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Mar 26, 2009
How To

How to Staff Talented SEOs In-house: 8 Tips

SUMMARY: The process of finding and hiring a good SEO specialist can become complicated when inexperienced applicants posing as experts try to swindle you.

Read on to discover our eight tips for vetting top SEO talent. Includes advice on what to look for, what questions to ask, and places to find your next natural-search guru.
Many marketers wonder whether hiring an agency is the best approach to search marketing. 49% of marketers who brought their search marketing in-house did so because they felt they could do a better job at it, according to MarketingSherpa’s Search Marketing Benchmark Guide 2009 27% wanted to save money.

When focusing on search engine optimization, the marketers’ argument becomes clearer. SEO is multifaceted. It requires a deep understanding of a business’ technology, management and marketing to develop an effective program. Having a permanent in-house person can be more effective than going to an agency. However, this presents staffing challenges -- 64% of marketers say that finding that person is somewhat to very difficult. The challenges include:
o Determining your needs
o Making sure they’re reasonable
o Finding a qualified SEO
o Vetting their expertise
o Familiarizing them with company/systems/processes

Finding Top SEO Talent: 8 Tips

Tip #1: Consult a search expert

The first step is to talk to an expert – preferably someone in your company who is well-versed in search marketing. This person should have a strong understanding of how websites communicate with search engines, and of the level of effort required to run an effective SEO program.

Experts are important for three reasons:
1. They can translate your needs into job requirements.
2. They can determine if your needs can be met by one person, or if a team is needed.
3. They can test an applicant’s SEO expertise.

Only someone with a strong search background can tell if an applicant “sounds” like an expert or truly “is” an expert. “Search marketing takes time to show results. You don’t want to be a year or two into your program and then find out that the person you hired does not know what they’re doing and is learning on the job,” says Duane Forrester, Senior Program Manager, Microsoft. Forrester is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization and founding co-chair of SEMPO’s In-House Committee.

Tip #2: Communicate realistic expectations

SEO cannot be properly and effectively managed by someone who is also responsible for a multitude of roles, including maintenance of an ecommerce website, email marketing, and online advertising.

Take a look at the list of responsibilities you want the new hire to cover, and realistically assess whether you’re looking to hire one person or several. Ask an SEO expert to get an idea of how much work you’re looking to cover. Then write a very specific job description.

If your goal is to hire an SEO, focus on that in the job description. Communicate that the person’s job is to deliver results via natural search, and not to run every facet of your marketing. This is important for getting quality SEO applicants into your door, and avoiding those who don’t understand what they’re getting into.

“If you’re not sure what you want, it’s going to be hard to indentify if somebody is going to be a good fit,” says Nicole Bodem, Director of Search Marketing, Arbita, and author of the HR Search Marketing blog.

Tip #3: Use a strong, well-placed job posting

University marketing programs are not churning out search experts, and few, if any, offer classes on the subject. That, coupled with search marketing’s relative novelty, leaves a small pool of experienced candidates who’re being pursued by many businesses.

Your job description should attract good candidates. It should have more than the obligatory list of responsibilities and requirements. Emphasize what makes your company special, and try to throw in extras, such as conference budgets, flex time, ability to work remotely, etc. “The job advertisement is a form of advertising. A potential candidate is going to decide in the first 10, 20 seconds, first paragraph, whether or not the job is engaging or not,” Bodem says.

o Where to post?

A great way to find SEOs (Search Engine Optimizers) is by networking and attending industry conferences. Aside from that, your job posting can reach them through employment listings on channels including:
-Marketing sites
-Search marketing sites
-General job sites (see links below): these are mostly for finding entry-level candidates.

Tip #4: “In this industry, experience costs money,” Forrester says.

You can expect to pay a premium for experienced SEOs compared to other marketing disciplines. The average salary being offered for SEO specialists increased in all regions surveyed last year. The average salaries for PPC specialists and SEM managers fell. Here’s U.S. regional breakdown for offered salaries for SEO specialists from our 2009 Search Marketing Benchmark Guide:
- Northeast: $66,000
- Southeast: $60,000
- Midwest: $61,000
- Northwest: $52,000
- West Coast: $66,000

The above salaries are average. Once a search marketer has more than three years experience and a track record of proven results, their salaries can increase dramatically. Also, experienced business managers have learned that SEO can fetch much higher salaries.

While employers know that they are asking for a lot, they are not always willing to compensate adequately for their requirements. “They’ll say ‘I need a seven-year experienced SEO person that does a list of 15 things, and I have $40 grand to spend’…That’s the biggest area where I see a disconnect,” Bodem says.

o SEMPO Survey

SEMPO completed an In-House SEM Salary Survey of 656 search marketers in January 2008. The survey was of SEMs in general, not SEOs in particular. It found:
o Over 26% earned between $60,000 and $90,000 annually
o Senior managers, close to 20% of respondents, clustered in the $70,000 to $100,000 range.

“There are also some respondents who are well over $200,000 a year, with zero-to-three years of experience,” says Forrester, who started the survey. “They may have only been doing [search marketing] for two years in that company, but in all likelihood, they have 10 to 15 years of experience somewhere else or in some other function with the company.”

Tip #5: Look for management and business skills

In-house SEOs should not be focused solely on search rankings. They need to know how their strategy will impact a business and how to derive as much benefit as possible.

Also, SEOs have to know how to motivate people. Natural search requires that copywriters, Web developers, programmers, product managers, and brand managers are working toward a common goal.

Teaching SEO to a person can be easy, Forrester says. “What’s more difficult to teach people is understanding the larger picture around what matters to business, how to communicate in a business environment, knowing what level of information to put out to the group that you’re interacting with to get the work done, and also how to influence people to get the work done that you want done…Those kinds of skills aren’t something that can be taught through the world of SEO.”

Tip #6: Look for proven qualifications

If you’re going to pay big money, then you want an experienced professional. Aside from the qualifications you’d want in every good employee (self-motivation, aptitude to learn, pleasant demeanor, etc.) here are a few that are specific to SEOs:

o Great communication skills

An SEO has to work with multiple branches of your organization and convince many of them to care about search marketing -- without confusing them. That requires clear communication with very different groups, from editorial to programming.

o Proven business impact

Every applicant applying for an experienced SEO job should be able to point to work they’ve done in the past, whether on a personal or professional website. A key indicator of whether the site’s natural search strategy was successful is not only its ranking, but whether it generated revenue and revenue growth. Rankings are not valuable unless they’re directly tied to positive business impact.

“Chances are that their previous employer isn’t going to know the exact things that were done. But they’ll more than likely be able to tell you whether or not they believe their SEO campaign was successful,” Bodem says.

o Work in challenging verticals

Note which verticals the applicant’s prior experience is in. If he or she can show 10% monthly revenue growth in the insurance industry, that says a lot more than 10% revenue growth in the dog-toy industry.

o On-going interest in search

Search marketing changes every year. Some of changes pose problems, others bring opportunity. A good SEO will have a genuine interest in the industry, demonstrated by regularly reading search publications and blogs. It is also a good sign if the candidate regularly attends major industry workshops and conferences, such as Search Marketing Expo and Search Engine Strategies.

Tip #7: Ask technical questions

Having a search expert for this portion of the interview is essential. You must be able to prove that the applicant is truly an expert who can do more than pay lip service to the topic. Here are a few topics you should hit in the vetting process:

1. Search basics: “What are the most important factors in SEO?” “How does a search engine work?”

For the first question, the answer should include a mention of content, links, and site design.

2. Black hat: “Which SEO tactics would you not use for our site and why?”

Hopefully, the applicant will address common black-hat SEO tactics, such as cloaking and link buying, which are not allowed by search engines and can significantly hurt your performance.

3. Communication: “How would you describe SEO to your grandmother?”

This is one of Forrester’s favorite questions. “If you can’t dumb it down, and you can’t describe it to your grandmother in very simplistic terms, then you will never get it across to the upper executive. You’re talking about really smart people here, but you’re talking about people who have maybe five minutes of time. Which means, if you’re lucky you might be able to get your message out in under two minutes, so it better be memorable.”

4. Search details: “Can you describe work you’ve done on other websites?” “How valuable do you consider XML sitemaps?”

Here you can dig into the nuances of PageRank, social media’s effect on SEO, Google’s Universal Search, and a host of other natural-search technicalities. Work with a search expert to come up with a short list of questions that will confirm that the applicant knows more than the basics.

5. Process: “When do you do your keyword research?”

“If their answer is anything other than ‘at the beginning of the project, before you do anything else,’ they’re wrong. No work gets done unless you know what phrases you’re focusing on,” Forrester says.

Tip #8: Consider recent graduates

If you have a search background, it might not be necessary to hire a search expert. David Perez, Founder, E Dating for Free, and someone who has launched several free dating sites and children’s coloring sites, has hired capable recent graduates for search positions and trained them.

“I fully believe in training as opposed to hiring more expensive people. … I’d rather bring someone in on an internship basis, train them and determine if they’re going to be a good fit and to hire them on a full-time basis if they would be,” Perez says.

Perez posts want ads at university websites, such as Stanford’ and UCLA’s, for summer interns interested in search marketing. Qualities he looks for in applicants include:
o Doing well at school
o Comfort at a computer and online
o Comfort with Excel and HTML
o Motivation to work and learn

He does not focus on applicants from specific majors of study, and he typically looks for students in their junior year.

o Test project

Once Perez finds a handful of potential candidates, he assigns them a task. The tasks always consist of real work that he needs completed for one of his sites. For example, he might give them a spreadsheet of HTML code and clearly explain some adjustments he wants made. He pays about $15 to $20 an hour for the work, he says.

“It’s not testing a wide range of skills, but it’s testing a person’s skills on Excel, and it’s testing the speed at which they can get a task done, and their ability to understand instruction and execute.”

o Internships

Selected candidates work for the summer, gain training, and experience life as an SEO. “The best part about an internship is that it’s risk-free for both parties. If they don’t like it, or they’re not good at it, they don’t have to go back. They get a good resume entry and a recommendation. And if they like it, and they’re good, they get a good job.”

o Hiring

If both Perez and the intern are happy, Perez will make a job offer in the $50,000 to $60,000 annual salary range, he says. “I would never do that blindly. If you haven’t done an internship with a candidate, I would never make an offer along those lines.”

Useful inks related to this article:

Search Marketing Benchmark Guide 2009

SEO Consultants Directory

55 SEO Interview Questions

SEMPO: SEM Salary Survey Press Release: Charts and Data

Google: Hiring SEOs


HR Search Marketing


Duane Forrester: The Online Marketing Guy

Job Board Sites
Marketing Sites:
-iMedia Connection:

Search Marketing Sites:
-Search Engine Journal:

General Job Sites:
-Monster: (Canada):
-The Ladders ($100K+ jobs):
See Also:

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