August 11, 2020
7 Min Read
The world of SEO is rife with jargon. And if you’re considering hiring an SEO expert – whether they’re freelance or full-time – asking the wrong questions during an interview could result in buzzword-laden, technically-correct, yet ultimately “thin” answers. The kind of answers that won’t reveal anything meaningful about your candidate that’s not already on their profile.
Dimitris Drakatos – SEO Manager of fintech unicorn scale-up Revolut – has heard these well-rehearsed responses too many times to mention.
He’s interviewed countless SEOs over the years, and in doing so, he’s found a line of questioning that cuts through the noise. Instead of grilling candidates on keywords, no-follow links, or the Google Search Console, he likes to put their overall attitude to SEO under the spotlight.
In this post, Dimitris shares some of the questions he tends to ask (both junior and senior hires) and explains why the answers can matter more than a candidate’s technical understanding.
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Before we get to what you should ask, there’s a type of question Dimitris suggests you should avoid – or at least ask before the interview stage.
“Unless you’re interviewing for an entry-level position, asking about basic terminology like backlinks, robots.txt, Domain Authority, etc., isn’t a good use of your time,” says Dimitris.
This type of fact-based question, he explains, is better-suited to pre-interview questionnaires or application forms to help filter candidates. Otherwise, you’ll spend the interview running an SEO trivia contest rather than digging into your interviewee’s problem-solving skills, thought process, and ambitions. After all, technical skills can be taught and improved, but not without the right mindset.
So, to gain a better insight, Dimitris recommends asking the following 8 questions:
A standard question used in most interview settings, Dimitris likes to kick-off his interviews with this as a means of gauging a candidate’s personality.
“I want to hear about their background, how they came to work in SEO, and the experience they’ve gained along the way,” he explains.
In terms of responses, he suggests that you look out for candidates who merely list off their CV and fail to add any substance to their answer. Although SEO requires a great deal of initiative and solo work, it’s also a collaborative effort across marketing disciplines. A strong personality is crucial to coordinating SEO endeavours.
And what if they don’t have much SEO experience, to begin with?
“For more junior candidates, I like to ask them ‘why SEO?’ What has attracted them to the role? Have they ended up doing this randomly? Is it something they enjoy? This is a good question to assess their passion for SEO as a potential career.”
SEO is constantly evolving, so Dimitris always asks his candidates how they stay on top of these changes.
“To succeed in SEO, you need a thirst for knowledge. There are so many algorithm updates and new techniques to track – there’s no room for complacency,” he says.
“Sometimes, a technique has worked for years, but a Google update or a new technology is introduced and, suddenly, that technique is redundant. I need to know that the candidate is keeping themselves educated.”
“So, when I ask this question, I want to hear a list of examples. Newsletters they’re signed up for or Twitter accounts they follow, or websites, like Search Engine Journal or Search Engine Land, that they read for up-to-date information.”
With the first two questions asked and answered, it’s time to dig into specific SEO skill sets. And according to Dimitris, this will depend on how much time you have.
“If I only have a few minutes to cover this in an interview, then I’m looking for a general overview of their approach. But if I have more time, I’ll pull up a random URL and ask them to evaluate it then and there. It will be difficult to dive in really deep, but I want to hear a technical SEO assessment.”
The idea behind this question, Dimitris says, is to observe their thought process. The candidate needs to demonstrate a plan of action in a structured manner, but they also need to add context. Don’t be satisfied if they say that they’d run Tool X or review Y. Ask them to explain why Tool X or why review Y, and what they’re hoping to learn from the results.
A continuation of question 3, Dimitris tends to ask this of all seniority levels (junior aside).
“When done right, SEO can have a very positive ROI, so I think it’s important to ask how the candidate measures short and long-term success,” he says.
“With this question, I want to assess how they’re tracking their work; making sure that they’re not simply going through the motions, but they’re aware of what’s working and what isn’t. Essentially, do they know when to stop and try something else if it isn’t getting results?”
Where the answers are concerned, Dimitris recommends listening out for staple SEO measurements. Short-term, your candidate should discuss tracking the number of keywords on the first page before and after starting the SEO strategy. And longer-term, they should talk about organic traffic, conversions (sales, leads, etc.), and deeper KPIs, such as customer lifetime value.
It’s one thing having SEO wins listed on a CV. It’s another entirely hearing about the part the candidate played in delivering them. That’s why Dimitris loves to ask this particular question.
“I want to hear about an accomplishment that the candidate is proud of – and I want to know how they achieved their results via SEO. Did they grow organic traffic? Or revenue? Or top paid keywords? Which techniques did they use, and how long did it take?”
A strong answer to this question, explains Dimitris, is a good indication of a person’s skill and knowledge where SEO is concerned. It’s essentially a litmus test for a candidate; if they hum and haw their way through an answer, they could be overinflating their involvement. But if they answer with precision, passion, and insight, you could be speaking to the real deal.
The counterpoint to number 5, this question allows the candidate to speak about an often overlooked aspect of SEO: overcoming adversity.
SEO very rarely yields instant success. It takes time. And some strategies won’t get results, even after months of hard work. Dimitris wants to find out if his interviewee has the mental resilience to roll with the punches.
“There are always obstacles with SEO. So, it’s important that the candidate recognises this, and demonstrates that they’re capable of spotting and fixing common issues.”
These issues, he explains, often include problems with communication or collaboration across a large organisation. Technical changes to a website or alterations to a content strategy without first consulting the SEO can result in ranking and traffic challenges further down the line. A strong candidate will not only highlight this but also take you through their solution.
And what if the candidate claims to have never experienced obstacles while working in SEO?
“To my mind, if someone says that everything was perfect, it’s a warning sign that they’re either not tracking their campaigns properly, or they’re simply not doing a good job,” says Dimitris.
Dimitris likes to ask this question for two reasons:
“I want to identify candidates who see SEO as a career, and a side project is usually a good indication of this,” explains Dimitris. “These people aren’t looking to simply clock in, do their tasks, and clock out again. They’re always learning and always looking for new techniques and opportunities.”
However, this enterprising characteristic is something of a double-edged sword.
“The downside to this trait is that sometimes someone has so many side projects that they end up distracted from their core work. Or, if they’re interviewing for an agency role, they could have a freelance client in direct competition with the agency’s client. So you need to watch out for that.”
The way a candidate answers this final question provides an insight into their ability to manage project stakeholders — especially impatient ones.
“I want to hear a calm and considered response based in fact and not emotion,” says Dimitris. “A really good answer involves taking the stakeholder on a journey, outlining where we were before starting SEO, explaining what we’ve done so far, and sharing a timeline of actions and traffic and conversion projections.”
This willingness to educate the stakeholder instead of simply dismissing their concerns points to a candidate with the right personality for what can often be a pressurised role.
These aren’t the only questions you should ask, of course, but they do provide a more rounded assessment of a candidate’s personality, attitude, and approach to SEO.
Yet, while the above line of questioning doesn’t get too hung up on technique and terminology, Dimitris says that it’s still important to measure an individual’s technical SEO skills.
To that end, he suggests making an SEO assessment part of the hiring process — especially if you’re pressed for time where training is concerned and need someone to hit the ground running.
“Typically during an introductory call, I’ll share a piece of content or a web page and ask the candidate to go away and review it in detail,” explains Dimitris. “That way, I can test their audit capabilities, observe how they measure a web page and assess their skills against reviving or updating poorly performing content.”
The goal of an SEO interview is to assess a candidate’s character, temperament, problem-solving skills, and technical proficiency.
Put simply, it’s not enough for them to rhyme off search engine jargon with ease; they need to put it all together and demonstrate an understanding of every strand of SEO. The collaboration, communication, strategizing, and execution.
And in doing so, they need to prove that they’re the right fit for the role, your team, and your company.
Asking these questions is a solid first step towards finding that candidate.
Thank you to Dimitris Drakatos for taking the time to share his SEO interview expertise. You can learn more about him and his work by visiting his website.
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