10 Things I’ve Learned Recently About Hiring and Applying for SEO Roles

Here at Distilled NY we’ve been running a hiring cycle, and it’s really brought front and center for me the key elements that make a digital marketing (and specifically SEO) candidate stand out from the crowd. So I wanted to share a few things I’ve learned in the process.

For the purpose of this post, I’m going to tackle this topic from two angles (with 5 points on each, in true “10 Things I’ve Learned…” style):

Part I: 5 attributes I now look for in any new analyst or consultant hire (and what you as an employer might want to think about before making someone an offer), and

Part II: 5 things to consider as a job seeker if you’re applying for a role at a company like Distilled.

I should also note that this post is based on my own personal approach and viewpoint, rather than representing any kind of official Distilled documentation.

What I look for in a new SEO hire

At Distilled, we hire for SEO consultants at two levels — analyst (entry-level) and consultant (3+ years experience). The core elements we look for are the same for each, but for consultants there’s obviously also an expected baseline of technical knowledge.

There are four key skillsets we look for when we evaluate a candidate throughout this process (based on our Distilled manifesto), in addition to their level of technical knowledge.

These are some questions that I’ve found useful to ask myself (not necessarily the candidate!) when identifying whether someone is a good fit in each of these areas. Note that no single one of these questions will necessarily make or break the outcome, but taken all together they can provide a relatively strong indicator of the level of the candidate in each area:

1. Communication skills

  • How well do you express yourself?
  • How professional do you seem (both on the phone and/or in person)?
  • Are you engaging and enthusiastic?
  • How clearly can you tell a story?
  • How clearly can you explain a technical concept?
  • How clearly can you explain a subject I don’t know anything about?
  • Could I trust you to lead a client meeting with confidence? At the C-Suite level?

2. Getting things done

  • Can you give me clear examples of being a self-motivated person?
  • Do you have any side projects (I don’t really care what they are, but this indicates a self-motivated learner)?
  • Can you give me examples of achieving goals or targets?
  • Can you give me examples of when you took action that had an impact?

3. Raw smarts and curiosity

Note that what I call “smartness” is not necessarily academic achievement, book learning, etc.

  • Teach me about a topic you geek out about. Why?
  • Are you a curious person?
  • Do you ask questions about ‘why’?
  • Did you teach yourself at least part of your marketing skillset? (I have no issue with people learning marketing from a course or degree, but I want to know that you will keep teaching yourself new skills without a teacher grading you or giving you assignments. This question is really about assessing self-starter indicators).

For me, this “smartness” piece really comes down to the curiosity part. I want to work with people who are always asking why, and who get excited about discovering new ideas or learning new skills. These people make great consultants.

4. Culture fit

  • Would I be excited to have this person on my team?
  • For me, this usually means that they show enthusiasm for the topic of SEO/digital, and that they’re a self-motivated learner. Basically, I want to feel that this person is going to push me to up my game, push themselves to constantly get better, and in the process will bring the whole consulting team up with them.
  • What sort of work environment are you looking for?
    • We have a relaxed environment at Distilled, but this only works because our employees are self-motivated. If you tell me you’re looking for a flexible work environment, I’ll want to understand why.
    • Is it because you know how you work best, and you want a job that supports your best work? Or is it because you’re lazy? Because I can tell the difference.

5. Technical knowledge

If you’re applying at the consultant level, I will also test your technical knowledge and experience.

Examples of the type of technical questions I’ll ask on the initial phone screen are:

  • What’s the biggest site you’ve ever done a technical audit of, in terms of number of pages?
    • Many of our clients have sites with millions of pages, so I want to know that you can handle this scale.
    • If you haven’t worked with a site this size before, it’s not necessarily a dealbreaker, but in that case I want to see that you’re aware that you haven’t worked with a truly massive site, and get a sense that you’d at least have a thought on how to approach this type of site. I once had a candidate respond to this question with an answer along the lines of “Oh yes, I’ve worked with some really big sites, they had, like, thousands of pages.” That makes me think that you don’t truly understand the scale that some of our enterprise clients operate at.
  • Talk me through your process for a technical SEO audit.
    • What tools do you use?
    • What questions will you ask?
    • What are the issues that you would prioritize?
    • I don’t necessarily expect you to answer the way I would, but I want to see that you understand basic technical SEO principles and that you have a process that is logical and thorough.
  • What was your biggest technical win for a client?
    • This gives me insight into how you think about technical priorities and value.
  • What is the most common problem that you come across with client websites?
    • This gives me a sense of the kind of experience that you have.
  • What do you think the biggest difference will be in SEO in five years’ time?
    • The main things I look for with this question are whether you…
      • Get excited at the opportunity to talk about the future of search
      • Have thoughts on this topic already because you think about/talk about this stuff for fun (curiosity and self-learning, remember?!)
  • Rapid-fire round:
    • I say a task, you tell me your preferred tool:
      • Information architecture audit?
      • Keyword research?
      • Site crawl?
      • Content gap analysis?
      • Backlink audit?

There aren’t necessarily any right answers for most of these tasks, but if you don’t mention any of the common tools that we use frequently in the SEO space, even just to tell me why they’re not your tool of choice, that’s a red flag for me that you’re not particularly experienced. Bonus points if you can also tell me why you do or don’t use certain tools.

If a candidate moves forward to an in-person interview, we’ll dig a little deeper on technical expertise. As part of this, we will provide some common client-based scenarios and ask for your process for how you might approach the scenario. There is usually no one right answer, but if it’s a diagnostic problem, there are certain steps or sense-checks I would expect every competent SEO consultant to take before making a recommendation.

For instance, if I give you a scenario around how to handle duplicate content from faceted navigation, where the client has asked for separate pages for 10 color variants of the product across thousands of products, I would expect you to at least mention the following:

  • Keyword research
  • Handling parameters and crawl budget
  • Ideas for how to differentiate identical product description content
  • And also being willing and able to challenge, or at least sense-check, client assumptions about what the correct approach might be! In this scenario, for instance, maybe they don’t actually need to have every color variant of the product indexed if the search volume isn’t there.

We will also ask technical questions which do have clear right and wrong answers, to ensure that you have the baseline of knowledge that we would expect an analyst to achieve before we would be able to promote him or her to consultant. These are not always particularly challenging questions, but surprisingly, a lot of candidates get them wrong. An example of this type of question would be something like “Can you explain how Google search works to someone with limited technical knowledge?,” “Can you draw an example of a SERP layout on the whiteboard?,” or “How would you set up a robots.txt file to block these pages and folders?”

How to be a great SEO candidate (agency-specific)

Of course, all of the above applies equally as an applicant in terms of things to think about in preparation for an SEO interview. In fact, if you’re preparing for an interview like this, you may want to think about how you would respond to each of the questions I’ve outlined above, and how you could tell stories that would demonstrate these 5 key attributes that we’re looking for. The four main criteria are pretty universally valuable attributes in any workplace — and they’re also key indicators in my experience of whether a candidate will succeed in this specific type of role, and especially in an agency environment.

But! I promised you 10 things in the title of this post, so here are 5 applicant-specific things I’ve learned recently from seeing the process from the other side:

1. Don’t bullshit.

Be honest if you don’t know something. Especially at the analyst level, we’re looking for people we can train, and honesty about where you’re at is essential to that process.

2. Stay on point.

I need to see that you can communicate clearly with a client and outline the 5 Ws of a recommendation or strategy, without getting lost in unnecessary detail or losing your train of thought.

3. Don’t try to guess what answer I’m looking for.

I want to understand your thought process. It’s obvious when you’re just trying to tell me what I want to hear — because you’re not speaking with authenticity or conviction.

This one ties into the first two, because when you try to guess what I’m looking for, it also makes it harder to stay on point. You end up waffling and um-ing and ah-ing because you’re trying to feel your way to my point of view instead of presenting your own opinion. It’s an easy mistake to make when you get nervous, so a tip for dealing with the nerves is to just take a quick second to breathe before you answer, and check in with yourself about how you really feel about the topic. And if the answer is “I don’t know the answer” — that’s ok. Feel free in that case to talk about how you might approach figuring out the answer, though — if we’re going to be working together I want to know that you’ll be proactive enough to find out the answer, or at least have an idea of where to start when you get stuck!

4. Don’t try to “win” the interview.

Don’t go in with the end game of getting the offer. Go in with a sense of what you’re looking for in your next position and approach this time we’re spending together as an opportunity for us to explore together whether the role and the company is a good fit for you. I’ve made this mistake in both directions, as an interviewee prior to my current role and more recently sometimes as an interviewer (because I want you to like me, too!).

Remember: I really want you to be the perfect fit for what I need! So I’m not out to trip you up — in fact, if I can help you perform well, I will. For instance, if you don’t quite seem to understand the question, or if I don’t quite hear what I was hoping for, I’ll rephrase the question differently to help you see what I’m getting at and see if we can get there together. If you still don’t manage to get there when we give you that support, though, at that point it’s pretty clear that we aren’t a good fit.

5. Do the research.

We once interviewed someone for a sales role, and we asked them if they knew what services Distilled offered. She clearly didn’t know but tried to answer anyway, and went on to guess a couple correctly but then threw in a third service which is not a specialty of ours and is not advertised publicly as a service we provide. To me this showed a basic lack of preparation which I would view as necessary in any sort of consulting or sales-based role, and it was one of the reasons I didn’t recommend moving her forward in the process (although not the only reason).

So there you have it — 10 things I’ve learned recently about hiring and applying for SEO jobs!

I hope that you’ve found this post helpful, regardless of which side of the table you’re currently finding yourself on. I’d love to hear your best tips and worst experiences in the comments 😉 and if you’re looking for a new opportunity, and this process sounds like something you’d like to explore further, check out our Jobs page for current openings!