The SEO career path: What it may look like and how to level up
Find out what a typical SEO career path may look like, along with common job levels, salary ranges and the best ways to advance your career.
People outside of the world of marketing rarely know what SEO is or what the initialism even stands for.
Within the industry, it’s a familiar term to all formidable marketers. Far less is SEO – search engine optimization – actually understood, though.
First, it’s important to understand that, while SEO stands for search engine optimization, it is also often used interchangeably to describe the people who do SEO (a.k.a., SEO professionals). An SEO – or search engine optimizer – does SEO. SEOs do SEO.
To avoid any further confusion, we’ll refer to the people who do SEO as SEO professionals.
SEO professionals are a special breed of marketers from many walks of life.
But there are some characteristics and experiences many of us have in common that I will attempt to organize as some of the most useful and shared professional qualities possessed by SEO professionals.
I’ll also cover what the career path to becoming one may look like.
How do you start an SEO career?
Historically speaking, most SEO professionals didn’t plan on SEO as a career – at least until recently (starting in the late 1990s and early 2000s). That was because they couldn’t, really.
Early in their educational journey, a marketer or digital marketer very rarely – if ever – declared, “I want to optimize websites and chase the Google algorithm for brands to revolutionize the way humans and businesses connect forever.”
The latter part of that dubious statement was probably similar to something many marketers-in-training did declare.
But getting there through website and brand optimization to gain organic visibility on a search engine was not likely the vehicle they had in mind at the time for accomplishing it.
It’s also rare to meet multiple SEO professionals who’ve forged the same path to becoming one.
But there are certainly overlapping journeys, professions and experiences.
Some common previous areas of expertise for SEO professionals that commonly intersection include teaching, journalism, various math-focused professions and the obvious traditional marketing focuses.
But as the worldwide web evolved the way it has over the last 30 years, opportunities to help brands and people in new ways arose in the marketing realm. And some became more specialized – and lucrative – than ever.
Organic search, paid media and social media are all suitable channels for successful marketing strategies. And they indirectly or directly were created (or adapted to be used) for the growth, prominence, and usefulness of websites.
Today, as a result, high schoolers and college students are able to set their aims on a digital marketing gig specializing in SEO. This will continue to become more common as secondary-education institutions evolve with the world’s needs, job demand, and technology.
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Possible SEO career routes
Like most careers, there are multiple directions an SEO professional can take.
It’s probably most likely to start at an agency, and that’s a wonderful place to kick off almost any career related to marketing (or design, account management, video production or sales).
There are typically a bunch of talented people with a plethora of knowledge and direction to share, so it’s like obtaining an education while getting paid.
You also get the chance to really find your niche in whatever facet of digital marketing you end up in, whether that be SEO itself, or a more-specific component within SEO.
Your first couple of years in SEO are likely to shape your long-term future, at least to some extent.
You can also reinforce and/or stand out demonstrating strengths with the critical soft skills mentioned above and your ability to effectively communicate with internal and external stakeholders.
Agency life allows those skills to shine while also finding out if agency life is for you.
You have to be able to juggle multiple deliverables and multiple deadlines constantly, oftentimes jumping between various projects throughout the same day and throughout the week.
The other direction you could go into is directly in-house at a company.
But if you’re looking to strengthen your SEO skillset as a novice, that could prove difficult without a good SEO at the company to guide you and teach you many of the basics needed to be successful.
Bigger companies would be more likely to have multiple skilled SEO professionals hired on a team at once. Getting into an opportunity like that is tough for someone with little to no experience.
One other potential direction an SEO career could go is strictly freelance or as an independent consultant.
This was probably the most common way to get into SEO back when Google and the marvel of search were still in their adolescent years. Today, it’s become harder as search has become more complex and the choices for vendors have increased significantly across the world.
These are three different potential career routes an SEO could follow. They usually overlap at some or multiple points based on what the SEO wants to do which steers them in that direction.
All three directions also offer the ability to work in a variety of environments (i.e., working in a traditional office setting, working at home, or a hybrid set-up).
SEO, like most digital marketing careers, offers flexibility when it comes to the location worked and also the time of day of which you do that work.
SEO job levels and salary ranges
The SEO career path will likely move from entry-level to experienced roles. And when it comes to salary, like all things in SEO, it depends.
Many variables influence compensation, including your location, work environment, whether you work in-house or agency-side, and experience level, among others. (We’ve done our best to put a general range to put at these levels.)
Salary range: $49K–$72K per year
So many jobs start with a basic, lower-tier position, but it’s also a lot like getting paid to continue hands-on education in your specific field.
Landing that first entry-level position is usually the tougher task. Once you assume the post, you’re going to want to learn as much as you can as fast as you can. Make sure you are absorbing everything you can.
Unfortunately, (or fortunately, for the lucky ones) having a great or terrible leader to guide and train you at this critical stage of your early career could make or break you. Make the most of it.
Junior SEO (SEO analyst, SEO specialist, etc.)
Salary range: $62K–$101K per year
Once you have the basics down and carry out the day-to-day with limited assistance, your entry-level position should move up to something a little bit more senior, like an SEO analyst or specialist (it’s not actually a senior position, though).
These junior SEO positions usually do a lot of the data pulls and living-in-Excel that builds a solid, effective SEO. These are long-winded tasks that build SEO professionals at the core, and they can't be replaced or abbreviated.
You'll likely work closely with an SEO manager and their senior SEO leader to:
- Carry out tasks that can have a big impact on a client but take quite a bit of data-diving.
- Explain (then recommend and implement) to get the needle moving significantly.
Salary range: $69K–$110K per year
After time as a junior SEO, be ready for a bit more reasonability, a bit more account ownership, and even some chances to start training other new hires (regardless of experience levels).
Some of the “training” you do will likely not be highly complicated SEO tasks but rather internal tasks related to the SEO process at the company. This could include:
- Using tools and datasets.
- Working closely with internal and client stakeholders.
- Reviewing and delivering client deliverables.
- And more.
Salary range: $80K–$120K per year
SEO managers are typically the first managing-oriented SEO roles within agencies. New SEO managers usually oversee one or two SEO professionals to get a feel for their style, effectiveness, strengths and weaknesses.
These managers also usually manage several client accounts and their own workloads, too.
This period in an SEO career can also allow people to see what their next role may look like by identifying things they do and don’t like.
- Some people love the in-the-trenches SEO work more likely tied to an SEO strategist or analyst.
- Other people clearly prefer the management-oriented role that has a big impact on the teams around them but doesn’t need to get their hands as dirty or as often as the more-junior-level SEO mentioned above.
Senior manager (head of SEO, director of SEO, etc.)
Salary range: $109K–$192K per year
Following successful posts at the helm as an SEO manager, a senior version of that usually follows.
As a senior manager, which could also be a head of SEO or even a director, you assume significantly more responsibilities, not just as an individual, but as a representative of the agency or company you work at, as well as the clients you work with and represent as the leader of their organic initiatives.
These senior managers tend to:
- Be some of the biggest players in agency-client relationships.
- Bring some of the best and brightest ideas.
- Be able to explain – and sometimes even convince – client stakeholders of the best reasons why some of the hardest, most laborious tasks are very much worth the effort and time.
Salary range: $124K–$224K per year
VPs tend to be some of the highest-ranking, SEO-focused positions in the climb to the top.
Whereas VPs of SEO/organic are still highly integrated with SEO efforts and usually oversee entire teams or more in that area, they still are very much responsible for:
- SEO strategies.
- Client communication.
- New business pitches and research.
- Operational responsibilities.
- And much more.
C-suite (CMO, CEO, etc.)
Salary range: $192K–$550K per year
This is likely the ultimate goal of many digital marketers, not just SEO professionals.
Some start their own companies, others join companies as veteran thought leaders and try to take said companies to the next level, and others are just so right for the job, there’s nowhere else they really belong.
Good, effective marketers are always going to be in demand, and the better ones are going to be leading the best companies and their organic-growth initiatives.
By the time an SEO makes it to the C-suite, they are likely:
- Focused on so much outside of SEO, like all marketing channels – usually both paid and organic – the “big picture” and the “bottom line” that guides the company.
- Working to achieve the most important goals to ensure growth and profitability for that company and their clients, if they have them.
Of course, these are not definitive paths through the SEO ranks.
Every company and agency has its own way of doing things. Sometimes it looks like this, other times it looks slightly different, and occasionally it looks extremely different.
It's important to stay on the path that works for you and to take the steps needed to get to where you want to be.
Best ways to advance your SEO career
It's imperative to understand that SEO education never stops. Staying ahead of the game is one shining factor that separates decent from great SEO professionals.
As such, educating yourself on the many facets of SEO and digital marketing should be a top priority for someone trying to get their feet wet for the first time in the profession.
Stay on top of changes and developments in the industry through online forums and SEO-related news publications. Keep a constant eye on Google’s Search Blog.
From there, once a gig is landed, the most important aspect of building an SEO career comes at you every day: real-life SEO experience with clients, internal stakeholders, vendors, and/or agency partners, among others.
You’ll continue your education after that, too. Pretty much every day you'll be reading blogs and news in the ever-changing industry.
You’ll attend cutting-edge conferences and virtual seminars. Eventually, you too may be speaking at these events and guiding SEO professionals from around the world.
SEO professionals love to help each other as much as they love to learn from each other. It is one of the best parts of being an SEO and it’s why you’ll be hard-pressed to find any great SEO who dislikes another great SEO. We’re in this together and there’s plenty to go around!
The everyday trials and tribulations in the field are the best way to find your path as an SEO.
This allows you to learn:
- The many unique problems that may arise.
- How to strategically develop solutions.
- The very real (and sometimes complicated) relationship struggles with clients, stakeholders, vendors, and more.
Most of all, you should know if SEO is right for you early and often. I know I did, and still very much do.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.
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