Employee Traits Necessary for Hiring the SEO of Tomorrow

For the past few years, Anne Kennedy and I have done a session at PubCon in Vegas about how to hire and retain Search Marketing talent in the enterprise. We are not doing the session this year at PubCon, which is unfortunate due to all the recent articles about hiring SEOs.   The recent SEO Professional Hiring Guide from Stephan Bajaio of Conductor is an excellent set of tips from people across the industry on the does and don’ts of hiring for your SEO team.  Full disclosure: he quotes my tip to have candidates explain the problem to different levels of the organization, which is also noted below.  Then there was Kevin Gamache’s article on Which Department houses your SEO Team? which becomes a challenge once you have your dream team assembled.

I plan to write this as a two-part article.  The first part will be the least discussed, the personality traits necessary to be successful in the next generation of Search Marketing. The second article will focus on the technical skills an SEO must have to succeed.

I think most companies use a standard list of Employee Qualities like this list from Jibe. Still, I often mistakenly do not include those even more relevant to Search at the enterprise level. While I say enterprise, these can be valuable at any level but are critical in a large matrix organization.

My old friend and business strategy guru David Dalka, the CEO of Fearless Revival,  currently focuses on training executives and board members of the future and has written on this problem for several years.  David has been very vocal that hiring managers do not understand the “hard skills” necessary for Search jobs and the even more significant gap in the “soft skills,” which leads to both individual failure and, more importantly, organization failure and negative opinion on Search, especially SEO.

Personality Traits of the Enterprise SEO

The following list of traits comes from my presentation on The Traits of a Search 3.0 Marketer from Pubcon 2016, which is linked below.  To further clarify, a trait is defined as a distinguishing quality of a person, like honesty or empathy. This is my personal view of what it takes to successfully manage SEO in a large company. For those that may not be aware, I ran a search for two large agencies as well as IBM and have helped numerous companies try to hire Global Search Managers and build out entire SEO teams.  From this collective experiences is my list:

Curiosity of a 5-Year-Old/Student of your Craft

If you have a young child, you know they want to know everything down to the last detail.  They don’t stop at the first question, there is always a follow-up and follow-ups to the follow-up. You need people that will ask why and continue to try and understand the nuances of a topic or issue. There are many why’s in Search, especially in SEO.  It should be a constant set of questions about how does this work and why does this work or not work.   Using your own brain and experience to sort through problems in the context of your dev and corporate environment is critical for success.

When I was a junior Marine, my commanding officer told me I needed to be a “Student of your Craft,” and always learn about warfighting, leadership, and history. This curiosity and thirst for learning often resulted in stacks of books from the officers in my command. You have to want to continuously be improving and learning, not just your specific role and how it contributes to the whole but those around it and how you impact them and they, impact you.

When asking candidates about how they might go about solving a recent decrease in traffic, I have had too many tell me they would wait for one of the update reports or see if anything is posted on Moz and then use that to diagnose their problem rather than being curious themselves.  I often ask them about what they read about both in trade and other topics unfortunately many say they don’t have time to read.

Deductive Reasoning Skills of Sherlock Holmes and Dr House

This deductive reasoning trait augments the child-like curiosity to try to understand the root cause of a problem   The TV character Dr House uses a differential diagnosis to try and rule out alternatives to get to the real problem. Sherlock Holmes observes both what is there but is not there and why that is. Deductive reasoning and root cause analysis is essential to determine why your performance has increased and significantly decreased.

The easiest test for this trait is to give a situation that can have many reasons to see how well they rule things out. For example, if a page is ranking in Google but is not the page that should be ranking, how would you approach determining why. Since I did not give a specific URL, there is nothing to research. I am looking for how they would hypothesize the reason(s) why. There are a few options for this problem. First, the ranking page has more signals indicating it is more relevant or a better result than the other, so it ranks and second, something is preventing the page from being considered, such as a canonical tag, a redirect, or even a block but needs a method of inclusion and exclusion.

Critical Thinking Skills of Marie Curie and Galileo

Building on these traits, we complement curiosity and deductive reasoning with critical thinking. Critical thinkers evaluate statements, documents, and arguments to see how they stack up. Some colloquially refer to this as a sniff test. The critical thinker in Search can take the statements, conclusions, and assumptions of others and filter for themselves to net out what is correct. In an enterprise search environment, this is an essential skill, as things that may or may not work for a small site or are easy to do may take months of planning for the enterprise.

An interesting example was a developer in India who read a blog post from a celebrity SEO that said h1 tags did not positively impact SEO. After reading this single post, he took it upon himself to remove the h1 tag from the Indian website. Over the next few weeks, their search rankings dropped significantly, resulting in an 80% drop in organic traffic. Once we identified the removal, we added the H1 back into the pages, and once Googlebot reindexed them, the rankings and traffic increased. My question to him was, even if it did not help, it did not hurt us to use it so why remove it? He seemed to be dumbfounded by the question, simply answering if it does not help, we don’t need it despite it had other purposes. He did not even attempt to think this through and took this statement as fact.

Olympic Athlete’s Competitive Nature

I have found the most successful SEOs are very competitive.  Getting a top listing is like winning a race.  You have beat 999 other competitors to be on top of the podium.   Many successful SEOs I know or who worked with me were/are competitive athletes or poker players. I have always believed one of the key factors of success at Outrider and Global Strategies was the athletes we hired. Living in Bend, Oregon, we had many world-class athletes in sports like skiing, mountain biking, and various water sports who came to train and needed a job that challenged them intellectually. We had a data scientist working on his Ph.D. in math while also training with the US cross-country ski team. SEO is, after all, a contact sport to beat Google and its competitors.

Bill Clinton’s Communication Skills

The ability to present complex requirements and motivate people to do them is critical in the enterprise. To spend resources on an activity often means forgoing another.   It also means you have to communicate the need or problem to various levels of the food chain that have different levels of understanding of the topic.

A simple test for this skill is to have the candidate must try to explain that problem to two or three different audiences.  The first is the senior executive that we need to allocate the resources for the problem.  The second is to the development team that will make the change and the third is often a Global Search Manager since the region or local team must fight to get global resources. This ability to describe a problem both technically as well as strategically is critical to get it implemented over other items.

This skill is not only verbal but written as well.  The vast majority of specifications for SEO improvements are either incomplete or incorrect.  If the requirements cannot be written completely and accurately with the expected outcomes the developers cannot be expected to figure them out.   The author often assumes the Dev team knows how to solve the problem, leaving them to Google for a solution vs. getting the complete package in the requirements document.

Jessica Bowman has done classes on writing specifications as well as covering some of those key success items in her new book, Executive SEO Playbook. If you have an offshore dev team or one the is really tough to get resources from you may want to develop a specific test for them to develop a requirement or use an existing one but remove parts of it so they can determine what is missing.

Madelyn Albright’s Negotiation Skills

For those who don’t know, Madelyn Albright was Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State.  As the first woman in the job she encountered many geopolitical challenges that were made even harder with her being a woman.  Having the opportunity to hear her speak, she advocated two key negotiation skills.  The first was to leverage personal relationships to make connections or help persuade.  The second, and more valuable, is understanding what the other side needed to get out of the negotiation.  I learned the power of the second time myself entirely by accident.   We had a large site audit delayed, and on the day we were to do the final readout, we did the kickoff.  Previously, we would get hired, do the audit, and identify a number of issues that negatively impacted SEO in a 100+ page audit, then go to battle with the various teams to try and change things.

On this one occasion, we were all in the room and started with the process and a few things we had already seen and started getting some interesting feedback. Most of the teams began telling us much of why things were the way they were. We had been told the Senior Manager of the Web would be our biggest barrier as she hated working with SEOs. One of the items we identified was inconsistent code and titles across the pages and if they could adopt a CMS that would help the consistency. She told me that if I can help get a CMS in place then on the rebuild she should integrate and reasonable SEO request we have. Â Our secondary mission was clear: develop a set of problems, their negative impact on traffic and sales, and how a CMS can solve them. We got approval from the CMO for the new CMS, and we had nearly every recommendation in place.

So for your test, you may ask the candidate to explain their process for determining the value and opportunity of recommendations and how they would go about negotiating with the Dev and Web teams to get them in place.

Thomas Edison’s Innovation

I had this on my chart and was going to remove it, but it is one I feel strongly about but may not be relevant for most positions. Sometimes, the SEO role requires the need for specialty tools that work only for your unique needs and circumstances. Being able to identify them and articulate the features to a developer is not easy.   I currently have nearly 100 of these specialty tools that I don’t think I can do my job without, and I often cannot imagine others not needing them. There is no real way to test for this trait, but you want someone who may have developed their own smaller tools or processes to solve a niche problem.

Ability to see the future like Nostradamus

Ok, if they can tell the future, then they would not be working in Search; they would be day trading or betting on outcomes in Vegas.  This was another that could have been deleted from my presentation list that was added as a fun break in the presentation. But you do need someone who can understand where the industry is going and what your organization must do to try and move with it. I often suggest upcoming changes to integrate into a new design or site release to get us ahead of the game. This is sometimes met by SEO Managers or Development teams that know a bit about search, arguing that that is not working yet or that none of the competition have this.  The ability to have a fundamental view of the changes in search is essential to the enterprise to help weigh current and upcoming opportunities.

Bomb Disposal Expert’s Attention to Detail

This trait is critical and goes with the communication ability specifically for developing specifications.  Many SEO technical specifications are incorrect due to incorrect code or some other mistake in an example or instruction. This is also the case when making changes to the site. Forgetting to change a canonical or another tag may negatively impact the entire site.

We typically test for this by having the candidate review a specification and changing some obvious syntax. Another good one is to swap allow with disallow on a robots.txt example to see if they notice it.

The patience of a Saint!

This trait should be non-negotiable and one of the reasons most celebrity SEOs and small business SEOs don’t succeed at the enterprise level. It takes forever to get anything done in the enterprise, and people without patience tend to leave long before the changes they suggest can even be implemented. I recently turned down a project since the site updates three times a year, and the next two were fully booked, so it would be nine months to see any changes on the site, including uploading XML site maps. The only way to test for this is to ask them about previous experiences with dev teams or projects, and if they seem to vent excessively about how long it takes, that may be a clue they will be easily frustrated in this position. Now, the frustration is natural and expected, but someone who can manage the bosses, as well as their own expectations, is a key attribute of the position.

In closing, these are the necessary traits, in addition to the hard skills, to be successful as a next-generation SEO. If you can find a candidate with half of these traits, hire them immediately.  I welcome your comments on these and any others that I may have missed that have made your company or team more successful.

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