With many in-house SEM teams ramping up, and in-house efforts in general growing, I thought it might be useful to scope out the basics for an SEO-centric interview. It’s tough enough to find good talent these days, and those with experience are commanding higher and higher salaries, so many companies may be looking to those with fewer years of experience to fill critical in-house roles.
This doesn’t mean, however, that you need to skimp on your standards. Sure, the candidate might not have 7+ years of experience, but the newest crop of young SEM folks come armed with sink-or-swim experience, and in many cases, have benefited from some of the great training programs available today. I’ll suggest you refrain from listing an MBA as a requirement and start building a suite of interview questions that’ll help you determine if the candidate in front of you really has what it takes to snag a second interview.
Here’s a long list of questions I tend to pull from when interviewing candidates. Not every question comes into play, and they are grouped into sections by my own tastes, so feel free to rearrange as works best for you. Be sure to allow plenty of time for answers, and don’t mind the long silences. Let the candidate think through their responses and make the first move to reply.
- What is your favourite blog and why?
- Determines how engaged they are with the community; is a sort of “who do you know” question
- Helps you understand which direction they tend to focus their attention in
- Helps you understand if they invest their own time in continual learning
- Tell me about a time when you’ve had to convince strong-willed people to do things your way in the face of tough opposition?
- Part of SEO is building relationships and selling the need for the investment in the work. Poor examples here, or folding in this regard can bring your program to a halt.
- Tell me your worst crisis and how you dealt with it.
- Can be work or personal. You simply want a glimpse of them under pressure.
- Tell me a situation where you had to make a prioritization decision; what criteria did you use, and would you change your mind now?
- Describe SEO to your grandmother.
- This suggestion came from a friend. I love this one, as it’s a great way to see if they understand things enough to dumb it down.
- Why do you want to work for this group? What’s motivating you to want to work here?
- If you’re a brand, be on guard that this opportunity is not simply a resume padding exercise.
- Why do you like SEO work?
- No wrong answers here, but it can give you insight into the depth of their understanding of the industry and their work and the role it plays in a company’s success.
- Tell me about the largest or most challenging presentation you’ve done. Do you feel you were effective?
- SEOs should be able to ramp things according to the level being presented to and know the audience.
- How would you design a communication plan for an SEO program?
- The plan should ensure everyone knows goals, their role, deadlines, tracks progress, and includes a way to keep everyone motivated for the long-haul.
- Explain how search engines work and what the workflow of indexing and ranking for a new page looks like.
- Not looking for secret sauce, but do they understand the basic process of how an engine functions?
- Give an example of some SEO work you have done in the past.
- Ask for specific examples of verticals and for their results achieved — the candidate need not be bashful about sharing their past efforts & successes.
- Define “crawler friendly.”
- When should keyword research be performed in the SEO process?
- Keyword research is best performed before a concept leaves the drawing board – this research will not only help you understand the taxonomy you should follow for your site’s layout, but will give you clear guidelines on what content to develop. Well done keyword research will help you at every phase of site development and deployment.
- Outline your preferred process for keyword research.
- Pick your favorite tool and describe how you would improve it.
- Are they aware of the great, useful, SEO-centric tools on the market today? Do they know how to use the data the tools provide? This speaks to their experience, too.
- Rank the top 5 most important SEO factors for increasing rank. Put them in order and explain your philosophy for why you consider those top to bottom the most important factors.
- In reality, many items can fit into this answer — far more than 5 items – so you’re really just looking to see them think through the process and arrive at a workable conclusion.
- What influence does DMOZ/Open Directory have today on SEO today, if any?
- DMOZ in and of itself remains a good inbound link to have – being human edited, it’s a trusted source for a good link. Beyond this, the thinking is that there is still value to obtaining inbound links from select directories. Beyond the link value itself, think in terms of traffic. The well established directories are still capable of acting much the same as Yellow Pages ads and driving traffic to your site and introducing new users to your site.
- Give an example of why you would use 301 and 302 redirects on a website?
- For most SEO work, it’ll be the 301 redirect you’ll turn to. The 302 has value when you legitimately are moving content temporarily. In most instances, though, short-term moves won’t dramatically impact your rankings and traffic. The critical point is that they know the difference and recommend 301s as a safe way to help protect content’s traffic during things like taxonomy changes or domain swaps.
- When should the SEO folks be brought into a design or redesign project? At which stage?
- Any answer other than “at the concept stage” or “before the site is built” should raise a flag for you.
- Tell me about a time when you worked with a larger group to achieve a mutual goal. What were the issues in getting that group to cooperate? What things could have been done differently?
- Here you’re looking for insight into how they build relationships.
- How would you go about selling the value of SEO to your company? How would the pitch differ depending on the level you are addressing?
- You’re looking to see how they tailor the messaging to fit the audience.
- Let’s say your company has done everything you’ve asked them to do but their SEO ranking hasn’t improved. What are your next steps?
- Do they take responsibility, throw in the towel, review for missed opportunities, etc?
- Where should SEO fit within a company’s overall marketing scope?
- Do they see the larger picture that SEO should work hand-in-hand with other marketing activities?
- How will you know when our SEO program is a success?
- Standard metrics will tell much of the story here (visits, unique, conversions, etc.), but also they should be aware of things like engagement within their own company. Are other teams involving them in the design & build processes early?
- Tell me about the last time that one of your projects fell off track. How did you identify that it was off track? What did you do to get it back on track?
- They may legitimately never have had a project get derailed, but chances are there was something that went pear-shaped at some point.
- How do you decide what to work on each day? How do you decide what your priorities are?
- This is a normal, run of the mill time management question; it’s critical for an in-house SEM to have a handle on this area.
- Give me a breakdown of the kind of metrics you would measure success by, and what each of them would mean to different parts of a business.
- Do they grasp the basics of measurement and tracking to goals? Do they see the larger picture beyond the stats and understand how those numbers relate to the company?
Drive for results
This is not an exhaustive list of questions, but it should serve as a decent starting point when you need to sit down and interview a candidate for an SEO position. The ability to do the work is a given. The ability to build the relationships is expected. The ability to think with both sides of their brains at the same time is what will make the cream of the crop stand out.
Duane Forrester is an in-house SEM with Microsoft, sits on the Board of Directors with SEMPO, can be found at his blog where he speaks about online marketing and monetizing websites and is the author of How To Make Money With Your Blog. The In House column appears on Wednesdays at Search Engine Land.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.