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Empathy & Communication: Keys to a Successful SEO Career

Empathy and communication are critical SEO skills, whether you're dealing with clients, your team, or your community. Here's why.

Empathy and Communication – Keys To Success

A few weeks back, I attended a lecture that Alan Alda (of “M*A*S*H” fame, amongst many other honors) gave about empathy, communication, and compassion in the sciences.

While we’re not splitting atoms or determining the cause of death in SEO (unless it’s for a website) I think that much of what he spoke about applies very well in our industry.

“Effective science communication happens when we listen and connect. It happens when we use empathy. Communication is headed for success when we pay more attention to what the other person is understanding rather than focusing solely on what we want to say. “– Alan Alda

I’m quite bad at listening to other people.

I tune out easily.

My mind is always wandering all over the place.

I try hard to pay attention and really listen, but I admit that it’s a struggle for me at times.

It’s especially difficult when someone is telling me something that makes no sense to me because of the way they’re saying it or the jargon they’re using.

Recently I was trying to give some SEO recommendations to a friend and I realized how crazy some our “industry language” really is.

Most people outside of SEO and marketing don’t know what the SERPs are, at least not by that name.

When I said “the results you see if you do a search in Google” that makes much more sense.

Easy concept but one we really need to remember.

Empathy & Communication with Clients

While many clients, at least from my experience, are getting more SEO-savvy, there are still those who have no idea what we’re talking about but know they need help.

Both of these groups could stand to listen more though.

We’ve all had those clients who know more than we do and want to make sure they drum it into our heads.

They question everything we say and love to reference what certain other SEO professionals have said, even if it’s from years ago.

They try to dictate our strategy.

They’re sometimes infuriating.

That’s not to say that every knowledgeable client acts this way. Many of them are wonderful and their knowledge adds to the relationship.

Regardless, it’s critical to listen to these clients and understand what they’re saying and why they’re saying it.

Maybe they’ve had a really bad experience in the past.

Maybe they are under pressure from higher-ups.

listening to your client

When we stop being angry about “being told what to do” (and I confess to having a serious case of this), it’s much easier to gain empathy for the client and look at everything from his or her perspective.

Is our ego getting in the way of being instructed when we’re the supposed experts?

Much of the time I think it is.

We don’t tell a doctor how to run tests when we’re having a migraine.

We don’t tell a mechanic how to fix our cars.

Why shouldn’t these clients listen to us?

We’re in a very non-regulated industry, for one thing. We don’t have to have a degree in a related field and there aren’t any industry standards.

Anyone can call himself an SEO practitioner. All you need to do is slap it in your Twitter bio, have a website (sometimes not even that), and bandy some terms around.

If I went to a doctor who didn’t have a degree but he could throw around some terms like “hypostatic pneumonia” and had a collection of posters of doctor-like things in his office, I’d be pretty wary too.

What about the clients that know absolutely nothing?

Empathy comes into play here, too.

We don’t always remember to speak to them on the level at which they reside.

I wouldn’t feel comfortable having a person speaking to me about my livelihood using terms that made absolutely no sense to me.

We have so many abbreviations in our industry, and so many terms that seem so innate to us that we use them constantly without thinking to understand them.

I’m not saying you have to dumb down everything you say to a client, but make sure that they understand what you’re talking about.

I’m sure no one is always comfortable asking for clarification as we fear looking stupid.

If you truly listen, you’ll know if someone truly understands you.

I know this is a problem in many industries but I continue to speak to new potential clients who have been fairly well traumatized by past experiences with SEO practitioners and/or link builders.

This is a really important point to remember.

If a client is being rude to you or asking loads of questions that annoy you, remember that you don’t have any idea where they’re coming from.

Empathy & Communication with Your Team

My team has been with me for more than seven years.

They still have questions.

I encourage them to ask as many questions as they need to, even if they’re worried about looking stupid.

I’d rather them ask than make a mistake or sit there wondering what to do.

I have so much in my head at all times that I ask a lot of stupid questions, too.

That’s life.

I’ve had some truly horrendous managers in my life.

I’ve had the kind who will yell at you, compare you to other employees who acted much better than you ever could, and generally kept everyone on edge because of the fear of being humiliated.

All that does is breed serious resentment.

I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today without my team.

Most managers wouldn’t either.

In fact, many managers don’t seem to be able to do the jobs of the people they manage.

I still build links right alongside my guys.

They don’t need to know how to do my job, but I definitely feel that I need to know how they do theirs.

How else can I understand them and the issues/challenges they face?

listening skills

One practice I’ve adapted is periodically doing quick and short surveys.

It’s super easy for any manager to do.

I try to ask five or six questions, such as:

  • What is currently the hardest part of your job?
  • Where do you need the most help?

This gives me a good idea of exactly how they feel about work.

I sometimes get frustrated when things are slow.

Doing one of these small surveys gives me a good idea of what I need to do to make things better.

Listening to your team is so easy when you make it easy.

If they’re having trouble with something, I want to know about it and find a way to help.

If my team feel like they matter, and I make sure that they always do, they’re usually quite happy.

When my team is happy, I’m happy.

Empathy & Communication with Your Community

We’re lucky to have such a large set of peers in SEO.

There’s surely someone who can answer any question you have, and many are willing to answer questions and help you out.

Unfortunately, there are also a lot of people who are happy to make you look stupid, and do so very publicly.

We used to argue in comments on blog posts. Now we do most of that on Twitter or Facebook.

There’s a great post on encouraging SEO research where the author discusses the problem with people being afraid to say anything or ask questions for fear of being humiliated… basically being discouraging instead of encouraging.

I remember writing articles where people would say “well that’s nothing new” and complain about how I didn’t give them anything useful.

I’ve seen people complaining about conference speakers who spent their own money traveling and booking a hotel to come speak for free.

Someone that might not yet be as well known to the industry as others writes a post that gets attention and people start asking who the heck that person is and implying they have no credentials, even if what they’re saying is useful or helpful.


I am lucky enough to know people who can answer almost any questions that I have in SEO.

I tend to ask those questions privately though, because I know there will be those who tell me I’m an idiot for not knowing the answer.

Imagine how people new to this industry must feel when they see that.

We should all try and remember how we were when we were first coming into the industry. We should also remember those newbies and think about readers who are trying to learn.

So what if I write an article about the basics of outreach? Maybe it will help one person who’s been trying to become a good link builder.

If you know everything I’m saying, move on without feeling the need to complain about how basic I am.

Think about my audience maybe being someone besides yourself.

Have a bit of empathy for those of us who carve out time to try and help our community.

More Resources:

Category Careers SEO
VIP CONTRIBUTOR Julie Joyce Owner at Link Fish Media

Julie Joyce owns the NC-based link building company Link Fish Media, is one of the founding members of the SEO ...

Empathy & Communication: Keys to a Successful SEO Career

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