Hiring a search engine optimization professional is challenging. It’s relatively easy for a would-be practitioner to portray “book-learning” as actual, on-the-job experience.
But I’m a firm believer in the importance of soft skills — personal qualities that enable someone to work well in a role with others. After all, experience can be acquired on the job, and additional education can always be applied. It’s near impossible, however, to change someone’s true nature.
Look for these 11 skills when scouting for your next SEO professional.
11 SEO Skills
Curiosity. SEO is essentially geeky detective work. Things happen, sometimes without apparent cause. In my experience, only those with an instinctive need to know why those things occur are willing to dig long enough to find the likely answers.
Prioritization. Hundreds of elements affect search engine rankings. At any given time thousands of things may be “wrong” with a site that could trigger an algorithmic impact. You can’t chase them all. Curiosity must be balanced with the ability to prioritize, and to know when to let go of something in the short term that might be technically “wrong” but not of high value to resolve immediately.
Ability to learn. This quality sounds like a given. But it’s important an ever-changing field such as SEO, with algorithmic updates and site changes that drop out of nowhere. The desire to learn and the intelligence to do so are critical to staying ahead of the game — or at least to catching up as quickly as you can when the playing field changes.
Flexibility. In some cases, there isn’t a single right answer for SEO. Practitioners need to be comfortable with the grey area. But there’s a fine line between accepting the grey area and not digging far enough to find an answer. Make sure that flexibility is balanced with curiosity.
Logic. SEOs need to understand intuitively how to apply knowns to new situations, and how to arrive at a new solution. Unless you have an SEO team, there is no one to teach your new SEO how to solve problems. Answering vague questions requires the ability to peel the onion back one layer at a time, identifying several things that might cause the problem based on past greyish knowns, and create a plan to disprove each of those things until only one remains.
Data-driven. Any SEO decision must be backed up with data. It’s not always possible to calculate a return on investment for every outcome, but there’s at least data to inform prioritization, typically. A good SEO looks for the data before making decisions. Familiarity with Excel formulas is a must. Advanced Excel skills are even better.
Grammar expertise. In SEO, sometimes words are data, and sometimes they’re an art form. Your new SEO should write impeccable grammar and understand the different meanings a sentence takes on with the simple placement of a phrase or comma. Perhaps your company has writers to do the bulk of the work, but SEOs optimize it. Poorly executed optimizations can ruin the flow and voice of that content, and create negative brand impressions.
Leadership. The ability to influence decisions across cross-functional teams is crucial. SEO effectiveness relies on decisions made by user experience, design, copywriting, and development, but SEO teams own none of those areas outright. Strong leadership skills and the ability to manage projects across disciplines will be central to an SEO pro’s success.
Communication. Strong interpersonal communication skills are important, especially in an area like SEO where it’s likely no one else in the extended team will fully understand what’s needed. The SEO professional needs to educate the team on the reasons why SEO actions are required, without making the team feel stupid or defensive.
Agency vs. in-house. SEO practitioners work for an agency or a single company, in-house. People who gravitate toward agency life tend to talk about the excitement of having multiple clients, the thrill of the chase, and the ability to learn or specialize in specific skills. They tend to dislike the slower pace of in-house life and the frequency with which they butt up against the same walls when trying to get projects implemented.
In-house SEOs often talk about the ability to dig in and see things through to completion. They are methodical and not typically interested in the travel or pace of agency life. Both types of people will likely try the other side to see if the grass is greener. Their stay in the opposite camp is usually short-lived.