When we want to hire an SEO expert, it seems that everything is simple. Show me your results and I will tell you who you are. This is a way how Google recommends hiring SEO specialists too.
I think it’s a little more complicated. Intelligence is more important than experience, and past successes are not a guarantee of future victories.
SEO is a profession where there is no guaranteed technology for getting results. And those who get the result cannot do exhaustive reverse engineering of their strategy and understand what worked in a plus, what in minus, and what is neutral. What is the scale then to evaluate the SEOs? Let’s try to figure it out.
Table of contents
- When we need to evaluate an SEO expert
- Assessment problems
- Responsibility levels and assessment rules
- Intelligence vs. experience
- What qualities of thinking you should assess
- Questions to ask when hiring an SEO specialist
When we need to evaluate an SEO expert
The key situations are:
- When hiring an SEO employee, freelancer, agency;
- When assessing the level of an SEO employee for promotion;
- When looking for a business partner with SEO experience;
- When looking for an SEO consultant for service or training.
If we dig deeper, then in the assessment process it is important for us:
- Recognize a talented job seeker who does not yet have experience;
- Recognize the pros and storytellers among those with experience;
- See the strengths and weaknesses of the SEO specialist;
- Evaluate whether a specialist who has been successful in the past will be able to cope with a more competitive niche, team management, promotion under a different search engine, and so on.
That is, you need to quickly build a detailed and adequate picture of the world about the candidate’s capabilities.
Your eye will easily notice if a candidate belongs to the extreme tails of the sample: when he is either clearly skillful or clearly inept. And with the middle of the sample, it is more difficult.
Here is a rough list of situations that can make the assessment difficult.
The problems to assess SEO specialist
- There are results, but the theory is lame. Every SEO expert has a different perspective on the correct level of theory. Someone thinks that reading the guides of search engines and top blogs on SEO is an absolute must, while others think that it is better to spend this time running their own experiments.
- There are results, but it is difficult to highlight the contribution of this specialist. If the candidate had/has his own successful projects or he started projects in the company from scratch and managed the entire process from creation to implementation of the strategy, then the assessment is easier. In other cases, there is a risk that the person may embellish reality.
- The strategy created by the candidate for the past project was good, but the result was not achieved. Good means you would have acted the same way in that situation. But a good strategy is not enough. Maybe they made mistakes in the implementation process, maybe there weren’t enough resources, or maybe they didn’t have enough luck.
- There are results but in low-competitive niches and countries. It is difficult to predict whether a candidate will be able to work just as well at a different level of competition and in a different niche.
- There are results, but still 3-5 years ago. It is unclear whether the candidate was able to adapt to the new rules of the game or continue to act according to the laws of the past war.
- Good results, but narrow specialization. Sometimes we just need highly specialized SEO skills. But if we are looking for someone who will manage the entire project himself for several years, there is a risk that the candidate will not be able to master new directions.
- There are results, but short-term. Putting a site at the top and keeping it at the top after going through constant Google Core updates is different. Wrong structure, black SEO methods: all this can lead to the fact that tactical victories will drive future successes into the coffin.
- There are results, but too high a price. In the process of communication, it is important to find out the reason for non-profitability: the niche was assessed incorrectly, the rules of the game have changed in the process of promotion, or the SEO specialist wasted part of the budget.
- There are results but in a different search engine. It is clear that it will take time for a specialist to learn the basics of promotion in another search engine. But are you ready to refuse him if his site was the best in another search engine?
- There are results, but not from scratch. When an SEO specialist comes to an already existing successful project, it is difficult to understand whether the subsequent results on this project are the consequences of his actions or the inertia of the correct actions of a past SEO specialist.
How to assess the potential of an SEO specialist in all these cases? Depends on what level of responsibility you are looking for a candidate for.
Responsibility levels and assessment rules
1. SEO specialist, that responsible for some direction within the strategy
Either link building, or keyword research, or technical site audit. Maybe all this in turn. But at this level, we evaluate a specialist only for the speed and quality of the assigned tasks.
If the SEO strategy did not bring results, and he did everything perfectly, then it was not his fault.
2. SEO specialist, that responsible for search traffic
This is already a specialist who draws up and implements a strategy. We estimate it according to this formula.
Expertise index = traffic from organic search for the entire time of work * niche competitiveness/promotion costs.
Here is a simplified diagram of how you can read. Niche competitiveness can be calculated either based on cost per click in Google Ads or keyword difficulty in Ahrefs.
The key rule of this level of responsibility.
It doesn’t matter what actions you perform and whether you perform them correctly separately. It is important whether there is a result of traffic.
3. SEO specialist, that responsible for the profitability of the product, site
This level is available to professionals in companies where organic search traffic is a key traffic source. At this level, the SEO specialist increasingly performs marketing, product management, and team management tasks.
Evaluation of work is already based on ROI, not traffic.
The key rule of this level of responsibility.
It doesn’t matter how much and how valuable the search traffic you bring. It is important whether you can successfully monetize it.
When hiring a candidate for the first level of responsibility, we can still ask him about the nuances of owning specific SEO tools, the key stages of creating and promoting a website.
On the second and third levels, things change dramatically. There are only 10 places at the top. Therefore, at these levels, competence should be defined in the same way as in business and in the financial market.
“The very definition of competence in the financial market sounds so that the majority will not be able to achieve this competence.
“To be competent” here means not compliance with some absolute, externally rendered norm of competence. A doctor or engineer may have such a norm. You can take an exam on it. Purely theoretically, such an exam could pass all of humanity – everyone could get these skills.
But there is no absolute scale on the exchange, the qualifications are determined there relative to other participants. It doesn’t matter what their level is. Whatever it is, you are a skilled player if you play better than average.
If everyone is very stupid, then you can relax, “competence” will be given very easily. If everyone gets smarter, the same title will require more preparation. Markets get smarter over the years. The knowledge that was enough to defeat them in the 20th century is not enough now. ”
Alexander Silaev, Fundamentals of exchange trading
If you read the requirements for senior-level SEO specialists in company vacancies, then you can often find the following requirements:
- advanced level of knowledge of Excel;
- proficiency in Python, SQL, PHP, HTML, CSS;
- advanced level of proficiency in Screaming Frog, Sitechecker, Ahrefs, Semrush;
- experience with PBN, drop domains, doorways, and the like.
This probably helps in some way to filter candidates. But every time we require specialists to master some tools and tactics, we seriously narrow our funnel of attracting talent.
There is a feeling that if you look at who is behind the top rankings in various niches, there will be very few universal soldiers who know how to program and work professionally in Excel.
I believe that in SEO, the value of experience and mastery of any tool, tactics is overestimated, and the value of intelligence is underestimated.
Let me tell you how I came to these conclusions.
Intelligence vs. experience
Among Boosta 60+ SEO experts work. All in highly competitive niches and countries. They act as clients of our website analysis platform. I periodically communicate with them, find out what strategies and tactics they are trying, what works, how they work with Google updates, what tools, and how they use them.
In the process of communication, I came to the conclusion that any SEO expert is a mixture of unconscious experience, conclusions from experiments, analysis of competitors’ sites in the SERPs, read recommendations from search engines and top experts in the topic. And also a mixture of beliefs, cognitive biases, and established biases about working and non-working techniques.
An SEO specialist can apply a ton of different techniques. And the site will be in the top both thanks to some of them, and in spite of some of them.
Often, two SEO specialists have different opinions about the correct strategy, the strength of the influence of a certain ranking factor. They can also use different SEO tools, approaches to work, management, content creation.
But at the same time, the sites of both the first and the second will be at the top.
Such contradictions are a real treasure for me. If two professionals have opposite views of the world and both of them lead to a positive result, then it is better for each of them to reconsider their model of reality.
When I find such a contradiction, I ask its authors what they think of the opposite point of view. I am curious to understand how easy it is for them to revise their beliefs in the light of new facts.
And the way specialists do it is one of the important characteristics of their professional level. The more intellectually flexible a specialist is, the higher his level is.
“Experience is overrated. When you select employees, hire for ability and then train them in skills. The most amazing things are created by people who do them for the first time.”
Kevin Kelly, Editor-in-Chief, Wired, 68 Life Tips Nobody Asked for
“The industry as a whole overestimates experience and underestimates strategic and intellectual agility. And I feel this very strongly.
For example, even when I was working at Google I didn’t know what to do most of the time, but I knew that I had the best team in the world for solutions to all our problems.”
Eric Schmidt, former CEO and head of the board of directors of Google, from the interview
Why less attention should be paid to experience
- It is difficult to single out the contribution of a specialist to the results obtained if he worked in a team in which he was not a leader.
- The accumulation of experience is non-linear. Specialists with 2 and 6 years of work experience may not differ much in their skills, since often the experience is simply repeated.
- Constant updates to search engines and site requirements lead to the fact that it is more and more difficult to repeat the past experience in new projects.
Yes, it’s great if there is a combination of experience + intelligence, but if you need to choose between the first and the second, I would choose the second.
What qualities of thinking you should assess to hire a strong SEO expert
1. Learning rate
A more intelligent person masters any technology or tool faster. If an experienced candidate comes to you who owns four instruments and an inexperienced one who owns one, who should you choose given that you will need to use 10 instruments? Someone who learns faster.
2. Speed of pattern recognition
Every SEO expert communicates with a search engine, like a “learning with a teacher” experiment. He performs certain actions and receives an assessment from the search engine in the form of a decline/increase in keyword positions. The faster he recognizes patterns, the more successful experiments he can scale up in a project.
3. Openness to new experiences
Any revealed pattern is always just one of the hypotheses, the best available knowledge at the moment. The knowledge that needs to be able to revise and change to a new, improved one.
Try to gauge how easily and quickly the candidate is willing to revise their beliefs based on new facts. With age, openness to new experience decreases, but the higher a person’s level of intelligence, the more slowly it falls.
4. Strategic thinking
Does a person know how to see all available ways of solving problems and assess the costs and risks for each way?
5. Speed of completing tasks and testing new ideas
How quickly a person moves from idea to action. Anyone who works faster gets feedback from search engines faster, makes all possible mistakes faster and as a result, accumulates more experience and knowledge per unit of time.
6. Understanding the sources and boundaries of your knowledge
The more accurately a person understands what he knows and from what sources, the more efficiently he will accumulate new knowledge and make better decisions. Whether you need to revise your worldview strongly depends on the sources of your a priori beliefs and the sources of new facts.
7. Ability to model the consciousness of other people
This is also called empathy and social intelligence. To understand how to make a good page, site, you need to understand the characteristics and needs of your user. You need to be able to get into his skin. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
I don’t remember where I read that there are two types of empathy: one – as an unconscious reaction to some emotions that people next to you show; the other is the one that comes from imagination and intellect when we try to imagine a person and his sensations. The first is ancient, simple, and accessible to almost all people. The second is evolutionarily newer, intellectually costly, and not available to everyone.
It takes time and human interaction to appreciate some of these qualities. But something can be understood simply by asking the right questions.
Questions to ask when hiring an SEO specialist
These questions are designed to evaluate candidates for positions with a high level of responsibility.
- How do you know if a niche is competitive and how much you can earn in it?
- Where to start analyzing an unfamiliar niche?
- What are the key parameters you look at when evaluating competitors?
- What are the main points of your SEO strategy?
- How do you conduct SEO experiments? How do you assess the impact of the work carried out on the site?
- How has your idea of the correct algorithm for website promotion changed over the past 3-5 years?
- Rank your sources of information from most valuable to least valuable, based on which you form your understanding of SEO.
- What in SEO do you know well, what is average, and what you don’t know at all? Why don’t you pay attention to what is in the last paragraph?
- What are the riskiest tactics you used in SEO? Why did you decide to take the risk?
- How would you promote your website if you only had Google Analytics, Google Search Console, Google Sheets among the available tools?
- What does your action technology look like if your site crashed after an update? And if you grew up?
- How do you prioritize sites, pages, keywords that you need to work on first?
- In your experience, which ranking factors are overrated and which are underestimated among SEO professionals and website owners?
- What sites do you think are perfect for SEO (across a wide range of niches)? Why?
- How do you rate the quality of the content, the quality of the backlinks?
- What are the biggest mistakes you’ve made in your work? What has changed in your work after completing them?
An expert’s assessment of what he has already done and what he can do in the future is a very different assessment.
Look not at the experience and skills itself, but at the algorithm (intelligence) that masters and processes them.
And remember that one strength can override all other weaknesses.