Posted by Aaron Wheeler
We’ve all been in difficult interview situations – you get a hard question and go on and on and on without giving a solid answer. In our realm, though, there are some SEO best practices that are so well established that everyone should know and be able to describe them to other people. If you’re a business looking to hire an SEO (in-house, contractor, or otherwise), there’s no better way to gauge an SEO’s abilities than to ask them about basic SEO definitions and strategies. Similarly, SEOs looking for work should be prepared for a comprehensive interview that tests both their knowledge and their creative abilities. In this week’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand talks about some of the questions that might come up in interviews for SEO positions and how to answer them (as well as discussing why interviewees should ask these questions). Have a good question for interviewers? Let us know in the comments!
Howdy, SEOmoz fans. Welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we’re talking about SEO interview questions, how there are a lot of times in your professional life when you’re going to be either interviewing someone who might be working with you on an SEO team inside your company, who might be contracting for you, perhaps a consultant, you’re interview someone, you’re the CMO or the VP of marketing and you want to know who all these SEO people know their stuff. It can actually be kind of tough to know what questions to ask unless you’ve got some background experience. Likewise if you are someone who might be interviewing for an SEO position, if you’re someone who is a consultant and might be talking to some clients and you want to be prepared for the questions that they’re going to throw at you, this Whiteboard Friday is for you.
So in the SEO interview process, the questions that I would ask, these are very SEO specific ones. So in every interview, particularly when you’re bringing someone on to your team, you’re going to asking questions about cultural fit and background and their biography, like what have they done in their past. Are they going to be a good fit for your team? Are they going to be able to handle the responsibilities? Does their work/life balance work with sort of organization you’ve got? I’m not going to talk about that stuff. I am going to talk about the very specific knowledge kinds of things that you want to use with an SEO or that you want to be prepared for as an SEO when you’re going into these types of discussions.
So the first general section, the section that I start with is general knowledge. This is a great way to feel out whether someone is comfortable and capable. I would use these, honestly if we were doing this, I would be using these on phone screens or maybe even in the interview process, like right in the form field just to get a sense, like, "Does this person have a good sense of SEO? Do they know things like, what’s a rel=canonical? What does it do? How does it work? How do search engines treat the meta refresh? What’s an image title versus an alt attribute?" So you’ve got different properties of a particular graphic or an image, and you want to know that the SEO person understands. "Yeah, I know that image title describes the image, but it isn’t necessarily being used by search engines to the same degree that the alt attribute is. It doesn’t show up when you hover in Firefox. It’s not going to become the image label in Google image search, those kinds of things, versus the alt attribute that gets used as anchor text when the image links off to somewhere. So those kinds of things.
You might even have a question like, "How do you remove personalization from search results?" What you want to see is somebody goes, "Oh, yeah, yeah, it’s google.com/search?Q=whatever the search term is &pws=0." You find someone who can write off search strings and tell you, "How do I change the country language code?" "Well, you just add in &gl=uk. To get the UK or ‘us’ to get the US." You want to see that sort of knowledge that indicates that they’re really deep into the process of doing SEO. They live and breathe this stuff. They know it like the back of their hand. That’s what you want to see from an SEO, and this general knowledge section is a great way to get a sense of that.
Now next up, I like to get a little deeper and understand a person’s thought process and be able to explain your thought process to somebody else. That’s why we have a section on strategy and tactics. So this is asking questions that will elicit a response that indicates to you how well this person can really do the functions of SEO. A lot of this general knowledge stuff they should have a good background, but if they miss a few of these questions, it’s fine. They can always go learn them. They can go look them up. They’ll figure it out, it’s okay. But you really want to know things like, "Do they understand how to run a keyword research campaign? Do they understand how to run link building? Do they understand what’s involved in a content strategy? What does that mean? It doesn’t just mean a blog, does it?" It’s all sorts of different things.
So I like asking broad questions like, "How would you create a site to rank for give them a keyword or a set of keywords?" Like, "I am getting into the men’s fashion industry. Just imagine for me, brainstorm with me a site that’s going to perform really well in men’s fashion." And if you hear things like, "Well, I would like to build a site that naturally incents lots of creators, lots of designers of clothing, and lots of brands to put their stuff on our site. So it will be a big important site where lots of people will come to. They’ll put their stuff up and they’ll essentially promote it for us, but we have a lot of unique form fields and unique content that they have to fill out so that the content itself is unique and it doesn’t just look like the manufacturer’s suggested description across everything else, because we don’t want to have duplicate content problems." That’s shows some level of depth in terms of thinking. It gives you a sense of how they’ll tackle problems.
You can ask questions like, "What are some of your favorite scalable link building tactics?" And if they say something like, "Well, I really like contacting webmasters." No, like, "Nope, you’re clearly missing this word scalable and also probably favorite, because nobody really likes contacting webmasters." That’s the least fun part the SEO’s link building job. But if they say things like, "Well, I really like building up popular social accounts," or, "I like running a blog and building up content to attract a community," those are pretty good answers. If they say things like, "I really think that content syndication or image licensing or badges and embeddable widgets is a great link building strategy that’s scalable," those are great answers. You want to hear that kind of stuff.
"How would you get video content into Google?" More of a tactical question, but it gives you a sense of some of the knowledge and then how they do it. So if you hear a question like that and the person gives you a response and they say, "Well, Google has this video protocol." All right, they do, Google does have a video protocol. But what you really want to hear is, "Oh, it’s great! What I like to do is make content using YouTube or Wistia or Vimeo," or whatever it is, whatever their preferred video hosting service of choice is and let them tell you why that is, "and then embed it on our pages and we use the video XML sitemaps feed to send to Google so that appears as rich snippets in the search results." Perfect, this person clearly understands the tactical knowledge, and maybe they don’t even know how to craft it. I don’t know how to write a video XML sitemap. I couldn’t start writing you the protocols from scratch, but I can go find it online and copy what Google suggests it needs to be. I just need to have the knowledge of how to do that.
So that strategy and tactics section, also really important.
Last up. I do like to ask about some tools and metrics because this can give you a great sense of both an SEO’s depth as well as they way they think about a lot of problems. Because the field of SEO, granted, is some art, some science, and a lot of research and learning and trying new things, the tools and metrics, the statistics that we use, the correlation data kinds of things, the link data that comes out of Yahoo Site Explorer, or Bing Webmaster tools, or the Google link command, or Exalead, or Majestic SEO, or SEOmoz, you want to know that they’ve got a good grasp on, "Oh, here’s all the ways that I could potentially get that data and here’s why I like this one and I don’t like this one. I like the Bing or the MSN Ad Center or the keyword tool. I don’t like the Google keyword tool. I really don’t like some keyword tool here, but I think Keyword Spy’s great or SpyFu is awesome," or whatever it is. And you want to know, not just what those tools are, but how do they evaluate them.
That gives you a really good sense for how that person thinks about problems, how they’re going to attack things, whether they’re a critical thinker or whether they just take things on face value, which in the SEO world is not a great idea. Like even the things that I might be telling you on Whiteboard Fridays, you probably want to verify for yourself. So things like, "What data would you use to use to judge the value of a link?" And you want to hear things like, "Well, I’d try and gets some metrics around how important the domain is, how important that specific page is. I’d try and get some metrics about where is that link going to be placed, what sort anchor text will it use, how many other links are on that page, where do they point to, or they spammy or manipulative, or are they good and authentic?" Those kinds of things. "What tools do you use to measure competitors’ keywords and traffic?" And if they tell you, "Well, I really like this SpyFu or KeyCompete, or some of these other ones, Compete.com has a competitive intelligence tool. Hitwise has one, very enterprise level." Hey, yeah, those are good ways to measure keywords.
On the traffic question, if they say, "Well, I really like, Alexa." I’d be like, "You do? Why do you like Alexa? What do you find useful about it?" There are good answers, which is, "Well, for the top 1,000 or 5,000 sites on the Web, Alexa’s pretty good at saying what the relative difference is between them." Which is relatively true, most of the time at least. But for those sites in the tail, sites in the midrange, Alexa’s terrible. You kind of want to hear, "Well, none of the data sources are particularly excellent, but I like to look at Google Trends for websites, or Compete.com, or I like to look at Quantcast. I like to compare across the set. But I really like to look at maybe how many people are subscribing to their blog through Google Reader. That’s a great signal." It’s let’s you know that person is thinking more deeply about these questions.
"How do you measure social activity on a site?" That’s more of a broad based question. Like, "Do you just track tweets? Do you have some sort of an analytics tracking? What do you set up for that? Are you using something simple like a shared count? Do you have a statistics dashboard? Would you be using a Twitter client to be measuring that?" Whatever they’ve got.
If you ask these questions or you can answer these questions, I think you’re going to do a lot to cement a good relationship between things. If you’re in SEO right now and you’re thinking to yourself, "Boy, I’m not sure I can answer all those questions that Rand had on the board," I mean, these aren’t the toughest things that’ll get tossed at you at an interview. They shouldn’t be definitely. So you might want to spend some time having good answers to these questions, thinking hard about these things, researching them. And likewise, if you’re an employer or a contractor and you’re trying to find SEO people to work for you, do consulting work, you definitely want to amass a good set of these. I would actually recommend trying to ask relatively consistently again and again with the same people because having that consistency between questions let’s you really grade people on the same level. If you change up your questions every time, it can get tough to remember how well a candidate might have done against another one.
All right, everyone. I hope you’ve enjoyed this addition of Whiteboard Friday. I hope you’re going to find some great jobs and some great SEOs, and I look forward to seeing you again next time. Take care.