It’s hard to believe, but as of this month, I’ve been the owner of an SEO and online marketing agency for 10 short, yet very long years.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably “in the industry,” or at least aspire to be — so you don’t need me to tell you how difficult it can be to attract and retain quality employees in an ever-evolving, high-stakes and fast-paced work environment.
It’s certainly something my leadership team and I have spent countless hours trying to figure out. It’s also one of the questions I get asked most often from colleagues in the industry: What makes a great SEO employee?
Though qualities like knowledge of HTML or information architecture are useful, the one thing SEO rock stars all have in common is that they seem to have certain “intangible” qualities. Personality traits like self-motivation, leadership and the constant thirst for knowledge top the lists and seem to be a predictor of long-term success.
While the Millennial generation, or Gen-Y, has a bit of a negative reputation among older professionals, there are many qualities that make them great employees — and make the SEO industry a perfect fit.
They’re looking for a challenge, to be constantly learning and to connect their work to a greater purpose. When hiring Millennials, keep in mind that you need to do your part as a company to engage these high-potential individuals.
Gen-Y will soon make up the majority of the workforce around the world. Recent research shows that by and large, Millennials are misunderstood by managers. Whether your company, like mine, already consists of a majority of Millennial employees or is on its way there, clearly defining the “intangibles” that your company values most will aid you in your hiring and retention.
On a suggestion from our hiring leads, we embarked on a mission to do exactly that: to figure out, and then put into words, the intangible qualities and values that make great employees at our organization. We came up with seven traits, which form the acronym CHARGED:
The SEO industry is full of smart people, some of whom have been doing this type of work for years. We’ve found that we can teach anyone the expertise to be successful, so long as they possess these values and traits. From there, skill in the area of SEO can be honed and refined with time and practice.
I’ll give some more context to how each of these seven traits can make an individual a highly effective SEO, as well as some interview tips for those of you looking to snag that coveted SEO position below.
To be an effective SEO, one can’t be a one-trick pony. Achieving optimal search engine presence (or better yet, dominance) is a collective effort involving a multitude of areas of expertise: technical SEO, on- and offsite factors, strong content marketing, strategic analysis of your target audience, great online PR, social media and more.
Maybe there are a few unicorns out there, but I don’t know many people who are stellar at all of those things. Being an effective SEO means you’re willing and able to collaborate with other experts and find ways to leverage their strengths to get results.
Approaching teamwork with a positive attitude is a complete must in our company (and should be in yours, too).
- Greenlight: Be sure to look for candidates who provide real examples of their collaborative spirit by describing projects they worked on with others, highlighting their teammates’ contributions and the overall success. Candidates who talk about their learnings from a failed project or team assignment and key in on what they would do differently next time make for great team players.
- Red flags: Candidates who bad mouth teammates or colleagues or place blame on others for failures are likely not willing to own their own contributions or play well with others.
At the pace with which an agency moves, you need employees who are never satisfied with the status quo and who are always willing to better themselves, their work and the results they achieve. Hunger for continued knowledge and exploration is vital if you want your company to stay on the cutting edge.
- Greenlight: Test for this value by asking candidates to describe something they recently taught themselves. Good candidates will have several answers to this question and will be able to describe how they did it and how it impacted their lives professionally and personally.
- Red flags: Candidates who don’t have any questions throughout the interview process are likely lacking an innate curiosity and hunger for information.
In the world of SEO, you must accept the fact that you’re at Google’s mercy. It’s rare that we get advance notice of a big algorithm change or manual action sweep — which means our systems, tactics and most importantly, our people, have to be agile and adaptable to change.
Constant innovation and improvement should always be a goal if you want your company or agency to remain competitive. The only way to achieve that is to staff with agile people who understand the vision and can make it happen.
- Greenlight: One way to test for agility is to ask your candidates to describe a challenging situation they’ve faced. Great candidates will describe how they approached the challenge, adjusted their strategy/tactics and ultimately learned something from the experience.
- Red flags: Candidates who look at change as a negative or unwanted adjustment are not going to be agile enough to last in the SEO world.
Nordstrom, known worldwide for its impeccable customer service, has literally one rule in its employee handbook: “Use good judgment in all situations.”
At any company, in any industry, you need to be sure you can trust your people. Clients need to be sure they can trust their SEO team to do the right thing.
The more the SEO landscape changes, the more important it is for SEOs to leave behind old practices that once moved the needle but can be detrimental today. Reliability isn’t doing the right thing once; it’s doing it consistently over time.
- Greenlight: Candidates whose resumes demonstrate tenure with a company and a record of growth are sure signs of a highly reliable and trusted employee.
- Red flags: Candidates whose resumes demonstrate a complete lack of commitment to a company, industry or interest may not be reliable in the long term.
Your best employees will show an enthusiasm for the work and the company and go to bat for their ideas. In SEO, we frequently try something new only to fail or produce no results. When working with clients, your employees need to be able to own their mistakes, possess humility and laugh at themselves.
- Greenlight: A candidate who can talk about a failure with humility is likely a good fit. Ask client-facing candidates how they’ve handled a situation that went badly.
- Red flags: Believe it or not, we’ve actually had people admit they lied to a customer to cover a failure. If they’re willing to admit this in an interview, they’re highly likely to do it again. Transparency is important when clients are trusting you with their business.
SEO doesn’t matter if you don’t move the needle and see improvement in the metrics. Being results-oriented and understanding metrics is crucial to being effective, both in your career as an SEO and in getting results for your clients.
To be a great employee in an SEO agency, you also need to G.S.D. (get stuff done)! I think I can speak for all agencies when I say that the pace of work doesn’t leave us any room to micromanage you.
- Greenlight: Our rock star employees have their own personal productivity methods, whether they’ve adopted the Getting Things Done methodology or simply created their own approach. Great candidates will be able to talk about how they keep themselves organized and can work independently.
- Red flags: Candidates who don’t even mention a to-do list when talking about how they keep organized are a no-go. Also, candidates who’ve had no experience being held accountable to metrics or tangible results won’t make a good fit in this metrics- and results-driven industry.
Individuals who commit to their craft, company and clients are people you want on your team. You wouldn’t get married to someone without a commitment or show of dedication, right? Well, most of us wouldn’t.
Blind dedication to a cause or leader can be dangerous, which is why this value is listed last. An individual should possess the other traits listed above, as well as a dedication to embodying them on an ongoing basis.
- Greenlight: You want to look for candidates whose definition of going above and beyond for their clients or colleagues matches up with yours.
- Red flags: Candidates who answer the “above and beyond” question by describing a basic expectation don’t know what it means to be dedicated to results or their customers.
Influencing The Culture
Once we defined and documented our core values, we sought to also incorporate them organically into the agency culture. Our already vibrant “kudos board” in the common area was a great place to immediately apply these values and keep them top-of-mind.
We created new “kudos cards,” each outlining one of our core values (plus an eighth in the event you just want to give someone a kudos for being themselves and being awesome).
I would love to know your thoughts. Do your SEO colleagues have these traits, too? Or do you feel we left out an important intangible? Maybe you have something like this in place at your company and would like to share your story.
Here’s to another great 10 years. (2025, can you imagine?)