Posted by Duncan Morris

Earlier this year Rand did a Whiteboard Friday video talking about how to get an SEO job. A couple of years ago Rebecca covered the SEOmoz hiring process, with a full re-cap of how Jane became a ‘mozzer. What follows is my take on a similar topic, two years later, and a couple of thousand words shorter 😉

We are in the process of hiring a Search Marketing Apprentice. This post will explain the steps we go through when hiring and what we are looking for at the various stages. Whether you are hiring or job seeking, you will hopefully get something out of what follows.

Don’t forget the SEOmoz Marketplace has a list of internet marketing jobs, including our role.

The SEO Job Description

Our SEO hires so far (Lucy and Rob) have been people who had no SEO experience when they started. What I’m going to talk about here is the way we have approached hiring people in order to train them in-house. I’m sure the steps we would take when hiring an experienced person would differ slightly, but since we haven’t yet hired an advanced SEO, I’ll have to leave that to your better judgment.

For inexperienced hires questions about past successes are not relevant. For much of the interview process you need to be working out who has an aptitude for SEO. The first step of this has got to be defining what you mean by SEO, or at the very least deciding what role the new hire will take on. This is no different from creating a specification for a new piece of software. If you don’t know what the program is meant to do, it’s impossible to say when it works. Likewise, if you don’t know what the new role will entail it will be harder to know when you have found the right person.

We had this exact problem recently and ended up wasting a lot of time interviewing people for a vague job description. Given we didn’t really know what we were looking for, we struggled to find the right person. In the end we didn’t hire anyone.

I urge anyone who is starting the process of hiring to really tie down the job description and the type of person you need. It will help in every stage of the process.

SEO Aptitude

Discovering aptitude is something that is quite tricky, since you are trying to work out how good someone will be at something they know little about. Our approach has always been to ask fairly broad questions and see where the candidate goes with them. The following are some of the questions we have asked in the past:

  • What, in your opinion, are the goals of the search engines?
  • Please tell us about two websites that you really like and discuss what makes them so good.
  • Give an example of something you’ve promoted or sold to others.

The right candidate has, in our experience, always managed to provide interesting answers even if they aren’t always 100% right. At this stage we’re not looking for 100% right – we’re looking for someone who has that certain spark and who, with training, will get what SEO is all about. Working out if someone is going to "get it" is incredibly hard. If you are lucky enough to meet someone who does, you just know.

Writing Job Adverts

The type of job advert you write will almost certainly have an effect on the type of person who applies for the job. Having just re-read the advert I wrote, I’m as guilty of this as anyone. It seems that everything we have learnt about writing compelling and interesting content (especially titles) gets thrown out of the window when it’s time to write a job ad. Jane wrote about this exact topic when she was looking to rent a flat.

The first draft of my job advert talked about keyword research, linkbuilding, linkbait and all that fun stuff. Lucy then pointed out that we were hiring someone with no experience, and the right person may never have heard of those. Draft 2 was a bit better. Draft 3 came after I’d written this post and realised that I wasn’t practicing what I preached!

Lucy said (I promise I didn’t pay her) one of the reasons she applied for the job was "the thoroughness of the spec and the fun style of writing in the ad and the questions." Spending time writing a good advert shows you care about the role. The good people out there can probably afford to ignore poorly written or dull adverts. Good adverts lead to good people.

Filtering the Applications

It turns out a lot of people are a) lazy, b) desperate for a job, and c) unrealistic about how good they are (I’m being as diplomatic as possible). The first time we hired we put out adverts asking for a cover letter and a CV. We were literally inundated with responses, of which only 10% passed a threshold of "worth looking at twice." My favourite was the "cover letter" that simply said "here is my CV for looking."

Luckily we learnt that lesson very early on, and since then have had great success in asking people to answer some questions first. Unsurprisingly, we immediately saw a drop in applications and a rise in the average quality of applications. It turns out the people who just widely send their CV to anyone with a vacancy can’t be bothered answering a few questions. I was pleasantly surprised to see that a lot of people put significant effort into answering the questions.

Time and time again we have found out more from these questions that we did from reading a CV. Rightly or wrongly I’ve had a pretty good idea of who we will end up hiring based on the answer to these questions.

SEO Interview Topics

This stage is certainly one where it will differ if you are hiring an experienced person. Like Rand talked about in Whiteboard Friday, a lot of the interview process is trying to work out the personality of your interviewee and how well they will fit in with the rest of the team. The sort of questions you ask should all tie back nicely to the job description you decided upon. If you want a creative person, asking them technical questions isn’t going to give them a chance to shine, and at the end of the day your job as an interviewer is to give people the chance to impress.

To Summarise

The people you hire will make or break your company. Good people make a company, bad people don’t. I’m not promising that if you follow the above stuff you will find a good person, but I suspect that if you write a dull job advert for a poorly defined role you are more likely going to only find dull people who don’t really have a ideal role in mind.

SEO is a relatively new industry and, as yet, career departments don’t talk about SEO as an career option. None of the (relatively few) kids I know are growing up wanting to be an SEO – they still favour farming, firemen, or Buzz Lightyear. All of this added together makes finding good people harder than hiring for other roles. On top of that there is the fact that SEO as a whole has a weird mix of marketing and technical skills, which often sit at the opposite end of a fairly long scale.

Finally, brilliantly, it sometimes happens that exceptional people just sorta turn up. If that happens, ignore everything I’ve just said and take a chance: it’ll be well worth it.

So, over to you in the comments. Let’s hear what you find works best when hiring. Failing that, funny stories about incredibly bad applications always go down well.

Do you like this post? YesNo

More: continued here