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Attributes To Look For When Hiring An In-House SEO

Hiring a search professional for an in-house role can be a daunting task. SEO as a profession lacks a large, experienced talent pool, and it is especially rare to find good search marketers with in-house experience. However, an individual with the right personality, skills and background can make a great addition to your team, even if they have not worked in the industry before. There are a number of attributes you should look for when hiring an SEO:  the key is finding the combination that is right for the role you are hoping to fill.

Independent learner

There are perhaps few fields as dynamic as SEO. Being on top of your game means staying on top of new developments both in the SEO realm and in disciplines related to your company’s business. Accordingly, the ability to monitor new information and integrate new knowledge into one’s work is a key skill for a search professional.

For a position requiring SEO experience, does the candidate follow any search-specific sites or individuals or a regular basis – and, if so, which ones? Can they name any recent changes made by Google that a good SEO should know about (there is never a shortage of these)?  Have they (god forbid) read any books on search or internet marketing?

For entry-level jobs where prior SEO experience is not necessarily a deciding factor, you should still try to assess the job seeker’s propensity for independent learning. Is the candidate active professionally on Twitter or any other networks? Do they have a blog or write guest posts? In these cases, you have the benefit of actually checking out their timeline and writings, which obviously will give you a lot of insight into their interests and thought processes.

A proviso here that what you should be assessing is the candidate’s ability to pursue and integrate knowledge without requiring ongoing formal training, not whether or not they are socially active online. It is perfectly possible to be an outstanding SEO without being a particularly engaged participant in the SEO community. It is not possible, however, to excel in this field if one lacks the motivation or mental mechanics required to monitor and digest a constant stream of new information.

Attention to detail

I have long observed that success is search optimization is not typically the result of a single strategy, but of continuous attention to numerous small details. An incomplete checklist just of on-page SEO factors will bear this out: optimized title and description tags, code-to-text ratio, optimized link placements and anchor text, file and folder names, image alternate text and caption assignments, URL canonicalization, load time optimization … and so on.

You will not be happy with a sloppy SEO. The consequences can range from the annoyance and inefficiency of needing to continually monitor and correct their work, to disasters resulting from their carelessness. Assessing a candidate’s fastidiousness starts with their résumé. Multiple typos? Not good. Badly-encoded or dead outbound links (I’m still shocked at the number of times I encounter this)? Really not good. If the candidate cannot even link out correctly from their own résumé, what does this suggest about their ability to stay on top of 404 or redirect errors?

For candidates with a stellar résumé, do some probing at the interview stage. Ask a couple of hypothetical questions to judge what importance they attach to “small” tasks. If you get the sense that the interviewee is unenthusiastic about hunkering down and diving deep into the minutiae of a project, be forewarned. In SEO the devil is, often, most definitely in the details.

Creative and critical thinker

Creativity is at the very least, an asset in a search marketer, and for certain positions may even be considered a necessity. From link building schemes to social engagement strategies, a creative thinker will help maximize the benefits of your team’s work. This extends to PPC, where tasks like creating and testing ad copy require no small amount of mental dexterity.

Related to this is the ability to think critically, which is obviously an important attribute when sifting through data, setting priorities and a host of other tasks. As well, the independent learner devoid of critical thinking skills is going to have a tough time assessing the value of individual pieces of community-generated SEO information.

Can the candidate name any instances in which they either introduced innovations, or were able to make improvements to a process based on their analysis? Have they typically played active or passive roles in projects in which they have participated?  It is not a bad thing here if they have rocked the boat on one or more occasions in their work lives:  someone bursting at the seams with creative energy who sometimes oversteps their bounds is preferable to an SEO who is rarely, if ever, inspired.

Team player

I know this appears in virtually every job description you have ever seen, but for in-house SEO roles this is actually extremely important.  In-house organic search engine optimization is as much about getting others to do things in aid of SEO as doing them yourself.  Those incapable of consistently getting along with others will have little chance of achieving the buy-in necessary to bring extra-departmental stakeholders on board for SEO initiatives.

You can get a sense of a candidate’s collegial nature during the interview. Interviewees that spend an inordinate amount of time criticizing current or past employers and coworkers may not be the best at building trust, good will and alliances in your organization. Some probing of references, too, may help you get a sense for how good a collaborator your potential hire would turn out to be.

Analytical mind

Like virtually any other occupation that falls under internet marketing, SEO requires continual crunching and analysis of numbers. Unless you are having someone build you a search engine, a math genius is not required, but someone capable of processing numeric information and making decisions based on analysis of numbers is.

Does the candidate have experience with analytics programs? If so, what value were they being able to derive from which reports? If not, have there been other data analysis tasks have undertaken in their employment or educational history? Are they at relatively proficient with Excel (an SEOs best friend when it cooperates, and widely cursed when it does not)?

Suitable education and experience

For better or worse, there is very little in the way of SEO educational programs out there (with the exception of various levels of paid search certification), so it is unlikely that any potential candidate is going to wow you with their schooling. Some types of educational background are obviously applicable – internet (or general) marketing, computer science and web design, to name a few.

In regard to both education and experience, a background in the arts is often a good sign. Given that search engine optimization is – at many levels, fundamentally about words, those with really good language skills are potentially valuable, even in the absence of technical training. I count a philosophy major, a journalist and a blogging musician among the best SEOs I have ever hired – none of whom had prior experience in search engine marketing.

To that last point some of the worst SEOs I have ever hired (and, on more than one occasion, fired) have been those with the most SEO experience. That someone has actually done optimization work before does not actually mean they are good at it. Needless to say, this is not a disqualifying factor: if you are able to find an experienced SEO with a good record and good references they should obviously top your list. But if you find a person with suitable attributes that impresses you, do not discount them because of a lack of SEO experience, particularly in a junior role.

The right mix

The chances that you will find a job seeker that possesses every attribute I have discussed above is slight indeed. As with any hiring decision in any industry you have to weigh a candidate’s personality, aptitude, education and experience in determining if they are a good fit for your team. In the realm of SEO, where there is still a paucity of experienced professionals available, do not be afraid to hire based largely on aptitude and attitude. On-the-job training is, in fact, an ongoing fact of life as an SEO, so unless you really require a senior search strategist, you are better off hiring a candidate with good potential than waiting for an SEO rock star.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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