Knowledge-based interviews in the SEO world can be tough. Even with the most experienced SEOs, there’s little universal agreement regarding search ranking factors and their importance. So instead of putting together questions that feel like a test — too many wrong answers and you fail — I have created questions that focus on the candidates’ ability to explain what they know and why.
Many of the questions below are nothing more than a jump off point to a discussion. It’s not always about the correctness of the answer but their ability to demonstrate their knowledge of a topic.
While these questions can lead to discussions on the candidates’ experience and specific SEO strategies, they don’t necessarily have to go in that direction — yet. Think of these knowledge-based questions as a primer for the experience and strategy questions to come. If the candidate doesn’t demonstrate sufficient knowledge, there may be no need to go further.
Presented below are 46 knowledge-based SEO job interview questions, with a brief explanation as to where that question should lead the conversation.
How do you define SEO?
You want to start by establishing the foundation of what the candidate believes the role of SEO to be. This ensures that the interviewee is applying for the position you have in mind or to see if you have two different ideas as to the nature of what will be expected of them.
How did you learn SEO?
You’re looking for insight on the candidate’s overall interest and passion in SEO. Look for clues as to whether or not they are a self-starter or fell into SEO following the path of least resistance. Their answer here could tell you a lot about what kind of employee they will be.
How do you stay current with the almost-daily changes that occur in digital marketing?
You want to get a sense of the candidate’s educational process. Specifically, you want to know how much time they invest in education, the resources they utilize, and the people they follow to stay up to date.
What is the difference between a search engine friendly and search engine optimized website?
How they answer this question will tell you quite a bit about their knowledge and skill level overall. If they don’t know the difference, then you’re looking at someone extremely green. If they do know, they should be able to provide some strong details and examples of those differences.
How would you define a successful SEO campaign?
Similar to the first question, this one helps you make sure that you and the candidate are on the same page in regard to successful SEO. You should be looking for answers that go beyond “top search engine rankings” and into the realm of actual business improvement issues.
Where is the line between black hat and white hat SEO? Where do you fall on the spectrum?
Every SEO has different lines they will push and lines they won’t cross. You want to know where this candidate falls to ensure it’s a fit with your needs. More importantly, however, is to find out if the candidate can adhere to the lines you establish. You want to be sure they’ll be as aggressive as you need but not so aggressive that they cross lines you don’t want to be crossed.
What are the most important search engines and what makes them important?
Any mention of MSN (and even Yahoo) is ground for immediate disqualification. What you are looking for is how familiar the candidate is with the world of search outside of Google. Aside from Bing, the candidate should have at least surface knowledge of Duck Duck Go, Yandex, and Baidu.
What do you do differently to optimize for search engines other than Google?
The candidates may want to discuss how the various search engine algorithms differ, however, the crux of their answer should indicate that proper SEO is good for all search engines. They should be clear on the point that you should not tailor optimization for one specific search engine. The candidate should also demonstrate knowledge of some specific architectural issues that will need to be addressed when optimizing internationally.
Explain PageRank, its importance, and how it factors into SEO.
The candidate should be able to provide a layman’s explanation of PageRank. If the position requires direct interaction with non-technical people, it will be important that they are able to convey this in an easy to understand way.
What factors were impacted in the most recent (significant) Google updates?
Google is always making updates, but there is always a handful that stands out. You’re not looking for a complete history of Google algorithm changes or even the names of them, necessarily. The most important thing is they know how search engines are changing and what things they look for.
Name some of the regular features of SERPS.
Search engine results pages are much more than a list of paid and organic links. Local results, answer boxes, carousels, and more are all important parts of search results. Candidate should demonstrate a knowledge of these SERP enhancements and how those factor into their optimization efforts.
What percentage of a site’s traffic should come from Google? Where should the rest come from and what percentages?
You’re not looking for exact percentages but rather a general idea of how the candidate sees organic search falling into the overall spectrum and what other areas contribute to a site’s success. The candidate should show that they understand the value of bringing in traffic from multiple sources, not just Google (or organic search).
What are the five most important on-page optimization factors?
Every SEO focuses on different things and has different priorities. Here (and for the next three questions), you’re not looking for a “correct” answer. Instead, assess the answers given, which will tell you a great deal regarding what each candidate finds important. Even though there may be no right answers, that doesn’t mean there are no wrong ones, so keep on the lookout for anything you know to be unimportant. That’s a giant red flag.
What are the five most important off-page optimization factors?
Just as in the question above, you want to know what the candidate sees as important for off-page optimization. These answers don’t need to be specific to SEO, and in fact, a good SEO should know a few non-SEO factors that are important.
Tell me one on-page optimization factor that is commonly believed to be important but isn’t.
This could be a controversy-stirring question and deliberately so. You want to hear their opinion on specific “known” ranking factors where they disagree with conventional industry wisdom. Whether you agree or disagree with their answers is beside the point (unless they’re just so far off base it’s ridiculous). What you should get is an impassioned, reasoned, and thoughtful analysis of why this factor is not relevant.
Tell me one off-page optimization factor that is commonly believed to be important but isn’t.
Same as above but with the broader canvass of off-page optimization. On both this and the question above, you can solicit more than one example, just leave time to discuss each thoroughly.
What are some common SEO mistakes?
Where the questions above focus on SEO misconceptions, this one focuses specifically on bad SEO practices or mistakes that impact the success of SEO. The list can be almost endless. What you want to see is an awareness of things beyond optimization strategies. This will tell you what the candidate will keep an eye on once they start working for you in order to ensure the work they do for you is successful.
Explain the value of links in an SEO campaign.
This should include a discussion of both incoming, outgoing, and internal linking, and how the search engine algorithms factor them. Don’t let them get away with simplistic “quality over quantity” answers.
What is the importance of the title, description, and keyword meta tags?
The candidate should be able to articulate the value (or lack thereof) of each of these tags and why they are important to the SEO campaign. Since tag length changes frequently, this is not an important aspect of the question, though they should indicate that they understand how tag length impacts the optimization.
Define duplicate content and its relation to search engines.
The candidate should demonstrate a working knowledge of what does and does not constitute duplicate content along with how search engines treat it. Let the conversation move into areas of duplication of distributed content to partial duplication of product descriptions, etc. Don’t worry about discussing strategies here, but rather the impact of various forms of duplicated content.
How important are exact match domains to the optimization success?
Candidate should demonstrate sufficient knowledge regarding how search engines view exact match domains and how that impacts the success of your site specifically. Hint: Exact match domains have very little, if any, relevance to search, but there are other benefits the candidate should be able to articulate.
What is the difference between a sub-domain and a sub-folder? How do the search engines value these differently?
The candidate should be able to thoroughly explain the differences between the two. However, the more important aspect of this question is if they can demonstrate an understanding on how search engines treat each of these two options.
What makes a URL SEO friendly?
This might have been addressed in one of the earlier questions. If not, it bears asking here. The candidate should be able to articulate the difference between a friendly and non-SEO friendly URL accompanied with discussion as to when a site should or should not change their URLs.
How much do broken and redirecting links impact your optimization efforts?
This should be a discussion not just of the search relevance of these issues but also of the impact they might have on the visitor. Lead the candidate to tell you when and why URLs should (or shouldn’t) be redirected and what problems are created when not handled properly.
How do you check the crawl rate of a site and why is this important?
Candidates should be able to outline tactics and tools they use to review how frequently Google crawls the website. This should include a healthy understanding as to why crawl information is important.
How do you see what pages on your site Google has indexed, and why is this information important?
The interviewee should be able to provide one or more ways they can check a page’s indexed status. But more importantly, they should be able to outline the importance of getting this knowledge and how they integrate it into their SEO campaign.
What is the best way to get a page indexed in Google?
There may be no right answer to this question, but there are plenty of wrong ones. They should demonstrate an understanding of search spidering and page indexing and what specific marketing efforts factor into it.
How often should a page be updated for good SEO?
This is probably the closest to a “gotcha!” question on this list, though it’s not intended to be. What you want to learn is how often the candidate would revisit the page and to outline when and why they would make changes to it. If you get an answer that indicates they make changes to a page without any real strategy behind it, this is likely not the candidate for you.
How quickly after making changes to a page should you expect to see an impact in search?
The correct answer here varies from site to site and the candidate’s answer should reflect that. This can also merge into a discussion regarding how long it takes for SEO changes to produce strong, measurable results.
For what reason would you want to exclude pages from search engines?
Candidates should demonstrate a knowledge of various types of pages and content. Specifically, they should be able to outline several page/content types that are better kept from search engines.
On a scale of one to ten, how important is a mobile friendly site to successful SEO?
You want to make sure the candidate can articulate the importance of having a mobile-friendly website and how it factors into today’s digital marketing landscape. The discussion should cover both search and usability issues.
What are the various configurations for a mobile site? Which do you prefer and why?
The candidate should be familiar with the various ways to build a mobile website. You should get a clear understanding of why they prefer one over the other. They should also demonstrate knowledge of Google’s preferences as well.
On a scale of one to ten, how important is site speed to the optimization process?
The detail provided in this answer will tell you quite a bit about the candidate’s knowledge on the subject. They should be able to explain why site speed is or isn’t too important.
On a scale of one to ten, how important is site security (HTTPS) to successful SEO?
As with the question above, you’re looking for a reasoned explanation as to why they believe as they do. Many SEOs disagree on the level of importance of any aspect of SEO, but every SEO should understand the issue’s complexities.
On a scale of one to ten, how important is validated HTML and CSS to optimization?
Validated code is decidedly not important to the search engine algorithms. However, the candidate should understand the potential ramifications of poorly constructed code and how validation factors into preventing it.
What is the function of the robots.txt file?
The candidate should be able to explain what the robots.txt file is used for and outline some of the dangers of misusing this file.
What is the function of the .htaccess file?
As above, the candidate should have a solid understanding of how this file is used to help (or hurt) the web marketing campaign.
How does PPC impact SEO?
Most SEOs agree that PPC does not have any impact on organic rankings, though there are some that vehemently disagree. Overall, you want a candidate that can explain the value that PPC brings to organic even without impacting the organic rankings specifically.
For what reasons will Google actively penalize your site?
Most things described as penalties from Google are not penalties at all, just negative repercussions from doing something they don’t like. The candidate should be able to distinguish from an active penalty and a negative result.
Algorithm aside, what type of sites does Google want to rank in the organic search results?
This question is designed to see how forward thinking the candidate is or if they merely react to known Google algorithm updates. They should be able to articulate a solid understanding of the purpose of the algorithms and what they are ultimately trying to achieve.
Outside of SEO, what other factors are relevant to a site’s organic success?
You want to make sure that your candidate doesn’t have SEO tunnel vision and can see the bigger picture when it comes to digital marketing. You want to hear how they believe social media, content strategy, link building, and even PPC can be a factor in helping SEO succeed.
What is the single best way to find out what your customers are looking for?
The candidate should be able to demonstrate an ability to think beyond rankings and talk about how to find their target audience. They should outline a number of ways to find keywords and discuss how they are valued. Their knowledge should extend to understanding other signals consumers provide that tell us more about their interests.
What are related words and their value to the optimization process?
Keyword optimization is less about optimizing phrases into a page than it is about addressing the overall topic. The candidate should have an understanding of topical optimization as well as finding and using related words in content being optimized.
What is more valuable, long-tail or short-tail keywords?
Both long- and short-tail phrases have value. Let the candidate explain to you how each is important to the overall success of the campaign while also highlighting their weaknesses.
What is your preferred CMS and why?
This is where you find out what content management systems the candidate has experience with and whether or not they’ll be ready to jump into the CMS your own site uses. They should demonstrate an understanding of the pros and cons of their favorite CMS as it pertains to SEO.
How do you think SEO will be different in five years?
This last question is to see how much they have thought about the future of SEO and what changes are coming our way. If they haven’t given it much thought, it’s possible they are reactionary rather than visionary. That may not be a deal breaker for you, but it can be important when you compare them to other candidates.
The questions outlined above cover a full spectrum of SEO knowledge. Are there specific questions missing? Probably. But these questions are designed to go beyond the scope of the specific question itself. There should be plenty of room here for the candidate to demonstrate their full knowledge.
Let the conversation meander a bit. Let the candidate talk. And by the end, you’ll have a strong feel for what they do (or don’t) know.
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