Congratulations, you’re hiring an SEO for your business. While this is an exciting time, you’re probably also wondering how to make sure that the person you hire is the right person for the job. If you’re not an SEO yourself, it’s doubly hard to know!
Let me tell you a story.
I’ve been working in SEO since about 2009, and over the years I’ve hired quite a few full time SEOs across the agency where I worked as well as when I worked inhouse. Some worked out badly and some worked out amazingly.
When I was at Distilled, a digital marketing agency where I was in their New York City office, we were growing quickly. In the 2.5 years I worked at Distilled, the company grew from ~30 employees to ~65 employees when I left. Our office in New York went from 5-9 including a few people leaving in that time frame which meant that we replaced those positions and hired some new ones. It was an amazing ride, but along the way we of course had the typical speedbumps.
Distilled was very good at hiring. There were many of us consultants who stayed for 2+ years and many stayed for over 5. In this day and age, that is amazing. Besides the fact that the executive team was awesome, Distilled did something different from many other agencies.
They hired for soft skills instead of SEO skills.
Now, this works very well when you are hiring entry-level SEOs at an agency, but what about when you need to hire an SEO manager/head of SEO who needs to know SEO well as well as fit in with your culture?
This is more challenging, and I’ve made quite a few mistakes over the years with hiring this type of person. But you know what they say – you learn more from your mistakes than from your successes.
I have also had a few big successes hiring SEOs to lead that channel at national brands, so not only have I learned from the bad experiences but I’ve also seen what works well.
There are five questions you should ask someone when you are hiring an SEO leader. The questions to ask while hiring a more junior SEO are a bit different, so we will cover those at another time.
Questions to ask SEO Manager Candidates
These are the five questions to ask every SEO manager candidate coming through your job advertisement:
- What are the common challenges you have faced working on a website like ours that has the same business model?
- What role should SEO play in a company like ours, who needs to be involved, and how will you make that happen?
- What roles do you need on an SEO team to be successful in this role?
- What are your strengths and weaknesses as an SEO, and how will you overcome those weaknesses?
- What side projects do you have?
Let’s unpack each of these.
What are the common challenges you have faced working on a website like ours that has the same business model?
Why you ask this question: this question is meant to determine the depth of their experience on a website like yours as well as challenges that you and they may face in increasing traffic to the business. SEO is complicated in the best of circumstances, and the strategies and tactics required to grow one type of business are different from the ones required to grow another type of business. A website with 20 pages on the site will require very different things than a website with 1,000,000 pages, and the SEO should have experience working with your type of website to identify the main challenges in doing SEO on that website (including technical, content, and link acquisition).
Expected answer: they will be able to pinpoint specific things on your website that can be fixed as well as talking about other challenges they’ve seen.
Bonus points: for talking about the challenges they have faced getting SEO done at a company like yours. Because they are leading SEO at the company, they should know how to get it done in addition to what to do, and should be strategic.
What role should SEO play in a company like ours, who needs to be involved, and how will you make that happen?
Why you ask this question: this question is meant to discover their process around how they think about playing nicely with other marketing channels as well as their experience with getting the work done. There are many SEO professionals who unfortunately think that their role is to put together reports and hand them off to an unknown “someone” who magically gets it done. By asking this question, you learn if they have an ownership mindset and expect to do more than just create reports and graphs. Also, many SEOs like to work alone and do not play nicely with other channels, so you want to make sure you are not hiring someone who will be territorial about their work and not helpful to others.
Expected answer: you should expect them to talk about how SEO works into the entire digital marketing ecosystem and how it can both help and be helped by the other channels. They will also point out that SEO needs involvement from development, design, content, and PR/outreach teams to truly be effective in a timely manner.
Bonus points: if they talk about how they have done it before and staffed up to execute on their strategies, then they receive extra bonus points. If they continue on to also talk about procuring budget and working with outside vendors to further expedite work, then they should be a serious contender.
What roles do you need on an SEO team to be successful in this role?
Why you ask this question: SEOs need to understand that their work encompasses multiple teams and that they need alignment from other teams and the executives for SEO to truly be effective through the organization.
Expected answer: they should say that they need support from developers, designers, content/copy writers, and PR/outreach teams.
Bonus points: if they talk about how they need support from the top of the organization in order to be truly effective, and ask you about the attitudes towards SEO from the top, then they have actually done the work before.
What are your strengths and weaknesses as an SEO, and how will you overcome those weaknesses?
Why you ask this question: this is the SEO-specific twist on “tell us about your strengths and weaknesses”, but because you are asking “as an SEO” it will force them to think about professionally what they prioritize or don’t and what they are best at executing on. You are looking for them to admit when they don’t love something (like link building for example) but for them to also get it done because it is necessary to your business by hiring an agency (for example).
Expected answer: they should talk about the parts of SEO they love and the parts they deprioritize. There is no right or wrong answer here, but they shouldn’t say that they are equally good at all things related to SEO.
Bonus points: talking about getting it done in the past in creative ways.
What side projects do you have?
Why you ask this question: SEOs are known for being resourceful and testing everything. They should also have side projects that they work on to rank and try new ideas that may help them discover new ways to rank better that will help them to beat the competition. If they have not launched a website of their own and tried to understand what it takes to actually get the work done, then they might not have the knowledge and effectiveness you need for them to be successful at the business.
Expected answer: be able to give you 2-3 examples of sites they’ve created and driven traffic to.
Bonus points: if they have a long running project that ranks and they can show you their rankings and explain what those mean for their project’s revenue.