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You don’t need a side project to be a successful SEO

Do you need a side project to be a successful SEO?

If you’ve been scrolling through Twitter/X or LinkedIn lately, posts from a number of those in the SEO community would lead you to believe that yes, you do need a side project to be a successful SEO.

In the last couple of years, the hype for side projects has grown exponentially - and not just within SEO.

But is this hype justified? To be a successful SEO, is a side project necessary?

I don’t think so.

Here’s why.

The benefits of an SEO side project

Before I explain why I don’t think a side project is a requisite of a successful SEO, I want to acknowledge the benefits.

A side project can be a great place to develop. Particularly for less experienced SEOs, their own personal project can be a great place to put what they’ve learnt into action.

It’s also a great place to test new ideas. Testing on your employer’s website, or on a client’s, can be risky - especially if what you’re testing goes against best practice. It’s low risk testing on your own project, though.

Lastly, if done well your side project may develop into it’s own income stream. There have been plenty of examples of SEOs who have quit the 9-5 to pursue a side project full time.

So a side project sounds great right? Well - as always in SEO - it depends.

How do we define a successful SEO?

We must consider how we define a successful SEO. If your definition of success is escaping the grind of a 9-5 role, working for yourself and financial independence, then a side project is for sure important for you.

If however, like me, your goal is to succeed working in-house for brands that excite you, then I don’t think a side project is important.

Let’s explore why.

Side projects aren’t always transferable to brand SEO

The advice for those looking to start a new side project is to find a low competition niche to target. It makes sense; low competition -> easier to rank -> quicker success.

However, this success doesn’t always transfer to a role at a brand, where competition is greater and the competitors are bigger.

There can be different factors at play in a competitive space, meaning that the experience gained on a side project isn’t always transferable.

The size of the website makes a difference

A number of enterprise SEOs have to deal with a large number of URLs and the best way to manage these; both technically and strategically.

It’s very rare for side projects to reach this scale of pages.

As a result, it’s a very different experience working on these two types of sites - and requires a different skillet.

So imagine you’re the hiring manager for an SEO role at TripAdvisor. You’re dealing with potentially millions of URLs globally; having a side project does not mean you’ll be a success in this role.

There’s more to being a successful SEO than ranking for keywords

This is certainly true when working as an in-house SEO or at an agency. Writing great content isn’t enough any more.

To be a successful in-house SEO, you need to be a good communicator, to be able to build relationships with key stakeholders, effectively prioritise and more. You also need to have good commercial awareness and to recognise that your channel is just one part of an omni-channel approach.

If you work at an agency, you’ll need a similar skill set, while client management is another important factor if you are to be a success.

It’s difficult to develop a lot of these skills with a side project. So while a side project may help you be an excellent executor, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be a successful SEO in either of these environments due the factors listed above.

The dangers of hustle culture

As an industry, we should be careful not to promote a toxic work life balance.

SEO is already a switched on industry and I believe that a lot of the talk around side projects is flirting with the promotion of hustle culture.

Now not everyone shouting about side projects is doing thing - as I covered earlier, a side project can be a great development opportunity for new SEOs.

But we need to be careful of the messages we’re pushing. Young SEOs may interpret the “need” for a side project as a requisite for success in their career.

As a result, we may be promoting unhealthy work hours outside of the 9-5.

The final point that I’d like to make is that people have a life outside of SEO. I, for example, have a young baby and while I work really hard as Gymshark’s SEO Manager, I want to spend every moment I have outside of work with my wife and daughter.

A side project is the last priority for me right now.

Does that impact my ability to be a successful SEO? It certainly shouldn’t.


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