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 SEO’s.   The recent SEO Professional Hiring Guide from Stephan Bajaio of Conductor is an excellent set of tips from people across the industry on the do’s 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 follow on article will focus on the the actual technical skills an SEO must have to be successful.

I think most companies use a standard list of Employee Qualities like this list from Jibe but 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 has written on this problem for a number of years.  David has been very vocal that hiring managers do not understand the hard skills necessary for Search jobs the even bigger gap in the soft skills which leads to both the individual failure and more importantly, organization failure and a 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.  This is my personal view on what it takes to be truly successfully managing SEO in a large company.   For those that may not be aware, I ran search for two large agencies as well as IBM and have helped numerous companies try to hire Global Search Managers.  From this collective experiences is my list:

Curiosity of a 5 Year Old/Student of your Craft

If you have a young child then 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 aces of a topic of issue.   There are many why’s in Search especially in SEO.  It should be a constant set of questions about how does this work, why does this work or not work.   Using your own brain and experience to sort though problems in the context of your dev and corporate environment is critical for success.

When I was a Marine I learned the phrase “Student of your Craft” and this curiosity often resulted stacks of books from the officers in my command.  You have to want to always be improving and learning, not just your specific role and how it contributes to the whole but those around it and how you impacts them and they 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 but other topics.

Deductive Reasoning Skills of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. House

The child-like curiosity is augmented by this deductive reasoning trait 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.  Deductive reasoning and root cause analysis are essential to determine why your performances has increased and especially 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, the one I give is … I have a page that is ranking in Google but it is not the page that should be ranking.  There are two basic options for this problem.  First, another page is more relevant therefore it ranks and the second is there is a canonical element that is pointing to it.

Olympic Athlete’s Competitive Nature

I have found the most successful SEO’s are very competitive.  Getting a top listing is like wining a race.  You have beet 999 other competitors for that privilege of being on top of the podium.   Many of the successful SEO’s that I know personally or 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 were the athletes that we hired.  Living in Bend Oregon we had many world-class athletes in sports like skiing, mountain biking and various water sports that came to train and needed a job that challenged them intellectually.   It is after all a contact sport to beat the Google and their competitors.

Bill Clinton’s Communication Skills

The ability to present complex requirements and then motivate people to do them is critical in the enterprise.   To spend resources on a 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.   In many cases the author 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 to help with the persuasion.  The second, and more valuable, understanding what the other sided needed to get out of the negotiation.  I learned power of the second time myself completely by accident.   We had a large site audit delayed and on the day we were to do the final readout we actually 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 had all in the room, started with the process and a few things we had seen already and started to get some interesting feedback.   Most of the teams started telling us much of the “why” things were the way they were.   We had been told the Senior Manager of the Web will be our biggest barrier as she hated working with SEO’s.  One of the items we identified was inconsistent code and titles  across the pages and that 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.   So 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 were able to get approval from the CMO for the new CMS and nearly every recommendation we had in place.

So for your test you may ask the candidate to explain their process for determine 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 often cannot imagine others not needing them.     No real way to test for this trait but you want someone that maybe has developed their own smaller tools or process 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 delete from my presentation list that was added as a funny break in the presentation.     But you do need someone who can understand where the industry is going and what your organization must to to try and move with it.   I often make suggestions for 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 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 of the 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 result in the entire site being negatively impacted.

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.

Patience of a Saint!

This trait should be nonnegotiable and one of the reasons most celebrity SEO’s and small business SEO’s 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 are even able to be implemented.  I recently turned down a project since the site does updates 3 times year and the next two were fully booked so it would be 9 months to see any changes on the site including uploading XML site maps.  The only way to test for this is the 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 easuqlly 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 traits that are necessary, 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.