Hiring the right kind of people is a crucial part of running successful digital marketing operations. Get it right and you’ll have human assets who’ll give your company exponentially more value than what you invest. Get it wrong and you’ll be watching bad hires erode away the value of your enterprise.
It’s a high-stakes game with very little room for error, so it’s no surprise that hiring is a frequent topic when I get together with industry friends over some beer. Finding, recruiting and retaining the right employees is an art that we’re constantly trying to get better at.
JP Prieto, Sam Nam, JJ Pike, Jason Acidre and I have hired and managed hundreds of SEO professionals throughout our careers. By now, we already have a list of things to look for when trying to find people to fill open positions. It takes a combination of skills, aptitudes, personality and luck to land a difference-making employee in our respective workplaces.
If you’re a manager who’s hiring SEOs or if you’re an SEO specialist looking for a job, you might want to take notes. I’m listing down a set of qualities that key decision makers in the SEO scene look for when making hiring decisions.
Aptitudes, Skills and Background
Aptitudes, skills and backgrounds give employers valuable clues on whether or not an applicant will be capable of making a positive impact in the workplace. These are the things that a potential employee brings to the table and these are the things that interviewers like me look at when trying to assess an applicant’s potential.
When we initiate the recruitment process, my industry friends and I look at the following key areas:
- Writing Skills – SEO’s thought leaders believe that the Web is headed towards a semantic future where content quality will mean more to search than ever before. Google is driving hard towards more holistic user experiences by factoring brand strength, social signals and entity identification in its rankings. The goal is to make search results more responsive to user intent and that’s an area that content quality directly impacts.
Having said that, it’s apparent that tomorrow’s successful SEO specialist needs to have the ability to understand, plan and build content assets. The days of the SEO specialist who only knows how to build links is coming to an end. The SEOs we hire these days realize that each website is a publisher in its own right and sites that are good at publication have an inherent advantage in search. As content directly impacts SEO, it’s inevitable that SEO specialists come to the workplace with authoring and editorial sensibilities in their respective arsenals.
Writing skills extend beyond content and SEO. In agencies such as GDI, a SEO specialist’s ability to exchange emails with clients is essential in maintaining good relationships with our customers, The ability to answer questions and convey complex ideas in simple terms to clients is a valuable skill that busy managers, directors and CEOs appreciate in their subordinates. It takes a load off our backs and it gives our subordinates a sense of ownership and empowerment.
The thing about writing ability is that you either have it or you don’t. SEO concepts and skills can be taught in a matter of days, but writing skills take years to develop. When we come across applicants with good writing skills, we usually file their resumes in our shortlists.
How we Gauge It: Writing skills are easily measured via essay exams. We usually ask applicants to answer SEO-related questions which allow us to gauge both their knowledge of the job and how they express themselves in written communications. Grammar, flow and simplicity are qualities we look for when we test how effective an applicant is as a writer.
- Spoken Communication Skills – Speaking skill doesn’t translate directly to better search rankings, but it’s a great business enabler. When we hire people, we don’t think of just the immediate job function that the applicant will perform. As employers, we ask ourselves how we see a person developing in the next two years. As much as possible, we want our hires to take on increasingly more important roles on their way to becoming leaders themselves.
More often than not, leading involves the effective verbal expression of ideas and instructions. Effective speech allows a person to influence the people around him, which translates into buy-in from colleagues and leadership potential that’s noticeable by senior management.
Good speakers are also preferred when it comes to dealing with clients in calls and meetings, The better our people are at imparting our visions to our clients, the stronger our relationships with clients grow. From a customer retention standpoint, having this kind of skill is a gift that keeps on giving.
How we Gauge It: Good old-fashioned interviews work best when gauging a person’s speaking ability. The quickness, sureness and correctness of responses are hallmarks of a competent speaker. There’s no need to look for an orator, of course. You just need someone who can effectively carry smart conversations with clients and colleagues.
- Reading Comprehension – SEO is a rapidly-evolving craft that requires constant knowledge refreshes from its practitioners. As such, I personally demand my team to read and understand every major development that comes along. Startup agencies like GDI are only as good as our ability to stay at the industry’s cutting edge. If we fall behind, we risk exposing our clients to ranking mishaps that directly impact their respective revenues.
For that reason, we prefer to work with people who have above average levels of reading comprehension. Guys who can pick up concepts from textual content quickly and accurately gives our group the strategic agility it needs to provide topnotch services to its customers.
Reading comprehension also translates into the easier understanding of the businesses of our clients. It allows us to be more nimble in applying the SEO gameplan that we implemented.
How We Gauge It: There’s a lot of ways to do this, but I personally like to have applicants read a recent SEO blog post that I’ve written or read. I ask them what they understood from it and I question them on how they can apply what they learned. The answers reveal how much information they digested and what kind of critical thinking skills thy have based on their reactions.
- Solid Mathematical and Logical Aptitude – Not everyone is blessed with a great mathematical mind, but SEOs are expected to at least be good in the areas of arithmetic, business math and statistics. Writing skills, reading comprehension and the ability to learn processes is for entry and intermediate-level SEOs. High-level SEOs are able to digest data from web analytics platforms, crunch the numbers and use them to make informed decisions that shape a site’s overall strategy.
Your traffic and behavior data will come in handy when figuring out what kind of content your core readers prefer, determining which promotional activities drive the most value and showing how much of an impact you’re bringing to your client’s business.
How We Gauge It: Simple problem solving exercises will reveal a lot about a person’s logical and mathematical ability. Don’t worry: you won’t have to review high school math when you apply in GDI, but you will be expected to understand formulas and apply them to solve simple equations.
- SEO Knowledge – It’s not a requirement, but having a good understanding of how white hat SEO works is a major plus when I’m hiring. If it’s a close race between two applicants and one has the advantage of hitting the ground running in the workplace, it’s easy to see whom I’ll be leaning towards.
An understanding of how search engines work, how to use SEO tools that we use, how to develop and promote content, and how to run campaigns are all nice to have in a new employee. However, it’s not a deal breaker if an applicant doesn’t have these skills yet. A high-potential applicant can learn these things in months.
How We Gauge It: Personally, I like showing applicants some websites, then I ask them to draw up a campaign for me complete with a timeline, tasks and resources involved. If you’re feeling a little sadistic, you can ask your applicants to take Moz’s 120-question SEO quiz. 😉
- Side-skills – Having an extra skill or two makes an applicant more attractive. Web design, web development, Photoshop skills and mobile app developmentare all welcome in any digital marketing agency. This is particularly true for startups like us who don’t have a lot of manpower to throw around. The more functions an employee can cover, the more valuable he or she is to us.
Aptitudes, skills and backgrounds are only part of the equation when trying to find the best candidate for your SEO opening. Talent is good, but it’s not worth a lot if an applicant doesn’t have the intangibles that will allow him to make good use of his abilities.
Intangibles is the term that I use to describe attitudes, tendencies and qualities that comprise a person’s character in the workplace. These things are just as important than a person’s innate intellectual capacity.
Unfortunately, an applicant’s intangibles are much tougher to gauge from an interview or exam than his skills and talents. It takes experience, a basic knowledge of behavioural psychology and a lot of confidence in your instincts to hire someone who will perform in your workplace to the best of his or her ability.
The following are the bahavioral characteristics that me and my peers look out for when evaluating applicants:
- Willingness to Learn – As alluded to earlier, SEO is a fast-changing industry where you’re only as good as your ability to cope with the latest Google update. It’s human nature to resent change, but that’s just something we can’t have in a digital marlketring environment. An applicant’s willingness to learn new things is perhaps the most valuable of the intangibles he can bring to the table.
How We Gauge It: In interviews, I like asking applicants if they attend conferences, if they network with other professionals in the industry and go after special trainings to improve their skills. Real students of the game have no problems investing their time and money in their personal braintrusts. For fresh graduates, I like checking their transcripts of records. Grades don’t directly reflect a person’s intelligence, but they do show how hard an applicant works to learn something even when he or she doesn’t necessarily want to.
- Competitiveness – SEO is a rankings game, and it’s not for the faint of heart. Winning in this industry involves having fire in your belly to take out your competitors. Not literally, of course, but you have to constantly want to outperform them in order for it to actually happen.
Being competitive involves sacrifice and investment. Long working hours, doing things few others would dare to do and improving weak areas of your skill set are just some of the things that competitive people regularly display. Sure, SEO has a lot to do with talent but some of the best in the business aren’t just talented; they’re also insanely hard working.
Sam Nam, for all his data driven brilliance, isn’t the type to rest on his laurels. When I worked with him while he was the Director of Digital Room Philippines, he was always the first guy in the office and he’s always one of the last to leave. He could have stopped with being just great at what he does, but he’s extremely passionate and he keeps himself updated with all the happenings in the digital marketing scene.
Jason Acidre is cut from the same kind of cloth. Even with his popularity and his thriving digital marketing industry, he’s still a guy who works during the weekends. He still develops strategies and processes for his team when he could just as easily rely on his directors and managers to do that. All that Counter-Strike professional gaming experience definitely had an impact in his professional develooment.
The only drawback to competitiveness is that some folks find competitive people a little abrasive. Competitive persons tend to be demanding of the people around them just as they are very demanding of themselves. It’s usually up to your agency’s senior management and HR team to establish a culture of healthy competition within the workplace. In GDI, everyone is encouraged to be competitive, but to be politically correct at all times.
How We Gauge It: This is another trait that’s pretty hard to gauge and it takes a little bit of experience to detect it. In my case, I tend to ask questions about a person’s ambitions, where he wants to be professionally in five years and what he’s willing to do to get there. I also like asking about past jobs and how the person was perceived by his peers there.
- Mental Toughness – Mental toughness is the collective term for behavioral attributes that reflect how a person performs in difficult situations. SEO and marketing in general is a pressure-packed craft that rewards people who are at their best when the stakes are high. Dealing with penalties, answering tough questions from unhappy clients, beating deadlines and meeting quotas are things that give people a lot of stress. Mentally tough employees view them as challenges that they calmly have to overcome.
In other words, do we see an applicant keeping calm and doing better when his job is on the line or will that person resign to his fate and wait to get fired?
How We Gauge It: It’s not easy to say for sure how mentally tough a person is from an interview. Most applicants will look enthusiastic and positive when they’re trying to land a job. However, there are a few things you can do to get some hints about this factor.
For instance, one of my friends likes to have a whiteboard in his office when interviewing SEO and SEM applicants. That’s because he’ll ask them to solve math problems in front of him in the middle of the interview. If an unexpected algebra quiz isn’t enough pressure, the thought of a person watching you struggle should make you very uncomfortable. It’s how this friend of mine sees how an applicant deals with a little unexpected duress.
My former boss and mentor, Martin Anastacio, is one of the most professional people you’ll ever meet. In interviews, though, he likes to use a louder, deeper voice to put on the illusion of being stern. I bet he does it to see if the applicant gets intimidated, annoyed or uneasy. As they say, we tend to behave more honestly when we’re not in our comfort zones. It’s how he keeps babies and assholes out of his department and it’s an art I constantly try to emulate.
- Concept of Accountability – In any workplace, 99% of the mistakes you can make can be fixed. What’s important is having the kind of people in your team who recognize when they made an error without pointing fingers. That kind of attitude allows people to learn from their mistakes and address them without prolonging the agony from an operational and interpersonal perspectives.
In GDI, we always preach that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission. I believe in the skills and the judgment of the people I work with, so I want them to exercise their creative freedom as long as it’s for the good of the company and its clients. If something blows up, all my teammates need to do is acknowledge it, own it and make amends.
It’s a much better way to work than having everyone petrified of the idea of making mistakes. Allowing people to commit errors and learn first hand why they shouldn’t make the same mistake twice is a more powerful teacher than any lecturer or corporate process manual. It keeps the team sharp, dynamic and ethical.
How We gauge It: Interview questions about past jobs will reveal a lot. Asking the applicant about why he left a former employer, what he didn’t like about that place and what he would have changed will reveal some valuable clues.
Check if the applicant has a lot of gripes and scapegoats for everything bad that happened. Check if the applicant admits to having a fault in these matters and ask how he dealt with the situation. That will give you insights on whether this person will make himself accountable in your own workplace or if he’ll keep pointing fingers like he’s done in the past.
These are the things we look for new people who’ll fill key positions in our workplace. Ultimately, hiring decisions come down to whether or not the person is capable of doing the job and if he really wants to do it. If the answer is yes for both, the applicant stands a very good chance of landing the spot.