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April 1, 2008

What To Look For When Hiring InHouse SEOs

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Last week I wrote a post about What to Look For When Hiring Bloggers. That post got me thinking about what traits I’d look for if I wasn’t hiring a blogger, but instead someone to join my inhouse SEO team. What qualities are Must Haves and which are just Wants?

Hiring SEOs is tricky because the search engine optimization industry is a unique one. It’s one of the few fields where finding someone special takes more than just recruiting kids out of college and paying them enough to buy a fridge filled of beer and some ramen. There is no SEO major. There’s no Usability major. There are subjects just barely on the cusp of what we do for a living but there’s nothing with a skillset that perfect aligns to search engine optimization. So what do you look for? What are the traits that make a good SEO?

When coming up with traits SEOs should have I left off things like "prior experience in SEO", "knowledge of the search engines" or "being the brother of Matt Cutts". It’s not that these things aren’t important (especially that last one), but they’re all things that can be taught (okay, 2 out of 3). Just because someone knows what SEO stands for doesn’t mean he or she is any better qualified than the girl currently sitting in the marketing department who secretly has some mad technological savvy.

With that, here are the traits I’d look for if Bruce ever lost his mind and put me in charge of hiring our SEO team:

  • Technical Acumen: Most of what it takes to be a good SEO can be taught in a few months (at least on a basic level), but it definitely doesn’t hurt to hire someone with some technical skills. For example, I know that no amount of search engine optimization training will make me an A-list SEO. I could probably do the basics, but to be honest, I’m pretty technological retarded. I can’t even change my settings in Outlook without calling IT. You don’t want to hire someone like me to run your inhouse search engine optimization department. You want someone who is familiar with FTP programs, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, PHP, ASP, etc. Someone who perhaps has a basic understanding of Web design, IT understandings and knows Internet business models. I can write you some kickass ad copy, but that’s about it.
  • Analytical Mindset: Going along with being technologically skilled, you should also look for someone who is a bit mathy and analytical. Someone who can look at data sets without feeling lightheaded. As an SEO, you can’t be intimidated by numbers or conversion rates or other types of Web metrics. So much of search engine optimization is interpreting the information you already have and then making decisions off that. Gathering all the information collectors in the world won’t do you any good if you don’t have anyone who knows how to do something with those numbers.
  • Mad Research Skills: I personally believe (like such as?) that in order to be a good SEO you have to be tirelessly curious and inquisitive. Much of search engine optimization is based on research, tracking down answers, and experimentation that either you have the mindset for it or you don’t. When I look at the amount of time our SEO Analysts spend trying things out and researching the pearls of wisdoms exposed by the search engines, it’s amazing they get any "real" work done.
  • A Think Outside The Box-er: Hey, search engine optimization ain’t for dummies and it’s definitely not static. You need someone will be able to soak up the training you’re giving them and run with it. Someone who can read Larry and Sergey’s master plan and pick it apart. Someone who’s able to understand marketing practices and the bigger picture. People who exudes creativity and has that spark in their eye when you present them with a problem with no answer. A good hire will always be able to find that answer or at least spend a week not sleeping trying to find it. I credit the success of Bruce Clay’s SEO team to these people. Our SEO Analytics who don’t see the leaves off the tree, but instead imagine the leaves and somehow make it all come together to form a solid foundation. They’re awesome.
  • Ethics: I hate to even go here, but I think it’s important. You have to hire someone who will respect what search engine optimization is all about and not fall prey to the "quick and easy" mentality. The worst thing you can do is hire someone, teach them about SEO, and then watch as their eyes get real big reading less than pure SEO blogs and they start "experimenting" with your site. If you’re going to spend the time teaching someone the principles of search engine optimization, you want to make sure they’re going to stay true to those and not, um, wander. You don’t want your site getting banned because they were overzealous.
  • Optimizable: Above all, you want someone who you can train and who will fit inside your organization. It makes no difference how smart they are, how creative, how skilled if they can’t work within your group. Smart people incapable of working in a group setting do nothing but frustrate everyone.

Obviously there are plenty of other traits that can help make a great SEO, but I think these are some of the most important. Would it be nice to have someone who has experience in Web analytics? Sure, but you can train someone how to do that. Would it be nice to have someone who can write and craft really stellar landing pages and ad copy? Yes, but you can outsource that to other departments or teach basic writing skills. These are the traits that your hire is either going to have or be without. They’re what’s most important.

Remember when hiring that you probably won’t find all of them in one person, but as long as they’re common among your SEO team, I think you’re in pretty good shape.

Which traits for the perfect SEO did I miss?





11 responses to “What To Look For When Hiring InHouse SEOs”

  1. Derrick Wheeler writes:

    I think you hit the most important skills of an SEO however it really depends on the type of organization. For example in a big organization you need more people skills, negotiation skills, and the ability to influence others. Smaller org you might need technical and writing skills because you’ll have to do more of the actual implementation work.

    In my recent presentation at SMX I discussed the strengths to look for when building an SEO team from the book Strengths Finder 2.0.

    The strengths I mentioned are:

    Significance,
    Individualistic,
    Self-Assurance,
    Strategic,
    Futuristic,
    Restorative,
    Discipline, and
    Arranger.

    If you want to know what they mean, buy the book.

    Best,

    Derrick

  2. Tin Pig writes:

    Two problematic statements from this post:
    “There is no SEO Major”
    This statement, on it’s own, may encapsulate the single greatest thing wrong with the SEO industry today. Anybody who does not view SEO as a Marketing discipline is taking an extremely myopic view of the job title. SEO, on it’s own, will never warrant a specific degree program and should/will be adopted as course work for Marketing degrees. Yes, the tactics are new and, yes, adoption into formal university curriculum is slow moving. This statement, however, perpetuates the myth that SEO is mysterious and undefinable.
    “There’s no Usability major.”
    This is patently false. Human Factors and Human Computer Interaction have long been not only taught but specific degree programs. Here’s one example – http://www.bentley.edu/ms/mshfid.cfm

  3. Jim writes:

    I echo Derrick comment on the ability to educate.
    Also, I would add that the most important skill, above the ability to insert keywords into html titles and meta tags, is the ability to troubleshoot issues with urls in the search engine indices. Perfectly crafted seo will fail to perform if there are architectural issues with the website.

  4. Randy Duermyer writes:

    Nice post Lisa. I have to agree with Tin Pig’s comment on usability majors – they’ve been available for quite some time now, (in addition to Bentley, RPI and several others are known to have strong programs) although they are often ”
    more a part of engineering studies than marketing.

    However, I don’t think the statement that “There is no SEO major” has anything to do with perpetuating the myth that “SEO is mysterious and undefinable”. It’s just that academia has been too slow to keep up with the real world in this area. I think that because the programs don’t yet exist perpetuates this problem – not your statement.

    Search marketing – both SEO and PPC, etc. should be part of a marketing major, at least as an area of “concentration” , depending on the way the school’s degree programs are set up and the terminology they use.

    I also think that such a marketing “concentration” or certificate program in SEO/SEM should have some cross-disciplinary course requirements on the IT side of things. While it may not be important so much for PPC, technical courses outside of the marketing dept., such as information architecture and usability, should be part of a comprehensive SEO program – as well as a course in ethics.

  5. Derrick Wheeler writes:

    Jim,

    You mentioned, “the most important skill, above the ability to insert keywords into html titles and meta tags, is the ability to troubleshoot issues with urls in the search engine indices.”

    This is the specific SEO skill that I’ve spent most of my career developing and utilizing. I seem to have a knack for it and could literally spend all day doing it and be a happy person. Like Lisa with blogging.

    This troubleshooting skill maps to a strength (Restorative) from the book I mentioned in my earlier post, StregthFinder 2.0.

    The idea is that some people have a natural strength for fixing things that are broke. Restorative happens to be one of my top 5 strengths accoring to their tests.

    It could be really fun for all SEOs to take the StregthsFinder test to find out what their top 5 strengths are. Then share results.

    I think it would make for great link bait.

    Lisa, you take it from here. Please coordinate for all SEOs to take the stregthsFinder test and report on the findings. :)

    Back to my day job.

  6. Paul Bruemmer writes:

    Nice article Lisa!
    In addition, I’ll add “Desire” with a capital “D,” Mad Organization Skills and Mad Math Skills.
    Within the list we should also consider leadership skills; the ability to lead and teach is highly desirable. This has to do with the fact that SEO is a systemic process which affects many other divisions within a company e.g., IT, Marketing, Graphic Design, Copy writing and C-level accountability etc..

  7. Dave writes:

    Lisa,

    Overall, a really good post.
    Yeah, if you’re going to being doing SEO you absolutely HAVE to have some coding ability-or at least how to test for bad code. Working with CMS sites all the time, I have to say that search engine friendliness is hard to come by with all the crap that’s shoved into a CMS site (dotnetnuke, for example)-If the navigation is unsearchable, say goodbye to the inner content, unless you’ve got links from somewhere else…

    Beyond that, they should recognize poor design-and what type of affect it might have on that specific business. A good SEO should be more concerned on getting the RIGHT traffic instead of just a huge volume of traffic.

    The only marketing that should be taught regarding SEO is GUERILLA marketing. Get the job done by being smarter and more creative than the other guy(or gal):)

  8. Warren Pattison writes:

    I think a couple skills that have been missed in your post and comments herein are Project Management and Communication skill sets.
    There are always many moving parts and team members involved in an SEO project from executive sponsors to IT development. No matter the size of the project or size of the business, Project management skills are crucial – note, this could also fall under organization skills or leadership skills.
    Communications skills – both verbal and written are nearly equally as important. Your senior sponsors always want know what they are getting for their investment.

  9. Federal Watch writes:

    Absolutely True!..I really agree with you especially with the last part regarding SEO experts as someone who are “optimizable” or someone whom you can train to work in a group..it is really important that everybody in the group are working with each other..helping out each other in achieving the group’s goal.

  10. Javaun Moradi writes:

    Excellent post Lisa. I think you and other commenters nailed the vitals, including a few that wouldn’t have occurred to me.
    I echo the need for people and project leadership skills. In many organizations, the SEO must sell the other stakeholders to approve and implement the program. This includes design/usability, marketing, analytics, and of course engineering. I’ve heard so many times from in-house folks and even the top SEO agencies that their research and recommendations showed excellent opportunity but the project was never implemented.
    The ability to think like a strategic marketer is one of the most-underrated skills in our space. Even SEO agency VPs have difficulty thinking at this level, and that’s why most never get access to the C-suite.
    SEO is a very powerful lever, but it’s one of many that a website can pull. Understanding how SEO interplays with the other tactics can allow the in-house or agency search folks to set proper expectations and lead the conversation.

  11. Bonnie Gibbons writes:

    Tiny, tiny correction. I think you could go as far as “and the, like, such as.”



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