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Top 8 Skills Every Great SEO Professional Needs to Succeed

Do you have what it takes to build a career in SEO? You'll need certain skills to be successful. Learn what those skills are here.

Top 8 Skills Every Great SEO Professional Needs to Succeed

Despite being around for a couple of decades now, SEO still isn’t taught in many colleges or mentioned in most marketing curriculums (at least according to all the interns I interview.)

SEO professionals come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are programmers, some are entrepreneurs, some traditional marketers, some journalists, some even used to be rappers.

Throughout the course of my job, I spend a lot of time interviewing candidates for open SEO roles.

There’s no consistent list of SEO skills that everybody needs, but there are a few things I look for in every candidate – depending on the experience level and position.

To put it simply, I’m looking for somebody who has some sort of background I can build on (development, marketing, content, etc) and a thought process that is data-driven and results-based.

If you read the interviewing article above, that should be readily apparent.

Anyway, let’s talk about the top skills for success in SEO.

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This isn’t an exhaustive list, and I’m sure there’s plenty of people out there who have succeeded without these skills – but what fun would a list be without some controversy?

Here are the top eight skills I look for when hiring an SEO.

1. Critical Thinking

This is a hard one to measure, but it’s important for SEO pros to be able to have an analytical mind that’s capable of differentiating correlation and causation.

I want an SEO who can look at data and understand the “3 What’s”:

  • What happened.
  • Why “what happened” happened.
  • What we should do about it.

There are many ways to measure this, but I stop short of asking them to figure out the shortest way to cross a bridge with a shared flashlight or the classic lightbulb problem.

Instead, I’ll give hypothetical interview questions to help me understand their thought process.

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Some sample interview questions include: “Assume you and the client disagree on what we should do. Walk me through that meeting with them and your approach to it?”

Another one is “Account just emailed a client’s new website. They want to know if we can help their SEO. What are the first couple of things you look at?”

A good way of measuring this is to ask them about the biggest problem they solved, how they identified it, how they solved it, and how they measured success.

There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, but they help me get an idea of a candidate’s thought process and how they attack problems.

I want to see that they understand the problem from multiple angles and use data and logic in their decision-making.

2. Speaking & Writing Ability

An SEO professional who can do their own keyword research and author content that includes it is incredibly more valuable.

We aren’t just talking about writing articles like this one or speaking at conferences though.

I want an SEO who can convince internal teams and clients to do the right thing and that comes from speaking at meetings and writing decks, case studies, POVs, etc. All of those encompass speaking and writing skills.

SEO requires not only confidence but the ability to distill complex ideas and thoughts down into concepts that non-SEO people can understand and make decisions with.

3. Technical & Programming Skills

I’m sure there’s going to be some debate about this. I’m equally sure there’s tons of SEO pros doing a kickass job right now with no programming knowledge whatsoever.

The truth is, they could be doing even more of a kickass job with some programming knowledge.

As SEO professionals we make recommendations about page speed, rendering, lazy loading, server side redirects, microdata tagging, and basic HTML tags.

All of these conversations go easier if you can speak with the developer and offer insights rather than just demands.

Understanding where the developer is coming from when they push back is amazingly helpful at reconciling differences.

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Estimating the level of effort vs. the SEO impact is also key.

I’m not saying SEO pros need to be able to write code, but they need to understand the coding implications of the changes they ask for and what that entails for the developers, what the common mistakes and objections are, and even how to overcome them.

It’s not enough for an SEO professional to copy a page speed report from Google and send it to the developers. You need to understand what those changes are, what that means for the site, and what effort is involved in making them.

Technical knowledge also provides the ability to make your life easier – whether it’s writing a quick Python script to automagically add hreflang to your XML sitemap or a quick scraper to gather data.

As search engines evolve to use more machine learning and NLP, there are a ton of cool things an SEO pro can do with our current data sets and some python NLP libraries.

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Today’s SEO programmers are doing super amazing things with data and code that are helping them gain an advantage on insights and winning work.

One of the most insightful conversations I ever had was when over drinks a friend and I started talking about how we’d code a search engine using only what SEO pros thought are ranking factors.

We went pretty deep into how to crawl for those signals and how to index them and how to use them in ranking – and it was clear which ones could not possibly work and what other ones couldn’t realistically be done at query level or site level.

Our programming knowledge and prior coursework in information retrieval helped us understand what was possible and what wasn’t possible. This is an invaluable advantage.

I still see several SEO professionals daily making claims about how they think algorithms work that any computer scientist would know just aren’t possible to code.

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4. Social Skills

Over the course of my career, I’ve made so many great relationships and learned so much just by hanging out at conference events or socializing with other SEO professionals – even virtually.

To do that, however, you can’t be a creep and you have to be able to get along socially with others.

Some of the best conversations happen in conference hallways, events, and meet and greets. Some of these events involve alcohol.

If you choose to attend these events, you’ll need to keep it under control.

We all have heard stories about that one person being inappropriate. Don’t be that person. A lot of very smart SEO pros have sabotaged their careers through their behavior at bars or on social media.

Reminder: the conference event or hotel bar is never the place to try to look for a date.

It is a great place to talk about SEO theory and tactics.

The relaxed and private setting, sans live blogging and tweeting, sometimes results in SEO professionals sharing tips and tricks they wouldn’t share publicly.

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Most people at an SEO event aren’t interested in arguing about politics or hearing about that one specific problem that only applies to your site and takes 10 minutes to explain (unless you’re buying the food/drinks).

However, they will love to hear about new and exciting things you’ve seen or done.

Do you have to be a public-facing SEO who attends conferences or events to be good? No. But if you choose to do that stuff (or are assigned to be at these events) you can’t be a jerk while doing it.

5. Analytics Skills

SEO professionals can save a lot of time if they can log into Adobe or Google Analytics and pull their own data.

A basic understanding of business KPIs is also required for proper SEO strategy.

I offer my teams the opportunity to get Adobe and Google Analytics certified because even if they aren’t pulling the data, the understanding helps – but also, most of the time we end up pulling the data.

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If you aren’t able to pull and segment data, you’re likely missing out on some insights.

6. Data Skills

When I first wrote this post I called this section “excel skills” and that’s still true today, but it goes beyond that.

Pulling the data isn’t enough. Sometimes you need to manipulate it a bit to get the insights you need.

I’ve met a lot of SEO pros who can’t do the simplest tasks in Excel.

Vlookups, Concatenates, and IF statements (among literally 473 other functions – seriously there are 476 built-in Excel functions) should be part of every SEO pro’s toolset.

Over the course of my career, I’ve created countless Excel templates that help solve everyday problems.

Whether it’s turning a Screaming Frog crawl into an XML sitemap, measuring algorithm changes and their impact with GA/Adobe data, creating custom CTR by position curves, or quickly bucketing keywords from search console into brand/non-brand or by product groups, Excel is invaluable.

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These days, it’s not enough to just use excel though.

A truly complete SEO professional will be able to create dashboards in data studio, use various APIs to pull more data (search console, google NLP, lighthouse, adwords, various tools, etc), and understand enough about databases to do cool stuff with that data.

It’s worth mentioning R and Python and Tableau here as well.

Also in this category is math! I still see so many bad correlation studies and statistical analyses that don’t really say what the author thinks they say.

A basic understanding of statistical concepts can go a long way in helping an SEO determine not just what to measure, but “how” to measure it.

A good example: Looking at clicks month over month during a pandemic might tell a different story than looking at CTRs over that same period while demand is fluctuating due to outside forces.

7. Drive, Motivation & Adaptability

The thing I both love and hate about working in SEO is that it doesn’t just turn off at 5 p.m.

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Marketing isn’t one of those jobs that you leave at the office every night. It stays with you in your brain.

To truly be great at SEO these days you have to have the internal drive that forces you to keep learning.

Whether it’s a new programming language, a new framework (WordPress, React, Angular, etc), a new search engine standard like Schema, or understanding machine learning, there’s always something to learn.

The candidates who jump to the top of my hiring list are the ones who have their own side project websites or who create their own tools to solve their problems.

For example: using the webmaster tools API to automate data pulling and formatting for reports. I just hired that person.

SEO also requires adaptability and thick skin. Our industry changes, and sometimes we have to admit to clients that directory submissions, PageRank sculpting, link disavows, or other things we once recommended aren’t really the best idea anymore.

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I want the candidate who is willing to put check their ego at the door and admit when they’re wrong. We’ve all been wrong, and it’s ok. It doesn’t make us less of a guru or expert. That’s just how science works.

It’s about putting the client’s goals first – sometimes ahead of SEO revenue opportunities. (I told you I was going to start an argument in the tweets leading up to this article.)

8. A Sense of Humor

We deal with a lot of ups and downs in the SEO industry – and often at a fast pace.

It’s important to sometimes take a step back and remember that we aren’t saving lives, we’re just doing marketing.

As stressful as the job can be, most of it can wait til tomorrow. A sense of humor goes a long way toward making our jobs a lot more enjoyable and productive.

More SEO Career Resources:

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Ryan Jones

SEO Group Director at Razorfish

Ryan is the SEO lead at Razorfish where he works from early in the morning until late in the evening. ... [Read full bio]

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