Posted by RuthBurrReedy

SEO is a seller’s market. The supply of people with SEO experience is currently no match for the demand for search engine marketing services, as anyone who has spent months searching for the right SEO candidate can tell you. Even in a big city with a booming tech scene (like Seattle, LA, New York, or Austin), experienced SEOs are thin on the ground. In a local market where the economy is less tech-driven (like, say, Oklahoma City, where I work), finding an experienced SEO (even one with just a year or two of experience) is like finding a unicorn.

You're hired.

You’re hired. (Photo via 
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If you’re looking for an in-house SEO or someone to run your whole program, you may have no choice but to hold out for a hero (and think about relocating someone). If you’re an SEO trying to grow a team of digital marketers at an agency or to expand a large in-house team, sometimes your best bet is to hire someone with no digital marketing experience but a lot of potential and train them. 

However, you can’t plug just anyone into an SEO role, train them up right and have them be fantastic (or enjoy their job); there are definite skills, talents and personality traits that contribute to success in digital marketing.

Most advice on hiring SEOs is geared toward making sure they know their stuff and aren’t spammers. That’s not really applicable to hiring at the trainee level, though. So how can you tell whether someone is right for a job they’ve never done? At BigWing, we’ve had a lot of success hiring smart young people and turning them into digital marketers, and there are a few things we look for in a candidate.

Are they an aggressive, independent learner?

Successful SEOs spend a ton of time on continued learning—reading blogs, attending conferences and webinars, discussing and testing new techniques—and a lot of that learning happens outside of normal work hours. The right candidate should be someone who loves learning and has the ability to independently drive their ongoing education.

Ask job candidates about another situation where they’ve had to quickly pick up a new skill. What did they do to learn it? How did that go? If it’s never come up for them, ask what they might do in that situation.

Interview prep is something I always look for in a candidate, since it shows they’re actually interested in the job. Ask what they’ve done to prep for the interview. Did they take a look at your company website? Maybe do some Googling to find other informational resources on what digital marketing entails? What did they learn? Where did they learn it? How did they find it?

Give your candidates some homework before the interview. Have them read the 
Beginner’s Guide to SEO, maybe Google’s Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide, or the demo modules at Distilled U. How much of it did they retain? More importantly, what did they learn? Which brings us to:

Do they have a small understanding of what SEO is and why we do it?

I’ve seen a lot of people get excited about learning SEO, do OK for a year or two, and then crash and burn. The number one cause of SEO flame-out or burn-out, in my experience, is an inability to pivot from old tactics to new ones. This failure often stems from a fundamental lack of understanding of what SEO is (marketing, connecting websites that have stuff with people who want that stuff) and what it is not (any single SEO tactic).

It can be frustrating when the methods you originally learned on, or that used to work so well, dry up and blow away (I’m looking at you, siloing and PageRank sculpting). If you’re focused on what tricks and tactics can get you ranking #1, instead of on how you’re using digital techniques to market to and connect with potential customers, sooner or later the rug’s going to get pulled out from under you.

Ask your candidates: what did they retain from their research? Are they totally focused on the search engine, or have they thought about how visits can turn into revenue? Do they seem more interested in being a hacker, or a marketer? Some people really fall in love with the idea that they could manipulate search engines to do what they want; I look for people who are more in love with the idea of using the Internet as a tool to connect businesses with their customers, since ultimately your SEO client is going to want revenue, not just rankings.

Another trait I look for in the interview process is empathy. Can they articulate why a business might want to invest in search? Ask them to imagine some fears or concerns a small business owner might have when starting up an Internet marketing program. This is especially important for agency work, where communicating success requires an understanding of your client’s goals and concerns.

Can they write?

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Even if you’re looking to grow someone into a technical SEO, not a content creator, SEO involves writing well. You’re going to have to be able to create on-page elements that not only communicate topical relevance to search engines but also appeal to users.

This should go without saying, but in my experience definitely doesn’t: their resume should be free of typos and grammatical errors. Not only is this an indicator of their ability to write while unsupervised, it’s also an indicator of their attention to detail and how seriously they’re taking the position.

Any kind of writing experience is a major plus for me when looking at a resume, but isn’t necessarily a requirement. It’s helpful to get some idea of what they’re capable of, though. Ask for a writing sample, and better yet, look for a writing sample in the wild online. Have they blogged before?
You’ll almost certainly be exchanging emails with a candidate before an interview—pay attention to how they communicate via email. Is it hard to tell what they’re talking about? Good writing isn’t just about grammar; it’s about communicating ideas.

I like to give candidates a scenario like “A client saw traffic to their website decline because of an error we failed to detect. We found and corrected the error, but their traffic numbers are still down for the month,” and have them compose a pretend email to the client about what happened. This is a great way to test both their written communication skills and their empathy for the client. Are you going to have to proofread their client emails before they go out? That sounds tedious.

How are their critical thinking and data analysis skills?

A brand-new digital marketer probably won’t have any experience with analytics tools like Google Analytics, and that’s OK—you can teach them how to use those. What’s harder to teach is an ability to think critically and to use data to make decisions.

Have your candidates ever been in a situation where they needed to use data to figure out what to do next? What about tell a story, back up a claim or change someone’s mind? Recent college grads should all have recent experience with this, regardless of their major—critical thinking and data analysis are what college is all about.
How comfortable are they in Microsoft Excel? They don’t have to love it, but if they absolutely loathe it, SEO probably isn’t for them. Would it make them miserable to spend most of a day in a spreadsheet (not every day, but fairly regularly)?

Are they a citizen of the web?

Even if they’ve never heard of SEO, a new employee is going to have an easier time learning it if they’re already pretty net savvy. An active web presence also indicates a general interest in the the Internet, which is one indicator of whether they’ll have long-term interest in digital marketing as a field. Do some recon: are they active on social media? Have they ever blogged? What comes up when you Google them?

Prior experience

Different applicants will have different backgrounds, and you’ll have the best idea of what skills someone will need to bring to the table to fill the role you need. When I’m reading a resume, I take experience in any of these areas as a good sign:

  • Marketing 
  • Advertising 
  • Public relations 
  • APIs (using them, creating apps with them, what have you) 
  • Web development or coding of any kind 
  • Web design 
  • Copywriting

Your mileage may vary

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Very few candidates are going to excel in all of the areas outlined above, and everyone you talk to is going to be stronger in some areas than others. Since digital marketing can include a wide variety of different tasks, keep in mind the things you’d actually like the person to do on the job; for example, written communication becomes somewhat less important in a non-client-facing role. At the very least, look for a smart, driven person who is excited about digital marketing as a career opportunity (not just as a next paycheck).

Hiring inexperienced people has its risks: the person you hire may not actually turn out to be any good at SEO. They may have more trouble learning it than you anticipated, and once they start doing it, they may decide that SEO just isn’t what they want to do long-term.

On the other hand, hiring and training someone who’s a great fit for your company culture and who is excited about learning often results in a better employee than hiring someone with experience who doesn’t really mesh well with your team. Plus, teaching someone SEO is a great way to make sure they don’t have any bad habits that could put your clients at risk. Best of all, you have the opportunity to unlock a whole career for someone and watch them grow into a world-class marketer—and that’s a great feeling.

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