During my SEO career, I’ve sat at both sides of the interview table: I’ve been a candidate applying for a job at agencies or in-house roles, and I’ve also helped with the hiring process at an agency, sitting in on interviews and helping to choose which candidates to hire. It’s amazing how much your eyes are opened when you are involved on both sides, not just one or the other, and how your knowledge of one aspect greatly improves the other.
I’m self-employed these days, so my job interview days (in either situation) are done for the time being, but looking back at my experiences, I wanted to relay some points that I thought would help employers to make sure that they’re hiring the best SEOs for their business.
In my opinion these are the three most important factors when it comes to holding SEO job interviews:
1) Make sure that at least one interviewer has technical knowledge of SEO
This may be a “well, duh!” point to many people, but you’d be surprised. It’s especially the case for people who are building an SEO department from scratch (to add to an agency that’s already successful in other areas of tech and/or marketing) – if your company has never done SEO before but you’re hoping to start doing so, then the people holding the interview may not have any SEO experience, and therefore they may not be able to truly test the mettle of the candidates that they’re considering.
In fact, a few years ago, I applied for a job in this situation, and although I was interviewed by the company’s top managers, I wasn’t asked any technical SEO questions, not even the basics (e.g. “what is PageRank?”). The problem here is that they could’ve interviewed a complete blagger with zero technical experience and they would’ve been none the wiser. Now imagine if they hired someone who fit that profile… It wouldn’t do wonders for their new department, would it!
My advice for companies in this situation is to hit their network. Do they know any SEOs – either on a personal or professional level – who can help? Even if they’re not employed by the company, ask them if they wouldn’t mind sitting in on the interviews – call in a favour or even pay them for their time. The latter might look expensive, but it’ll probably be a lot more expensive if an SEO is hired and it turns out that they can’t do the job properly…!
At an old agency I worked at, the guys were hiring for an SEO specialist role. Numerous people applied and two were interviewed. Person A was confident and talkative, while Person B was quite shy and seemed nervous. Based on the strength of the first interview, Person A was the standout winner.
However, the second interview asked the two candidates to show examples of their work. They were given a laptop (hooked up to a projector) and asked to demonstrate some of their previous efforts. Person A froze – she had absolutely no idea what to do and really struggled. Person B rocked it though – he logged into a few WordPress sites he’d created and optimised. Ironically, he spoke a lot more confidently than he did when he was asked to talk about the job. Person B was offered the role.
Similar to the first point, just because someone knows how to talk-the-talk, it doesn’t mean that they know how to… well, you know the rest. By testing people and asking for a demonstration of their work, you can see their abilities first-hand, rather than simply relying on what they write on their CV or tell you in the interview.
3) Ask them how they’d do SEO for a client if they had 100% control of a project
This can seem like an extremely daunting and off-putting question to ask, especially when given in an on-the-spot situation, but you can stress to the candidate that you don’t expect a 100% perfectly detailed plan right there and then. What you want is an idea of what they’d do, where’d they start and what they’d track – basically what their initial thoughts would be when approaching a project.
For example, if they simply shrug their shoulders and say: “lots of content, I guess?” then it’s not going to inspire much confidence. But if they talk about how they’d start with keyword research, ask the client particular questions, look at competitors, look at what the client’s done before, etc. then that’s going to come across a lot better.
I recommend giving the candidate a bit of upfront info (e.g. what industry, what size, an idea of resources that the client might have, etc.) rather than just saying “what would you do for a business?”, as it’ll obviously differ from project to project. It might be an idea to ask them to do this with one of your current clients – that way you can see if they’re a good ‘fit’ for that client and you might even get an idea or two to you use out of it (that they can implement if they’re hired).
What are your do’s and don’ts when holding an SEO job interview? Please leave a comment below!
Steve Morgan is a freelance SEO consultant in Cardiff, South Wales, trading as Morgan Online Marketing. He writes his own blog – SEOno – and also helps out his parents’ business, IT recruitment agency Computer Recruiter, who recruit for SEO, PPC and social media roles in the region in addition to your more regular IT roles. Follow Steve on Twitter: @steviephil.
[Image credits - whiteboard: Derek Bruff; projector: Michael Buist; ship’s helm: Kevin Baird]