Hiring search engine optimization professionals is tricky. SEO requires a rare combination of business, marketing, creative, and technical skills. For an ecommerce business, where a significant portion of customer acquisition and revenue may depend on SEO performance, the decision is even more difficult.
At a high level, look for these three things in every SEO candidate.
- Intelligence. You can’t train intelligence. It’s there naturally. Or it’s not. Look for someone who has the skill set, but who will welcome additional training and learn quickly. SEO is a rapidly changing field. Intelligent candidates will learn new skills faster, to adapt quickly.
- Drive. Strong SEO professionals are self-motivated. They need to be able to take direction, but they also need to sense when that direction doesn’t seem to be what’s actually needed – when the analysis produces contrary information. Additional research, analysis, education, and direction may be necessary to complete the assignment. Look for someone self-sufficient enough to drive forward, who can offer alternative solutions when there’s a roadblock.
- Analytical curiosity. An SEO professional desires to know why things happen and the ability to figure them out. SEO pros are confronted with many situations for which there is no formulaic answer. Determining when something of significance has happened, analyzing why it happened, and determining what – if anything – to do about it is central to the daily cycle in SEO.
A candidate without an analytical mind, or without the need to dig further, will likely not succeed. Ask what her favorite Excel formula is. If the question stumps her or the answer is basic, she is likely not used to large-scale data analysis. Look for someone with strong analytics skills, but also with the ability to analyze fuzzier data, such as word combinations, URLs, HTML code, algorithm updates, code release features, and internal linking structures.
Questions to Ask SEO Candidates
Who can you trust? How can you gauge his skills? How can you tell if someone is just saying good things but cannot actually perform?
Ask the candidate for examples of proven results, specifically for improvement in customer acquisition and revenue. If the candidate speaks of improvements in terms of percentages, ask for actual numbers. An improvement of 278 percent sounds amazing, but it could be growing from just 100 visitors to 278.
Don’t be charmed by talk of rankings improvements. Rankings don’t pay your salary — revenue does.
Ask what his greatest SEO success was, or his proudest achievement. Then ask what he did, specifically, to achieve it and, most importantly, what the improvement was in terms of visits and revenue. His achievement may be organizational, such as forging a bond with the development team or selling the importance of SEO to management. Those things will be impossible to assign revenue to. But the candidate should at least be able to describe them clearly.
Ask for references and follow up, to see how other people view the candidate. Ask them some of the questions above to determine if they just think the candidate is a great person or if they actually know something about his SEO performance.
Already Have an SEO Team
When an SEO team is in place, hiring SEO talent is somewhat easier. You know the strengths and weaknesses of your existing team. Adding a new member becomes an exercise in determining additional SEO needs, such as technical, architectural, on-site content, or external marketing help. The candidate should be well versed in all areas, but most SEO pros have specialties.
Look for someone with the three skills above — intelligence, drive, curiosity — as well as a specialty that complements the strengths of your existing team and a personality that suits both your team and the culture of the company.
Growing SEO Skills Internally
Hiring externally involves two difficult choices: deciding if the person fits with your team and deciding if she knows SEO. Sometimes the easier choice is assigning someone internally who exhibits the three necessary SEO skills, to learn from the ground up. Then you already know the answer to the two questions: The person is a proven fit in your team, and she doesn’t know SEO. Yet.
I’ve seen this work with moderate success in small companies where resources are tight. This is how SEO became a profession in the first place. Until recently, there were no SEO courses at universities. For the first 10 or so years, SEO was learned through experimentation or from people who had already experimented.
There will likely come a point, however, when the person learning SEO can’t learn any more from research — when research alone will not improve organic search performance. That’s when you may need to hire an external candidate or an agency. But at least you will have acquired some of the SEO skills necessary in-house, to evaluate the candidates you are interviewing.