It’s been just over a year now since I stumbled into a job doing SEO. I found myself in a new field which I knew little about, and so for the first couple of months, I spent much of my time learning: watching tutorials, reading walkthroughs, and completing online training courses provided by my office. At home, I’d think of a question and whip out my phone to Google the answer.
Some of these concepts came easier to me than others. I’m a logical kind of person, the kind who sometimes prefers to look at web pages in their raw HTML form so that I can better understand how everything comes together. Eventually, you don’t even see the code.
But as I started diving into more difficult concepts, and concepts which weren’t so reliant on technical skills, I realized that all the different training material available to me was becoming less and less helpful. For the longest time, every guide that I could find on link building gave little more detail than:
Phase 1: Write quality content
Phase 2: Promote your content on social media and through email
Phase 3: Profit
Wait, what’s phase two?
Maybe I was just slow on the pickup, but I couldn’t even begin to fathom what an outreach email looked like or how to reach the right people. Since then, I’ve found some better guides on the subject, but I’m not going to bore you with that, you can find them easily enough on your own if that’s what you’re looking for. I’m going to tell you about your best tool working in SEO: your bout journal. If you don’t already use one, you’re missing out on the greatest opportunity to improve on even your weakest skills and become a master.
“What’s a bout journal?” You’re probably asking yourself. Well, let’s rewind about 12 years.
I was still in middle school when I first discovered fencing and, being the weird, socially inept teenager that I was at the time, of course, I was immediately drawn to the sport. After all, what could help me seem more normal and fit in better than if I started playing with swords, right? Alright, so it didn’t really work. But it lead me on a path towards discovering how important it is to keep a bout journal for anything and everything I wanted to improve in.
For the longest time, I didn’t take the sport particularly seriously. I’d show up to practice, do the drills, fence in my bouts, and go home. One day after a particularly bad tournament where I was eliminated in the first round with a score of 1-15, I decided to stick around and watch. That’s when I noticed the one thing that everybody but me was doing: taking notes. Every bout, every warmup round ended with a quick handshake before both fencers ran off to their journal and started scribbling down as many notes as they could before they forgot any little detail.
Soon after, I went out and bought my own journal and started taking notes. It took a while to figure out what was really important, but eventually, I settled on:
- Opponent’s name
- Dominant hand (lefties typically have an advantage over righties)
- Their perceived strengths
- Their perceived weaknesses
- My planned strategy
- How they scored on me (tallied)
- How I scored on them (tallied)
- Their actual strengths (based on how they scored)
- The actual weaknesses (based on how I scored)
- My recommended strategy to Future Me about how to beat them next time
Whew. That’s a lot to jot down in the short amount of downtime you get between bouts, but it’s worth it to try. Immediately, I started improving. The point wasn’t even so much to focus on how to win. The real point is to think about what your strategy is and whether or not it’s effective, to think about what your preconceptions are, and to record the facts about the bout. Wait too long to write it all down, and your memory will fade and be biased.
Once you’ve collected a bunch of this data, it’s time to pour over every bit of it. Look for things that always work for you and things that always work against you, then figure out how to use your strengths while dodging your weaknesses. Look for patterns in your behavior and learn how to trick your opponent by establishing and breaking your patterns on a whim. Look for differences in your perception and the facts and try to rewire your brain to think another way.
It’s only once you force yourself to see through your ego and recognize your flaws that you can correct them and, over time, improve on them. I always thought that I was good at redoubling until I saw the facts. I was in fact much better at reprising and remising and much, much better at skipping the whole ordeal and just disengaging at the start. Oops. Soon, my final score started shifting from 1-15, to 5-15, to 14-15, and all the way to 15-5. I still remember my first 15-0 bout and that strange mixture of overwhelming pride and joy with a tinge of guilt.
Fencing is a very mental game, and some people even say it’s closer to chess than a sport. This lucky coincidence has worked out very well for me because I can take all of the same concepts from my fencing bout journal and apply them to my SEO bout journal. In either case, you’re always strategizing, always trying to outmaneuver your opponents (or competitors) for better distance (or SERP positioning). There’s always a measurable result which you can record and track in conjunction with your strategies to learn what your most effective ideas are. With SEO, the problem that you’ll run into the most is that so many of your results take time to take effect, but you can still get a good enough idea of whether or not your strategies are working.
Nowadays I don’t take as many notes as I probably should, but by using a bout journal for so long, it’s become much easier to push aside my preconceived notions and look at the straight facts in my work. My process has also become more sophisticated; if I need to get a better grasp on content promotion, I can start by doing research and learning the basics, and then keeping meticulous notes in Google Sheets about my process and my results until I figure out what’s going well and what’s not. I can track certain words that I used, whether I was friendly or got straight to business, what industry my contact was in, the date I sent my first email, the date I received a response, whether the response was positive or negative, and on and on. You never know what little thing will have a big impact, so, to begin, it doesn’t hurt to go overboard with all the different variables you record until you’re able to narrow down on what matters. I can update my sheets anywhere at any time, create all kinds of graphs and charts to help visualize trends and relationships, change the way things are sorted on the fly, and easily find what works well and what doesn’t without flipping through endless pages.
My bout journal today looks a lot different than the first one I made years ago, filled cover-to-cover in nearly illegible scribbles, barely clinging together in a weak binding, a handful of pages torn in half from all those times I ruffled through them a little too quickly, trying to find that one page I needed out of 100. One thing that will never change about it, however, is that my bout journal is still my greatest learning tool. Sure, it won’t teach me a new concept, but it will help me master an old one.