SEO is one of the most crucial digital marketing strategies, but it’s such an in-depth concept that it pays off in the long-term to work with a qualified professional. Putting it off or hiring the wrong person can waste time, energy, and resources (not to mention all the lost revenue and business opportunities).
While there are as many SEO strategies as there are SEO experts, there are still essential skills that you should look for when hiring for your next in-house SEO expert.
With that said, open a new Google Doc… it’s time to take notes!
An overview of the SEO knowledge tree
There are a lot more to SEO experts than meets the eye, but let’s start with a basic overview of what an SEO specialist should be proficient in. I’ll also note here that not all specialists have the same knowledge, and typically specialize in one area, but may know some parts of all of these subtopics: on-page SEO, off-page SEO, and technical SEO.
On-page SEO is exactly what you think it is: everything on a website that you have control over from keyword optimization to internal linking. Other elements include title tags, meta descriptions, alt text, URL structure, and the quality of the content. While this type of SEO is most often the star of the show, a well-designed SEO strategy also includes the next two elements.
Off-page SEO has more to do with how popular your website is. Think back to high school for a moment… if you were someone who had a lot of friends, you may have been considered “popular”. The same goes for off-page SEO — the more websites that know and link back to your website, the higher the chances of ranking on search engines. However, this is only true if the links are high quality and the sources are credible. Aside from backlinks, other contributing factors include website age, domain name, and how many of your social networks link to your website.
Technical SEO is a bit more complex. To put it simply, a website that has optimized specific features allows it to be crawled easier by search engine spiders, which in return ranks your site more efficiently. This might mean that your site is mobile-friendly, has quick loading times, and/or has an XML sitemap (like a roadmap but for search engine spiders). All these items work in unison to ensure a website has the highest probability of ranking. When it comes to the detailed elements, there is a lot of overlap between on-page and technical SEO, so I don’t recommend viewing these as entirely separate.
Top skills today’s in-house SEOs must have
You might think, “Isn’t SEO only about the technical side of digital marketing?” However, the reality is that emotional intelligence and logic are integral skills that an SEO specialist needs to succeed. The top candidate will have a balance of these top skills.
One might argue if we all had a bit more empathy, the world would be a better place. But that’s a topic for another day. For the context of this article, let’s think back to 2020 in its entirety. Brands that lacked empathy and failed to adapt to the COVID crisis or the Black Lives Matter movement lost customers.
You see, at the very core, SEO experts put themselves in the shoes of the reader. They might ask, “would my reader care about this?” or “would my reader search for this topic?” To back it up even further, an empathetic SEO specialist would first fully understand the target audience as a whole.
An SEO expert is not just in tune with SEO, oh no. They’re aware of how copy evokes emotions in your readers, how it makes them think, inspires them, and urges them to take action. This person guides you in understanding how tweaking your copy can result in ripples of success for your business.
So, how do you know if a candidate has empathy? During the interview, observe the following:
How are their listening skills? Candidates that genuinely listen instead of formulating a response while you’re still talking have high levels of empathy.
How much effort do they make in trying to understand you and your target audience? Do they ask questions about the company’s business goals during the interview? Do they share suggestions on how to engage with your target audience? Do they make an effort to explain how SEO is not just about numbers, but it involves the human side, too?
The next one on this list goes hand in hand with empathy: critical thinking.
#2 Critical thinking
An SEO expert has essential critical thinking skills. This quality is needed to go from following a template, to looking at your business from a holistic standpoint and understanding how to take action accordingly.
Digital marketing is a forever-changing industry and SEOs must adapt by actively searching for solutions. Give your potential hire an SEO problem on the spot and see how effectively they can propose a solution to you (I emphasize that this is a fair question, because it is truly what experienced SEOs do every day). If they struggle to come up with suggestions, they may not be the best candidate.
#3 Data analysis
Using data to drive decisions is another crucial skill for an SEO expert.
Consider this: SEO is the makeup of a trial, error, analyze, readjust, and relaunch cycle. Nothing more, nothing less. All SEOs are learning as we go. Those who learn more than others and have the ability to better understand how data drives strategic decision-making are able to come up with better solutions.
To put it simply, being able to gather and analyze marketing data gives you the competitive advantage to quickly iterate and optimize your SEO strategy.
You might consider compiling some of your SEO data and asking your interviewee what they think about it. Ask them what they notice and what they’d change in the next campaign to get more attractive results. This is a surefire way to get a pulse on their data analysis skills.
#4 T-shaped marketing expertise
The term “T-shaped marketer” refers to someone competent in many marketing disciplines, and an expert in one or two specific niches. We’re often told to find our niche or specialize in one area, but the truth is that having broad knowledge in the many different areas of marketing cultivates more connections.
How? Let’s say, for example, the potential hire knows about copywriting, email marketing, and social media marketing. With all this information, they’d be more likely to enhance all these areas using their overlapping insights of SEO.
Look for this element by asking hypothetical questions like:
What role does SEO play in a social media strategy?
How can we use SEO to drive lead generation and conversions?
Their answers will provide valuable information to find out how they plan to leverage SEO to grow the business as a whole.
#5 Strategic planning
You know the saying, knowledge is power? Well, it’s partially true. The true power lies in the combination of knowledge and action. A strategic plan is the key to propelling your business forward, and without it, you’ll be left in the dust. Strategizing involves assessing the data, understanding the goals, and curating a detailed plan to make progress.
The ability to tend to the details while also acknowledging long-term goals is a large piece of the SEO puzzle. And considering SEO efforts take months to get results anyways, your next in-house SEO hire should be comfortable with short-term and long-term strategic planning.
To test for this ability, tell the interviewee your goals, share some insights, and see what sort of plan they present to you. If they’ve listened to your needs and prioritized key factors, they’re a winner!
#6 Technology skills
Even our grandparents are on Facebook these days, so the phrase “tech-savvy” has become watered down. Technology skills expand far beyond using Google Docs, navigating through Facebook, or hosting a Zoom call. Experienced SEO experts should be familiar with some helpful tools like Moz, Ahrefs, or Google Search Console or be willing to learn these platforms.
These tools should be used in appropriate ways to derive the right data and make relevant strategic decisions, as well as compile reports. Here’s how to test for it:
Ask them to find the top keywords on a certain topic in your niche
Ask them to provide an outline of the content with those top keywords
Ask them how they’d track the results from that content once it’s live
It’s crucial to gain an overall sense of where your in-house SEO hire is before onboarding them. To truly gauge this, keep reading for a couple of considerations to keep in mind.
How to screen and test in-house SEO hires
Because SEO efforts only truly started in the early 2000s, the concept is still relatively new in the grand scheme of the internet. So when testing your potential hire, test them, but also be fair. Below are a few factors to think about.
#1 Be clear on what you need
First, understand what your company needs specifically. Review the previous sections and break down the areas of your business that you’ll need to focus your SEO efforts on. Then, write it down for yourself and in the job description. If you don’t take the time to investigate this, it may be difficult to distinguish if this person is a good fit.
Important note: I’ve seen many job descriptions that list the job title as something like “SEO Manager” but then also include that this person is responsible for a bazillion other types of marketing. So when formulating your job description, consider a balance of the most important elements you need this person to accomplish — don’t go overboard. If you’re unsure about what to include, check with another SEO or someone in your marketing department to make sure the job description is accurate and fair.
#2 Look for someone with proven results
Ask for a portfolio. Their portfolio may include strategy work and/or optimized content (depending on the type of SEO they specialize in). However, it can be the case that company data is restricted, so if they’re unable to provide this, a trial test (see #4) will clarify their skills.
You want someone with a good balance of experience in your industry and other industries, as they are most likely to find creative solutions and approach SEO strategies more holistically. If they can explain to you how they’ve guided another business towards success using the SEO strategy they developed, then keep them in mind when you make your final decision.
#3 Assess SEO know-how during an interview
Assess their knowledge of SEO using the questions mentioned earlier. Other important questions I’d recommend asking are:
What are the top SEO KPIs to track on a monthly basis?
How do you know when content needs to be optimized after it’s already published?
How do you know when your SEO strategy is working vs. not working?
Someone quick on their feet with well-thought answers will tell you a great deal about their ability to adapt and help your business grow.
#4 Give them a trial test to check their strategic planning skills
As I noted before, knowledge doesn’t do much without action. To determine if a candidate for an SEO position is a match for your needs, they should be able to create a mock strategic plan. One of the best testing methods is to ask candidates to do a mini SEO audit to see how they approach combining data with strategic insights. In combination with their SEO knowledge, their process will tell you everything you need to know to make your choice.
Hiring an in-house SEO is one of the best decisions you’ll make for the longevity of your business
Ultimately, putting in the work upfront to fully vet your next in-house SEO position will pay dividends in the long term. SEO can skyrocket your business efforts to a whole new level, but only with assistance from the right person and with the right strategy.
Without these ingredients, missed opportunities could prevail. To avoid this, be sure to first understand what your marketing team needs and make sure this aligns with the candidate’s particular skill set.
At the end of the day, the most important skill is the ability to keep on learning and improving, because, like SEO, we must all continually optimize.