How much HTML does an SEO need to know?

Today’s post is based on this great question from an SEO beginner…

Would you agree with the notion that you must know how to build websites before knowing how to implement SEO techniques? I’m currently able to edit title, meta, and link tags, but only through a WYSYWYG editor. I’d like to move away from that in time. I know SEO’s know some programming or a strong grasp of it, so how much should one know? Does having the knowledge of a programmer help you down the road? What’s your opinion?

It’s a good question.  With so many web designers and web programmers offering SEO services to their clients, it does make you wonder what the relationship is between SEO and HTML (and other aspects of programming).  Here is what I responded, quickly on the fly…

Some knowledge is absolutely necessary – enough to give instructions to the webmaster.  For instance, not to change the <h1> tag to <h3> to reduce the font size, but to control font size via CSS, for example.  But I don’t think an SEO needs to be a programmer.  The more you know, the more helpful, of course.  I taught myself HTML before I knew about SEO, but I am certainly not a programmer. 

Of course, many clients don’t have a webmaster.  Many times they want to just hand the website over to you and make it rank well.  Those times, you better know your HTML, at least well enough to make changes to the site code. Other times you are working in a CMS that doesn’t even let you get to the HTML.  Grrr.

I put the question to a few SEO colleagues I respect and converse with on Twitter.  Here are some of the views they hold on this topic…

Dean Cruddace ( @seobegin ) says…

My short answer is yes, an seo with a working knowledge of html and a basic understanding of other coding languages will dissect problematic sites quicker.

My reasoning: SEO’s of varying levels will work with a variety of CMS’s from basic coding in notepad through to enterprise level content management systems, understanding exactly, or at least to a good level what each one delivers is in my opinion an important factor. Over time you become accustomed to reading html and in time you can get straight to nuisance code or you can amend by hand those individual tags, classes or calls so much quicker when you have a working knowledge of html.

Grosen Friis ( @GrosenFriis ) says…

Yes I think SEOs need to know HTML, SEOs cannot just know a bit about titles and linkbuilding.

SEO’s that do not know HTML cannot:

– detect all types of indexing barriers
– detect duplicate content properly
– do PageRank sculpting

Most importantly, SEOs that do not know HTML may find different technical SEO problems on a website, but they will seldom be able to come up with technical solutions to fix them.

It’s like going to a garage with your car for service and the mechanic says “Your car needs more than service, it has problem A, B and C, but sorry, I do not know how to repair them”

Emory Rowland ( @clickfire ) says…

Yes! If you’re afraid to look under the hood, you’ll have to depend on Roadside Service when your engine stalls.

Sean Everett ( @seanmeverett ) says…

Yes, the better you are in the language of the web,the  more efficient & organized the code will be, which Google gives you credit for (maybe!)

Martin Bowling ( @martinbowling ) says…

I think an SEO must at least have a basic understanding of SEO; but I think being able to put together a site from scratch or modify existing HTML is a major plus. Ensuring that a site is coded in the proper way can really help with the sites indexing and ultimately it’s rankings. It’s not a must; but it’s a great weapon to have.

Melanie Nathan ( @melanienathan ) says… 

I believe a SEO needs to understand HTML, but not speak it fluently. They should be familiar with all parts of a website & know enough… in order to instruct a developer/designer on what to do/not do. Besides that, many SEOs deal with CMSs which often don’t…. let you alter any HTML. As a SEO, I only know enough HTML to get by and it hasn’t hindered my abilities – in any way – thus far.

Donna Fontenot ( @donnafontenot ) says…  

Only if the SEO wants to do the job properly! Indexing problems? Look at the code! Optimizing images? ALT attributes are HTML code. etc etc. 

Patricia Skinner ( @ISpeakSEO ) says…  

I have observed that there are some SEOs around who don’t know HTML. In my opinion they can’t possibly perform all the tasks included in a comprehensive SEO campaign without at least a smattering of HTML.
I am aware that there has been hot debate about the subject.  My view comes somewhere between the two extremes of opinion expressed here.
I’m not saying that you need to be a developer, but you do need to know enough to find your way around the back end of a web page.
You need to be able to optimize <title> tags, <alt> tags and more. If you can’t read HTML how can you look at the source code to identify potential or real problems?
How can you check, install or remove redirects? How can you check, add to or even remove links that could be damaging?
If I were a potential SEO client I would not be at all attracted to hiring an SEO who admitted they couldn’t read the ‘language’ that the Web is built on, basically.

Todd Mintz ( @toddmintz ) says…  

Absolutely…troubleshooting code is a major part of SEO and if you can’t do this, you aren’t offering full value to your clients.

Lee Odden ( @leeodden ) says…  

SEO and HTML is like a Surgeon and a scalpel. HTML is one of many, essential tools SEOs need to know to gain a competitive advantage.

Dan Patterson ( @dan_patterson ) says…  

Between all the tags and elements like canonical, h tags, nofollow, etc. you need to know enough HTML to make the right changes to a site.  I don’t think you have to be an expert HTML coder, but you need to know HTML.

Geral Weber ( @the_gman ) says…   

Simple answer: Yes SEO’s need to know at the very least basic html. There are some aspects of SEO that cannot be done without basic html skills.











  1. My thoughts would be yes, you should know something about the basic principals of HTML – that said I have worked with some who know absolutely nothing about programming at all, not even the simplest way on how to edit things, and yet they proved to be good SEO professionals.

    In the current world though, many roles for SEO require extensive knowledge of HTML and even PHP – as business try to kill two birds with one stone….

  2. Well, the question is not limited to HTML only. An SEO should also know the basis knowledge of web programming language as well so that he can work on dynamic websites without any assistance of web developer.

  3. As a freelance web designer / developer and I can confirm that, yes, I increasingly offer SEO services such as keyword research and on-page optimisation (but not link building) for the one reason – that is what the client asks for. I can't just say "That's somebody else's job" or they'll go elsewhere.

    Clients are becoming increasingly savvied to what to expect for a website and just looking good isn't enough for them any more. They know that no matter if they spend $1k or $10k on a site, they may as well spend nothing if they can't gain a presence on Google.

    The days where everybody in the creative industries and online marketing had their own little niche are coming to the end. So web designers, learn SEO; SEO people, learn HTML.

  4. You do need good HTML knowledge, but saying that I belive SEOs will become more specialized – so you will end up with guys that only do link building for example.

  5. Knowing coding is as you suggested very helpful and knowing enough to do the job of an SEO expert is essential e.g. creating an 'href' link. But I think more important is understanding the shortfalls of the search engines, realizing that they pretty much only follow text content and therefore determine what a site is all about through the text content. Then you need to understand the various options that are most important in the world of SEO, like placing primary keyword phrases in the domain name, title and headings. Not stuffing too many keywords into the text and how to use all the tools available to get the right kinds of links to a site and create a natural valued presence on the Internet.

    There is clearly a lot more to it than what I have mentioned, but as comments go I think this gives a flavor of what I am saying. An SEO needs to be an SEO expert first and programmer 2nd plus the reason that web designers/programmers offer SEO services is because they are at the front of where SEO starts; the initial design of the website.

  6. Person who does SEO in my opinion needs to have the basic knowledge and needs not to concern himself/herself too much about programming as there is (supposed to be) a programmer for these kind of things. If SEO person has enough knowledge do spot an error and tell it to the programming guy then it is more than OK. But he needs to be an expert on SEO. Usually if somebody knows something about everything he knows nothing.

  7. The only SEOs who could possibly get away without HTML knowledge are link baiters. Lyndon Antcliff can do what he does without HTML – and it still has massive SEO benefits when he gets something viral.

    Everybody else: if you don't know HTML, you're not an SEO. Sorry. Learn it.

  8. So for my next post… "How well must an SEO rub the secretary's feet?"

  9. Melanie Nathan , one of the people quoted in the post, is a link-building specialist. Which is why she needs less programming knowledge than, say, an in-house SEO with a major website to manage.

  10. This is an excellent point. The SEO should be in a position to advise the web designer at the web building stage. For that, some HTML is necessary.

  11. I think it definitely helps for an SEO to be very comfortable with HTML, and it doesn't hurt to have an understanding of how programming languages work. You don't have to be a developer, but it's good to know the limitations and hurdles that your developers face in different situations. -Josh

  12. The very important topic is discussed here,cause SEO just won't live without HTML and noone who don't know HTML language will become the SEO expert ever,I'm absolutely sure in it.Thanks for the post,great as a usual!

  13. In my opinion HTML is so easy to learn, an SEO without HTML knowledge is like a car mechanic that doesn't know how to use a wrench.

    I find that the worst SEO offenders are "web designers" who have no clue how to do ANY SEO at all, and create websites where there isn't a single line of text on the page, no <h1> tags, no meta tags, nothing. I've seen sites where the whole website is just one big JPG.

    On the plus side, these kinds of crappy sites are really easy to compete with for those who take the time to learn at least intermediate level HTML and SEO.


  14. Just know the basic html and it would be good.

  15. For me a Good SEO must be knowing HTML & also some server side things, because these two hold a majore role in On Page SEO. One may argue that an SEO can tell the developer to modify the HTML for changing headings & changes in CSS, etc. OK But what when the SEO person is posting a blog or an article on some other site where you need to know atleast the basic HTML.

    So yes for me a person who don't know atleast the Basic HTML can't be actually a SEO professional.

  16. I think you would at least need to understand basic HTML even if you weren't a coder – why make things harder for yourself?

  17. This is true SEO are more effective if they know a basic about programming like html and web design because if they doing rankings in each site they know what are changes to be made or missing. This is a good info you have got and i'll approve you in this blog.

  18. As in anything else it all depends if you want to get by or be mediocre. SEO is a very competitive profession. There are no board exams or industry qualification tests; however I feel that what makes or breaks an SEO consultant is how well he understands the fundamentals. Notice I did not say the BASICS!

    The entire SEO market lingo is easy to understand when you have good experience in HTML and PHP as well as other programing languages. Many SEO consultants are sometimes ex-programmers whose jobs have been outsourced and need another career.

    People keep wanting to believe that "someone" is going to give them this majic formula that is going to grant them instant SEO skills, problem is this changes too much to fly on majic formulas. Like most professions SEO has a steep learning curve of a combination of web mechanics and quite a bit of advertising/marketing saavy.

    If you find a client that has a "straight html" website please let me know; ours have web applications that are written in a multitude of languages from .NET to ASP to Java CMSs to PHP.

  19. When I first started out I knew VERY little HTML. I now know how to create simple websites using HTML and CSS, but I still can't make a professional-looking website. However I'm still an SEO specialist, even more so than before 🙂

  20. HTML is a basement. No html – no money)

  21. Too Scary! I am quite computer friendly and work online, but html…scares me and so do some of these comments

    I think i'm missing the html gene

  22. Ha ha I do like the use of the term fundamentals over basics. And yes, HTML fundamentals required.

  23. I personally believe an SEO needs to know everything that has something do with HTML. Why?

    Well, you’re required to do a lot of HTML-coding as an SEO. Header tags such as H1 and H2, anyone?


  24. Yes, I myself have encountered problems not knowing HTML basics. Anchor texts are using basic HTML to begin with, adjustments to your site, tags, etc. – all are HTML based.

  25. I taught myself html years ago and although I generally build direct response websites using WP I find that when dealing with a clients website that I haven’t built my limited html knowledge comes in very handy. It not difficult to learn and there are loads of resources out there to help.

    I am an SEO specialist who would say you definately need to know html to be able to do your SEO job properly…

  26. Katie Smith says

    When I was just starting working with SEO, I had some problems since I am not fully aware about html and stuff. But I share the thoughts of others that you have to know something about html to fully grasp SEO.

  27. When I optimize my sites I definetly have use for knowing booth HTML, CSS and PHP. I personally believe that a webaster of any kind always has something to learn when it comes to SEO. It is no exact procedure!

  28. I believe that having a knowledge on web programming is an advantage as an SEO Specialist because when you do an on-page optimisation, you have to read and understand the source code so you can edit it and put your targeted keywords on the content. If you don’t have some technical skills, how would you edit the web page especially those websites that use PHP language.

  29. @ Lyka:
    Correct, I’ve been a SEO link builder but doing off-page. It’s a bit hard doing on-page because it has complicated codes but one can learn.

  30. Wow, good to know. I’m in the early stages of learning SEO and this is the first time I’ve come across a resource clearly stating this as a need. Other than the website linked to in the original post, do any others have suggestions for a good online resource to teach myself html basics? Thanks!

  31. I think you need to know some basic html for all SEO but there are some other abilities that are much more important, like writing good well written optimized content and of course linkbuildning.

  32. Basic HTML is important for SEO but so is having dynamic content. Blogging directly on a site does a lot for SEO as does just about anything else involving frequently updated content.