For many companies, hiring an SEO is diving into the dreaded realm of information "you don't know you don't know." In the search world, there are few more expensive and time wasting efforts than hiring a full-time employee who's in over his/her head.
The spectrum of talent is far too wide in the search world. There are terrifically gifted folks and others who lack the required knowledge and skill set to have any impact.
There are two major reasons for this astronomical talent disparity within the industry:
- Search is an unregulated industry.
- The process for hiring an SEO has been largely unexplored.
Here is a four-step guide to hiring a good SEO. Marketing managers: consider yourself equipped to make the right hire!
Step 1: Get a Strategy From an Agency
Contrary to popular belief, many agencies such frequently work with in-house teams (or companies planning an in-house move) and happily provide walk-away audits and strategies for creating search traffic.
Having a strategy in place before beginning the hiring process is a great way to understand your search needs, essential tasks, and realistic (data-driven) goals. This provides a great, objective framework to use as a guide during the hiring process.
If you aren't budgeted for a full strategy, see if you can hire an agency for site review. It won't be nearly as thorough, but should provide a high-level understanding of your search needs.
Step 2: Collect Your Talent Pool
Ask for recommendations, post on relevant job boards, and weed through the siege of monster.com. Try to get a pool of at least five candidates with relevant work experience.
Step 3: Interview & Test
There are five essential skills required to be an effective SEO consultant. Failure to answer any of the following questions with a resounding "yes!" should be considered a non-starter.
1. Does the consultant have a strong understanding of on-page factors? Is the code clean, light, and formatted properly? Are keywords used appropriately? The ability to analyze, understand, and quickly make on-page changes are a foundation of search.
- Ask: What are the five most important factors in on-page optimization?
- Ask: What are some on-page activities that are considered black hat by Google?
- Ask: What is cross-domain canonicalization?
- Test: Give your candidate a laptop with only Notepad open (and no Internet connection!). Ask the SEO to code a page from scratch and optimize it for 2-3 keywords. This test will give you a strong understanding of the SEO's coding skills, ability to execute a task quickly and effectively, and an overall understanding of important on-page search factors. At the very least, ask your consultant to write some meta data.
2. Does the consultant have a strong understanding of off-page factors?
- Ask: What are the most important off-page ranking factors?
- Ask: Can you discuss previous link building efforts and results in terms of traffics/rankings/and revenue?
- Test: This is the perfect opportunity to give your candidate a case study. For example, X domain is looking to increase rankings for the keyword "teddy bears." Based on their ranking goals, competitive landscape, and audience demographic, please create two to three link building strategies and accompanying campaigns (I use this term loosely). An SEO candidate can really prove his worth if he's able to generate an ROI model.
3. Does the consultant have a strong conceptual understanding of other channel activities such as conversion optimization or social media?
- Ask: How do you see SEO and social media interacting in the next five years?
- Test: Show the candidate a PPC landing page and ask him/her to list five different ways to improve conversion rates.
4. Does the consultant have reasonably strong analytics skills?
- Ask: Do you have the capacity to correlate revenue to search traffic?
- Ask: How would you measure rankings?
- Test: Allow the candidate access to analytics. Ask your consultant to segment traffic by non-branded search terms and to determine the most valuable search terms.
5. Does the candidate have the ability to perform market/keyword research?
- Ask: Describe your process for conducting competitive research. What tools (if any) do you use?
- Ask: What is the most important step we need to take to catch up to competitor X?
- Test: Give your candidate a list of five keywords and ask him/her to sort the list by most competitive to least competitive and by the keywords that you think would convert at the highest rates.
Step 4: Hire the Agency for a Few More Hours
If you've followed step three, you should have a tremendous data set to make a decision. Give the data to the agency and ask them to review the answers (I would recommend removing candidates' names).
The agency should be able to quickly review and make recommendations or call out red flags based upon the answers. Additionally, the agency will likely be able to point out any potential weaknesses that might be addressed through training after the hiring process is complete.
Good SEOs always appreciate the opportunity to demonstrate their skill sets, so don't be afraid to ask these types of questions. Feel free to turn to the agency or a trusted third party to help tailor questions like the ones listed above to your unique business goals.
Remember, tests like the ones listed above only give any idea of skill set. Be sure to get qualified references and a verifiable performance history to help mitigate risk.