7 important questions you need to ask when hiring an SEO specialist

7 important questions you need to ask when hiring an SEO specialist

At a certain stage of development of your own e-commerce, you may ask yourself whether to entrust SEO to an agency, or maybe to create a new position at your company for SEO specialist. Of course, there are also situations, when you can try to apply SEO actions on your own due to lack of resources. Does it make sense and can it be effective? From my point of view, a business owner should rather focus on growing and scaling their business than keeping track of changes in Google algorithms.

In this article, I’m not addressing the viability of one model or the other. That’s a topic for another blog entry. In this text, I will share my experience and give some tips to e-commerce owners who intend to build their own SEO department and who don’t know what questions they should ask candidates during an interview.

Question 1: What is your experience?

In the SEO industry, “experience” can be interpreted or analyzed in at least a few ways, so I’ll break this topic down into a few important considerations.

Agency vs. in-house SEO department

It is worth verifying if the person has gained experience in an agency, preferably SEO agencies. Then it is a good idea to consult these agencies with friends from industry, because there are companies that call themselves SEO agencies, but the people working in their executive departments do not have enough industry knowledge. The second option is to work for company X, which had its in-house department.

Professionals who have worked in an SEO agency have probably been trained by their managers and senior specialists. And also exchanged experiences with their colleagues in the department. Additionally, there is a high probability that they participated in internal trainings, etc. If in their CVs the candidates write about having worked in several agencies, we can understand it as a correspondingly larger number of position trainings, listed experiences and encountered people. Working in an agency also means participating in many projects from different industries (usually a SEO specialist supports more than one client). If we add to this the case studies of other clients discussed on a coffee break, it turns out that such a person had access to knowledge of dozens of different cases.

A specialist who gained experience in certain companies, which implemented SEO service in in-house model, in extreme cases he could count only on himself. In positioning, each case is different, vast o experiences and solved problems that prove the class of a given specialist. An expert working with only one site, built his experience based on this particular case. If he was lucky enough to work on a site with a strong, popular brand behind it, it may turn out that he does not have comprehensive knowledge of SEO. Working in the SEO department of a well-known brand, such as EURO RTV AGD or Apart, may be impressive on one’s CV, but analyzing these e-shops, one can point out a lot of errors in the optimization process. The point is that one of the factors that decides about the position of a website in search results is the so-called behavioral factor connected with users’ behavior. In case of well-known brands that generate a lot of traffic from branded phrases, Google is able to show their stores high despite optimization errors because they are frequently chosen by users. This may suggest that the SEO specialist who worked on such a site may not have spectacular SEO knowledge. Why? Because it is not a challenge to achieve high rankings on even the most difficult brand phrases for well-known stores, which are additionally rewarded by Google. The trick is to position a service which is not that well known and which in terms of marketing budget cannot compare with those giants.

On my career path I’ve talked to high-ranking people in marketing departments, or even in-house SEO departments of the biggest Polish e-commerce sites, and I have to admit that my limit of absurdity was pushed many times. One of my interlocutors (Head of SEO of a well-known e-commerce company) couldn’t understand what we – as an SEO agency – could offer if 60% of traffic to their website was free organic search traffic. This traffic was brand traffic (brand name, but also phrases such as [product name][brand name]. Phrases with the product name were often not even visible in the TOP10 search results. Another time I heard it is easy to position oneself for the phrase “dresses”, while it is challenging to achieve high positions for a phrase such as “red dresses” (a perspective of a person who manages the e-marketing department of one of the biggest clothing chains in Poland). In their case, all they had to do was to fill in the meta title and <h1> header with the phrase “dresses”, which was done automatically and a moment later they were in TOP10.

Position held

Nowadays the name of the position does not tell us much about the responsibilities of a specialist. What does a Key Account Manager or New Business Manager do? Sometimes it is difficult to determine just by the name of the position.

A high position also means greater access to information. The person managing a given department has a better idea, for example, about the suppliers with whom the company works in particular areas.

It is good to know what were the responsibilities of the person in previous jobs, whether they had a team under them, how they managed it, whether they were responsible for spending and worked on budgets, etc.

Seniority

Google is changing and contrary to popular belief and conspiracy theories, these changes are not excluding SEO agencies from the industry. All the updates improve the algorithm, which helps to improve the quality of the search results displayed.

Over the past 10 years, we have seen various changes, both major and minor. For example, the modifications in 2013 caused the SEO agency market to shrink by 30% in just one month from the date of the algorithm update.

Such background is very useful, but not critical. First, a person who has watched all these transformations has a better understanding of the direction of these changes and which way Google is heading. Secondly, they know which practices to avoid and which ones to experiment with.

Running projects

Positioning a website of a law firm from Poznan will be different from positioning an online store offering tens of thousands of products. In both cases, we will face completely different problems. This type of open question and strategic pause can provide a lot of interesting information, and give rise to further clarifying questions.

hiring SEO specialist

Question 2: What is your greatest strength?

I don’t mean personality traits, because I am not qualified in this area. The strengths question is about discovering the part of the SEO process that the candidate feels most comfortable with. We can divide the SEO process into ON-SITE activities (on-page activities) and OFF-SITE activities (off-page activities). ON-SITE activities can be further broken down into optimization and technical optimization, or content creation. OFF-SITE activities, on the other hand, are link building solutions.

I currently attribute the following impact of each component of the SEO process to the final result:

40% technical optimization,

30% optimization/content creation,

30% link building.

In management, on the other hand, I believe that people who manage a company or a department, should have broad knowledge, and SEO experts on particular positions should have less broad but more specialized knowledge. In such a model, the manager has the knowledge to control individual areas. However, it is the individual specialists who are supposed to know everything about a particular industry.

Putting it all together: depending on whether we employ separate specialists for particular tasks or recruit a Head of SEO, we should look for people with high specialization in a given area or, among others, basic knowledge about each of them.

Question 3: Who would you like to have on your team?

This question allows you to see if the person thinks like a manager. However, this time I do not want to get into the competence of HR people, let them do their job. Often business owners deciding to go in-house think that they will hire one specialist and this will be the end of costs. Whereas SEO means people, but also tools, budget for copywriting, links, external audits, web developers etc.

In large agencies you often find a separate department for link building, content creation, implementation, UX, and on top of that departments such as R&D (Research and Development.

This question also has a second meaning – agencies typically blame the lack of results on others, e.g., that they had too low budget for links. If a candidate presents his expectations, and they are met, then theoretically he will have no excuse if the actions taken turn out to be ineffective. At the same time, by telling about his expectations, he can make his vision more realistic or, on the contrary, show that he is not the right person for this position.

Question 4: What other expenses do you anticipate?

This question is partly an extension of the previous one, but it has its own purpose. On the one hand, the recruiter will be able to become even more aware of the additional costs he should take into account when building an in-house team. On the other hand, the candidate will once again have a chance to make his vision more realistic by demonstrating his knowledge of particular issues.

This question also leads to a conversation about the tools the candidate would like to use for work, which helps verify what tools they know. Every SEO should use Google Search Console and Google Analytics in their daily work. They are provided directly from Google and can be used for free, so knowing them is an absolute must-have.

Tools like SEMstorm, SENUTO, Semrush and others are quite easy to use. They are used proficiently not only by SEO specialists, but also by marketing people or sales people in SEO agencies.

Other Google tools such as PageSpeed Insights are also easy to use. All you have to do is paste in the link to the subpage you want to analyze, then click ENTER, and you’re done! The competence of a specialist is not whether he or she can use these tools, but how he or she interprets the conclusions of these analyses.

Question 5: What platforms have you worked on?

To begin with, you need to notice that we divide storefront platforms into types ‒ SaaS (Software as a Service) and OpenSource. SaaS platforms often have a bad reputation among SEO specialists because they are closed in terms of form (without access to files / site code), which makes the possibility of making changes limited.

Anyway, you shouldn’t generalize that SaaS is bad and OpenSource is good. Similarly, you can’t say that if someone uses SaaS, he definitely won’t achieve good results. Different platforms provide more or less opportunities for impact, and virtually each allows you to effectively develop to a certain stage. The easiest way to start your e-commerce adventure is with SaaS, because it’s cheap and fast. For just a few dozen zlotys a month, you can have a store that will be created in one day. However, at a certain stage of development, depending on the platform, you may need a technological advancement, that is migration to another platform.

This topic is related to the candidate’s agency or in-house experience. Someone who has worked in-house is likely to have worked on a dedicated CMS system created from scratch on an individual order. In this case, theoretically, there should be no restrictions. An SEO specialist with agency experience, on the other hand, has probably had hands-on contact with several platforms used by his clients and many others ‒ even very niche ones.

In my experience, people who come to a company as SEO specialists (in-house) often start their work by forcing e-commerce owners to change platforms. They choose the platform that they know well – not necessarily the best and adequate to the situation of the store. So it is good to determine from the very beginning whether the cost of migration, which may vary from a dozen to several hundred thousand zlotys, will need to be considered as additional cost to the job of a specialist.

The previous case may be related to the owner’s perception of the competence of such a person. Employers often believe that SEO = one man. It is not true. Just like an IT specialist is a person with his/her own specialization (programmer, webmaster, help desk etc.). The same is true for SEOs, who engage many other specialists for their projects: copywriters, programmers, graphic designers, webmasters, web developers, etc. As I wrote in the introduction, the issue of in-house profitability is a topic for another blog article. I just wanted to draw your attention to the fact that the desire to migrate to another system may result from the fact that the person hired is not only to plan activities, but also to implement them. In that case, he or she wants to work in the environment they know.

You can ask this question not only to the SEO specialist you are recruiting, but also to the agency you want to work with. In my opinion, this allows you to verify the specialist on many levels. Thanks to this we will get to know his/her knowledge, experience, creativity, approach to work and most of all if he/she can think strategically.

I once heard a question from a client: what could you do if your budget was unlimited? Everyone is able to answer “everything”, but what exactly does that mean? This is where the problem often arises, and the answer you can hear most often is “I would buy the whole White Press” (in the sense: I would buy articles with a link from all the portals available on White Press). This is very easy to do if you have an infinite budget, but is it really optimal?

I’ll focus on this topic later in this article, but before that I’d like to discuss two approaches to link building that you may encounter. There are “two perspectives”:

  • conduct analysis of competitors from TOP3 and acquire exactly the same links,
  • focus primarily on acquiring links from pages where your competitors do not have them.

The first approach is consistent with the theory of how the algorithm determines rankings. If site X is as strong as site Y, which the algorithm has embedded at TOP1, then theoretically site X should enter into direct competition with site Y.

The other approach bases its theory on the fact that by gaining the same links we will be sharing link juice with the competition, so to avoid this you should focus on gaining links from other sites.

I would like to point out that there is no clear answer to the question which approach is better. Let’s assume that we have two equally strong sites in terms of technical condition, content layer, and elements such as domain age, brand recognition, SEO history, etc. In this case, we need to build a stronger link profile to rank higher, so whether we do it with the same or different links is irrelevant. It just needs to be done.

Back to the point – the easiest way is simply to spend money on sponsored articles, while it is often the case that the best links can be obtained for free or almost free. Good ideas for link building will be:

  • Acquiring links from partners’ websites: such actions usually consume our time, which we have to spend on contacting partners who are willing to link to their largest distributors. These links will often be strong and thematic links (e.g., an online store selling bathroom products may be linked by manufacturers whose products they offer, such as Kolo, in a “where to buy” type section);
  • Creating your own background satellites: it is quite a time-consuming, tedious and long-term process, which should definitely be classified as a strategic approach because in this way you can create a source of not only links but also valuable traffic that no competitor can count on (affiliate networks work on a similar basis);
  • Competitor analysis: analyzing competitors’ link profiles will provide many interesting clues about link building, this way we can see that our competitors acquire links from partners’ websites, universities, their city’s website etc;
  • Supporting charity activities: many companies, not only due to tax considerations, support activities of selected foundations, but few of them know that Google highly values this, i.e. links from foundations’ websites, in sections like ‘support us’, are the only links in the entire history of the Google search engine which Google itself recommended obtaining;
  • Content marketing: through the White Press that I mentioned before, we have an offer of several thousand portals where we can publish articles with links to the positioned website for free. However, if we want to spend money on this purpose, it is worth doing it with a plan. Try to make sure that the actions bring more benefits than just a link to the website (additional traffic and/or monopolizing search results for a given phrase);
  • Barter cooperation: barter is a convenient form of settlement for many companies because there is a markup on top of the actual cost, which is also credited to the fee for the activity, and you can get good links this way;
  • Cooperation with influencers: some people say that the era of influencer marketing, which is relatively recent, has already passed. In my opinion, this is not true. Cooperation with influencers is still an opportunity not only for thematic traffic, but also for strong and thematic links.

Question 7: How do you want to measure/report your work?

Contrary to popular opinion, SEO is a service which effects can be easily and quite precisely measured. I would suggest approaching this subject in a few steps. At the beginning, we can examine the effectiveness of actions conducted on the basis of decreasing number of errors signaled by Google Search Console, or additionally indexed content. Later we can focus on the positions of the site for particular keywords. Since we are introducing dedicated optimization for particular phrases, it is worth examining how the website reacted to it (what effects it brought). At later stages we can, of course, talk about goals related to traffic and generated sales, where apart from Google Search Console, Google Analytics will also be useful.

If you come across a specialist who will state that SEO is difficult to measure, then there is rather little point in continuing to talk to him. On the other hand, he will only want to report on the tasks he has done, then this is a better answer than a potential lack of reporting. However, it is still unconvincing, because that is why you hire a specialist, not to have to learn something, just to put it in his hands, but to achieve business benefits. These benefits are unlikely to be achieved at once, which is why I suggested a phased approach to goal building.

Summary

As you can see, the topic of choosing an SEO specialist, whether at an SEO agency or in-house, is not as simple as it may seem. Working for well-known brands does not mean that someone is a good SEO specialist. However, I hope that the knowledge provided in this article is enough to verify potential candidates and thus minimize the risk of making a mistake with hiring the wrong person.

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Paweł Borowik
Paweł Borowik
Vice President Of Business Development
Category: SEO
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