Job hunting in the ever-evolving SEO industry is a unique challenge. SEO is one of the few industries in which years of experience means far less than your ability to stay ahead of the curve, adapt to changes and algorithm updates before they arrive, and always put quality content and organic link building strategies above shady SEO tactics.
But many employers, though aware of their need for SEO, aren’t well-versed in which qualifications to look for. Some might even ask for unrealistic demonstrations of skill, such as a foolproof formula for top SERP rankings or one of Google’s algorithms.
Alternatively, some interviewers will be on the ball. They’ll ask hard-hitting questions regarding how you would handle Google penalties, your familiarity with various search engine updates, and your long-term strategies for staying relevant.
You’ll need to be prepared for both of these interview experiences. You should know how to steer the inexperienced employer towards the questions that matter, and also be prepared to answer the questions asked by an SEO-savvy employer.
To help you, I’ve composed this list of seven essential tips for landing an SEO job:
1. Showcase Your SEO Experience
Your resume and portfolio should show off your experience long before you even walk into the interview room. It should be as diverse as possible, and demonstrative of your broad skill set – your employer should be left with no doubt that you can rise to any SEO-related challenge they might throw in front of you.
Come prepared and willing to discuss:
- The biggest and smallest projects you’ve ever handled, and how the size and scope of the projects influenced your approach. Hopefully you have something current to show off, too.
- Different tactics you used to achieve different results (e.g. increase traffic, funnel more qualified leads, etc.)
- Your most successful and least successful ventures. Explain how you promoted the strategies that worked and solved the ones that didn’t.
- How you would handle a Google penalty or a loss in rankings, decreased traffic, de-indexing, etc. Have answers prepared for all the worst case scenarios, and be as specific as possible. If you can demonstrate a solution that you’ve provided for a client in the past, even better!
- Important figures in the SEO industry and how they’ve changed the playing field, such as Rand Fishkin, Barry Schwartz, and Eric Enge.
When at the interview, have screenshots and Google analytics at the ready to demonstrate your competence more concretely, but make sure you uphold all NDR agreements you have too, of course!
2. Have a Working Knowledge of the Evolving Industry
You’re going to have a hard time in SEO interviews if you can’t talk intelligently about the latest updates issuing out of Google, how these updates have transformed the industry, and how they’ve personally affected you.
Be prepared to discuss topics such as…
- Panda: One of Google’s first big algorithm updates that came down hard on sites with meager content offerings, in favor of higher-quality sites. You can read one of the earliest articles about it on Moz.
- Penguin: Google’s infamous “webspam update” that imposed heavy penalties on link farms and any sites buying links to boost Google rankings. Penguin drastically adjusted SEO spam factors, and they continue to update this algorithm to this day, so it’s important to stay vigilant.
- Pigeon: Google’s most recent local search algorithm update shook up the SEO world by altering the way local results get ranked. Since Pigeon, Google web and map search have been more cohesively connected.
- Mobilegeddon: An algorithm update that changed the way mobile-friendly sites ranked, as compared to browser-based sites. Matt Southern had some helpful tips upon its release.
- RankBrain: Google’s recently unveiled machine-learning AI, used to intelligently sort through search results. According to Google, it’s now the third most important signal factored into Web page rankings.
There’s plenty more, so don’t think the list stops there. Even if you’re relatively new to SEO, it pays to read up on these industry-changing updates. You should also be aware of which changes are rumored to be in the pipeline, and how they’ll affect your particular brand of SEO in the coming months.
3. Have a Link Building Strategy
How often you’re linked to and the caliber of the linking articles is pivotal to your success as an SEO specialist, but link building is one of the most challenging aspects of an SEO’s job. Even if you’ve never launched a huge link building campaign before, you should have some idea of how you’d go about it.
According to Moz’s Beginner’s Guide, link building strategies fall into three main camps:
- Organic links: links given naturally by websites that link to your content.
- Non-editorial links: links created through blog comments, user profiles, etc.
- Outreach links: links that benefit both parties, usually suggested by the SEO agency who stands to benefit.
Organic links are undoubtedly the best, but their very natures belies a reliable campaign strategy. With quality content offerings and a good promotional campaign, you can often win a number of organic links, but you won’t earn the volume of backlinks that a well-formulated strategy might earn you.
Non-editorial links, by comparison, are easy to come by. You’re probably already reading articles and blog posts related to your SEO niche (and if you’re not, you really should be), so make a habit of dropping valuable comments on these posts and including a link back to your website. While these backlinks are good, be careful that your comments don’t become spam (they should always add some value to the post), and be aware that these aren’t valued as highly as other types of backlinks.
Outreach link building is the strategy, rigorously pursued by many in the industry. Or, more specifically, many practice broken link building.
The strategy is simple, but surprisingly effective: contact webmasters with broken links on their website, and suggest your own site as a replacement for that broken link. It’s one of the last “white hat” techniques still available to SEO experts, and it produces hundreds of quality backlinks from respected sources.
Obviously, this tactic demands that you are already offering quality content. Great material that draws traffic in should be ground zero for every website.
So, what’s your link building strategy? Will you have an answer if your potential employer asks?
4. Understand the Tools of the Trade
Frankly, if you’re a self-professed “SEO expert” who can’t list off the tools you rely on, our interview would be over. One of the most important qualities of a SEO is that they’re informed by data-driven insights – if you don’t have the tools to gain those insights, you’re going nowhere fast. These are just a sampling of tools that work well:
- Google Analytics: You can’t ignore the tools provided by search engines themselves. Google Analytics is most people’s go-to solution for business insights when it comes to stats such as web traffic, CTR, and page views. Also, check out some of their other tools, such as Google Keyword Planner and Google Webmaster Tools.
- SEO PowerSuite: (disclaimer: my company’s software) SEO PowerSuite is the Swiss army knife of SEO software, actually bundling four invaluable tools into one: Rank Tracker, WebSite Auditor, SEO SpyGlass, and LinkAssistant.
- Moz Pro: Open Site Explorer, which is part of Moz Pro, provides crucial metrics – Domain Authority and Page Authority – that SEO pros use every day.
- SEMrush: A tool for keyword research and link building campaigns, that will help you build your SEO and PPC campaigns.
- Majestic: Comprehensive trust flow and citation flow metrics that help you analyze your website’s relative health. Very useful in link auditing.
- Ahrefs: A backlink analysis tool with a massive index and excellent user interface, favoured by many SEO experts.
- DeepCrawl: A useful tool for on-page audits and web page diagnoses, especially if you’re worried about Panda penalties.
In the SEO business, these tools are your lifeblood. They’re the metrics that you rely on daily to optimize conversion, and the data sources that inform all future SEO decisions you make. In your interview, make sure you can talk about the different tools you need and why they’re so vital to your job.
5. Have a T-Shaped Skill set
Having a T-shaped skill set means knowing a bit about everything and a lot about one or two niche topics.
For example, you might be familiar with the rhyme and reason behind content creation, blogging, social media, PPC, email campaigns, etc, but the one area that you know better than anyone else is SEO.
Having a wide breadth of experience adds some valuable overlap with other team members and allows you to think practically about your SEO, especially in regards to how it ties into PR and marketing campaigns. It yields creative solutions and new insights that someone with narrow expertise might not consider.
And, of course, nobody excels at everything. Anyone who claims otherwise is lying.
“What’s your greatest weakness?” is the cliché job question everyone dreads, but it doesn’t have to be terrifying. Simply recognize the T-Shaped skill set in yourself, and frankly assess your own strengths and areas of growth.
6. Be Prepared to Explain Your Methodology
Wil Reynolds, founder of SEER Interactive, has some great advice on what the SEO industry needs right now. More than anything else, he stresses the PR element. He’s even devised a clever test to give during an interview:
“[Give] interviewees 10 prospects, ask them to place them in order of importance, and then ask why.”
What do they value in prospects? Are they ranking based solely on nofollows and the number of links they generate, or are they considering other factors, such as their social media engagement?
Gone are the days where SEO meant keyword stuffing and link spamming. Now, it’s inextricably linked to your marketing campaign – even if you’re never directly asked how your SEO will tie into PR, it’s well worth considering before you step foot into an interview.
For an employer, it’s hugely beneficial to get a feel for what an SEO specialist values in their prospects and what their outreach campaigns might look like.
For you, the benefit is a deeper understanding of your methodology. Going into an interview with a well-reasoned strategy, and giving a different answer than your interviewer expects, is better than going in with no strategy, and telling them whatever you think they want to hear.
When walking into your interview, you should know:
- Which SEO strategies you think will work.
- Why you believe they’ll succeed for that particular company
- How you will implement them.
- What your follow-up move is if they do succeed, and what you’ll do if they fail.
The number one thing I look for in new SEO talent is that you walk into the interview with a plan. In an industry driven by hard fact and data-driven insights, gut-feeling isn’t going to cut it.
7. Practice Good Interview Etiquette
At the end of the day, an interview for an SEO position is still a job interview. Treat it as such.
Make sure your resume and cover letter is tailored specifically to your potential employer and free of error. Groom your online profiles and portfolio, including all of your social media profiles.
If at all possible, try to walk into your interview with a basic understanding of what your interviewer is after. Do they want PPC management? Lead generation? Increased traffic? Search engine rankings? Do your homework, and steer your topics back to their vested interest.
In short, put your best foot forward and make a good impression.
There’s one truth that makes the SEO industry a very strange animal: even if you were the crème de la crème of search engine optimization a few short years ago, that commendation means almost nothing in today’s digital world.
Google tweaks its algorithms hundreds of times each year and rolls out frequent updates that forever change the way we optimize and market ourselves. One-by-one, the manipulative tactics that used to be the bread and butter of SEOs are being stripped away by Google’s increasingly refined algorithms.
By always keeping an eye on where SEO is headed, and having a firm thumb on where it sits today, you’ll stay ahead of the curve and land your SEO job in no time.
Subscribe to SEJ
Get our weekly newsletter from SEJ's Founder Loren Baker about the latest news in the industry!