my clients (Seal Software) is working on one now. Here, you must be even more discriminating with which data you use – since some pages are not going to exist on the new site so optimizing them will be useless – and even more careful to implement the precise processes you need, to transfer as much traffic from the old site to the new one as possible.