As the founder of a search marketing startup, I’ve had the opportunity to interview, hire and work with some of the most amazing SEOs on the planet. I am so proud to have worked with people like Tom Demers  and Ken Lyons , who not only helped me turn wordstream.com into a website that holds its own against domains like google.com for SERP rankings, they went on to found a successful internet marketing consultancy  of their own!
Because WordStream’s business is in the internet marketing industry, the competition for SEO keywords  in this vertical is incredibly fierce. We’re always competing against other search agencies, or search marketing product companies who obviously know a thing or two about SEO. If you think your insurance or travel industry has fierce competition, try competing in an industry where everyone does search for a living! I’m pleased to say that our SEO is very strong, thanks to the great SEO talent on our team.
Recently, I’ve met with many other founders and heads of marketing at VC-backed startups hoping to scale their lead generation efforts, and a question that always comes up is: How do you find/identify such great SEO talent? In my article today, I’ll describe in detail my interview process for separating the SEO heroes from the SEO fakers!
My Top 7 SEO Interview Questions
Working in SEO requires a certain mindset and skills – It’s like a game where the rules are always changing. But unlike Calvinball, we don’t get to make up the rules!
Because search engine optimization requires this game-like mindset, the questions I ask any SEO interview candidate are mostly situational and behavioral as opposed to factoid-based questions like “What is PageRank ” or “What is Panda ,” etc. I do expect anyone who does SEO daily to know these facts and the basic lingo, but it’s less important than gaining an understanding of how the person attacks challenges and where their actual skills lie (if they have any). These strategic questions help me figure out if the person is really cut out to join my elite team of Internet marketing ninjas.
1. What Is Your SEO Super Power?
First, I try to figure out what they do. SEO is rarely a one-person thing, and when it is, one area or another tends to suffer. There are different specialties in SEO: blogging , link building , social media , SEO strategy . At WordStream, our SEO work is distributed among a few key players with different areas of expertise. When talking to a new candidate, I try to figure out what their role would be on my SEO team in order to ask the right questions for the rest of the interview. Experience is of course a factor here, but I’m also looking for passion and potential.
2. What is your SEO workflow?
Say you get in to work on a Monday at 9 AM – what does your day look like, and your overall week? This of course depends on what their role is; for example, if they’re primarily doing content marketing and blogging , I’d ask them, How do you determine what to write about next? How do you prioritize tasks? If you’re a link builder, I’d ask, How do you prioritize your link opportunities? This is super important because in SEO, you have an infinite number of things you could potentially do on any given day, and only 8-10 hours in the day to get something done. I want to see their attack plan. They should have an internal system and be able to take initiative – I don’t want to hire an SEO who needs constant hand-holding from a manager.
3. How do you measure SEO success?
What are the SEO KPI’s (key performance indicators) you track? What is a reasonable goal for a month? There’s really no right answer here because it depends on the client’s objectives, and the guy’s role. What I’m hoping for is that they say something intelligent about different KPI’s like counting and tracking links, social shares, unbranded organic traffic, referred visitors, engagement metrics, conversions, etc. (Hint: “mad hits” and “keyword rankings” are not metrics I care about.) Even better if they have tried out different metrics  and changed them over time, and can explain why.
Tell me about an SEO experiment  that you’ve run recently. What was the result? If you’re in the trenches doing SEO, a key to success is being able to figure out what works and what doesn’t. I’d like to know how they run their experiments, and if they don’t run experiments, that’s a red flag. Ken Lyons kept an SEO log  where he tinkered with various SEO experiments, sometimes dozens at a time. I love an SEO with a bit of mad scientist in them.
5. What SEO tools do you use and why?
If someone says they don’t use SEO tools, it’s an automatic fail. Why? It means you’re an incredibly inefficient person or that you have never done a significant amount of SEO work in your life. There’s no way to do serious SEO without introducing some automation. For this question, I’m wondering what tools they use for keyword research , blogging, link analysis, social media, etc. The more obscure the better. And I’m not just looking for a list of tools, either – I want to know why you use them, what you love and what you find annoying. Sometimes I even learn about cool new tools this way! (Bonus for me whether I hire them or not, bwahaha.)
6. What SEO blogs do you read?
As I mentioned above, SEO is always changing . Tom Demers used to come in early every morning and spend an hour or so just reading. Keeping up with the industry is crucial both to stay current on news and various Google updates  as well as to get new strategic ideas and tips for increasing efficiency. So I ask job candidates to tell me what SEO blogs and sites they read. But anyone can list out a few blogs. I’m looking for something beyond the bare-minimum basics (like Search Engine Land). I then follow up with another question: What’s an interesting article you’ve recently read on one of those blogs and why did you find it interesting? This tells me whether they actually read any blogs, how often, as well as why they read.
7. Show me your analytics.
I guess this isn’t a question so much as a demand and egregious breach of privacy (ha ha). If possible, I ask them to log into their Google Analytics  so I can see what’s going on with the site they currently work for. Is the site doing well? Did it get killed by recent penalties like Panda or Penguin? Were they able to recover? Are there spikes in traffic? If so, I ask what they did to achieve that. (Crazy linkbait  schemes?) I look at their traffic sources – are they diversified? Is there referral traffic from social media sites like Twitter and Facebook? What do the engagement metrics look like (are people reading their content or just bouncing away?) Forget all the preparing they’ve done for the interview and the rehearsed answers about where they see themselves in five years – I can tell in about 1 minute if they’re any good just by looking at their analytics.
During my interview with Ken Lyons, he showed me his AdWords accounts. Every keyword in his client’s accounts had Quality Scores  of 10/10. I was just floored. I immediately thought to myself, “Hire this guy, quick!”
Even if the candidate is unable to show me their Google Analytics, I can get a good sense of how they operate. If you’re an SEO, your fingerprints are all over the internet. For example, I:
- Read their blog posts: Does he/she actually blog? Are the posts engaging? Do they offer in-depth insight? A unique point of view? Do they generate shares and reader comments? Do they blog regularly? Do they have a personal blog?
- Look at their Social Media: How is the guy using Social Media? Are their Twitter/Facebook/Linkedin/Google+ pages thriving communities, or a ghost town? Have they claimed their vanity URL ? Do they have a YouTube channel? A Pinterest page ? Because this stuff is all public, it’s easy to look at.
- Do a Link Audit: I look at what kinds of links they’ve been able to acquire – are they editorial links from A-List publications? Or just spammy link dumping grounds?
- Crawl Their Site: Sometimes I’ll even look over their website structure and look at the different types of content they produce and how it’s all linked together.
- Analyze Web Presence: Tools like compete.com and alexa.com can help you figure out if their site is doing decent in terms of traffic.
All of this stuff tells me a lot more about their real ability to do SEO than the self-reported stuff from the resume and interview. If you’re applying for SEO jobs, you should have this kind of evidence of your ability to show the hiring manager. It’s the equivalent of a portfolio for a design job. You need to prove you can do SEO.
Having a bonus skill or two can really help push an application over the top. Things I look for are any experience in managing:
- Paid Search (such as AdWords, Facebook Marketplace, etc.)
- Email Marketing
- Public Relations
- Web Design/Development, etc.
These types of skills are becoming increasingly important as SEO evolves. These days, an SEO increasingly needs to be an expert in internet marketing in general.
The SEO Interview: Next Steps
If they’ve survived all the questions and I think they’re a strong candidate, I then shift gears and talk about what a great place WordStream is to work at. The way I look at it is, if the person is qualified for the job, the interview goes both ways – they’re also interviewing us. So I try to allocate at least half of the time answering questions about our company, our values , our trajectory, our interesting SEO projects , and basically try to convince them to work with us.
Come Work at WordStream!
WordStream is growing fast. We’ve added over 30 new hires to our Boston office  in 2012 so far, and we’re still going. We are hiring  for several open positions, including roles in engineering, sales, marketing, and client services. Plus, if you’re applying for an Internet marketing job here, I’ve already given you all my questions! If you think you’re cut out for the work, I encourage you to apply. Send me an email at lkim at wordstream dot com. I look forward to meeting you!
Bonus - We've outlined what it's like to have an online marketing job .