Hiring an SEO

As a business owner, I receive countless overtures from recruitment firms wanting to send me résumés for SEO (define) “experts.” If I ever do post a position, I’m flooded by folks who are ready to spout off their expertise and share with me the fact that they have one Web site that ranked in Google’s top 10 for some such keyword. Some will try and dazzle me with their technological brilliance, while others will tell me – flat out – that they have no technical expertise whatsoever, but have an uncanny ability to write content that helps Web sites to rank.

Truth is, hiring an SEO is difficult.

SEO is quite complex nowadays. Seven years ago, when I first began my venture into SEO, agency-side, we did a lot of copy editing, title tag/description and meta keyword tag writing, press release copywriting/distribution, directory placements, and reciprocal link building. Many of these things are still in play today, but there’s been an evolution…blogs, social media promotion, local efforts, video optimization, image optimization, etc. Our industry is really blossoming into a full-fledged marketing effort. No wonder budgets are moving this way. Chances are, you could have your SEO involved in analytics, copywriting, Web site design, hosting, public relations, reputation management, social media efforts, and have these efforts totally integrated with the “traditional” marketing that you’re involved in.

So, with this critical hire (be it in-house or outsourced), who on your staff is educated enough on the art/science of SEO to tell if someone is worth a damn?

Mind you, I happen to know a thing or two about SEO. For those of you who may be looking to add an SEO to your in-house team, or perhaps outsource to a firm which specializes in search engine optimization, you might appreciate a little advice from someone who has been there, and done that.

Case study: I can recall a time when I posted a SEO position for my firm. I received 20 résumés pretty quickly. I dismissed 10 without much trouble. Then it got interesting…

Eight of the remaining candidates shared with me some pretty brilliant thoughts. However, when asked some pretty simple questions (i.e., getting them to have a conversation and not just fire off their elevator pitch), they stumbled, bumbled, and could not answer. Two could. I invited them to my office for an interview. I pulled up Web sites that they had mentioned they were responsible for the wonderful results that were achieved. Then, I asked them “OK, what did you do to achieve these results?” Neither could answer. They tried (“I changed some content” was one answer that I remember). No bueno. Twenty résumés. Nothing to show for it.

It’s experiences like this that make me think of what it must be like for a marketing director to select an SEO firm, or a human resources department to fill an in-house SEO position.

Anyone can read about search engine optimization and talk a pretty good game. To find a good SEO, you need to remember the best practices that you would use for hiring anyone.

Experience: I’m not going to say that you shouldn’t hire someone with less than five years of experience. Obviously, budgets vary. And, I would dare say that it’s not the number of years that someone has been employed, but the work that has been accomplished that’s important. If a candidate can show me multiple Web sites and multiple instances of delivering results, along with multiple references, I feel much better than hiring someone with 10 years of experience and no case studies.

Skills: This gets a little tricky. If you’re outsourcing your SEO, you should obviously find out the talents of the individuals on the team. If you’re hiring in-house, you need to keep in mind that (as shown above) SEO can be a multidisciplined venture. Sometimes, the best technical minds are the last person that you want writing Web copy, title tags, or anything that involves a creative mind. On the flip side, you probably wouldn’t want a copywriter involved in front-end development of your Web site. I know that I’m biased, but this is one reason why I believe that companies are better served by outsourcing search engine optimization (or at least having a team involved in the efforts). In my time in this business, I have yet to find a super human SEO who is a complete rock star at each element that I’ve mentioned that could be involved in an SEO effort.

References: If someone did achieve great results for someone, there must be someone willing to provide a reference. Hopefully, just like with any job candidate, the reference is not coming from their relative.

Human element: Whether you’re outsourcing or bringing someone in-house, you are going to want to hire someone that is a good cultural fit for the team. Some of the best engagements that my agency has had have been with companies that we really get along with. On the flip side, we have had some engagements where we absolutely could not stand the company, and they reciprocated the feeling. That was a loser.

Testing: One relatively new element that we have brought into our hiring process is to ask candidates to complete a questionnaire. This questionnaire includes some trick questions and a test in which we have them evaluate a Web site that has no affiliation to us and see what they come back with in their analysis. It’s not terribly intense (not so much that candidates would say “forget this”), but it helps us understand how they think and how they might tackle issues.

Final Thought

One last thing that you might want to keep in mind…most of the SEOs that I know have adult attention deficit disorder. It might not be clinically diagnosed, but – if you were to ask around – the tendencies are there. So, once you have hired a firm or an individual, be sure that there is a strong process developed and a great project management system/manager in place. More on that in a future column.

Meet Mark Jackson at SES New York, which takes place March 22-26, 2010 at the New York Hilton. SES and ClickZ are part of Incisive Media.

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