When I left my position as the Marketing Director for Infront Webworks earlier this year, I was asked to help hire my replacement. I was happy to do so, because I knew they would probably have a challenging time hiring, for two specific reasons:
First: I was the only employee who’d had years of solid experience and expertise with the nitty-gritty hands-on aspect of SEO and Internet Marketing (which is why I’d been hired in the first place) …and I was leaving. So it was going to be hard for them to find the right candidate because they might not know exactly which questions to ask, and what to look for in a potential hire.
Second: even if they had found a candidate who was clean and presentable and made a convincing case for why he should be hired, they wouldn’t necessarily know how to tell if he was truly experienced or simply blowing smoke or BSing his way through an interview. Unfortunately the marketing field, (and Internet marketing in particular) is filled with self-proclaimed “experts” who will promise you the world in an interview but when it comes time to deliver… they just don’t. Or can’t. People like this just show up to work, talk a lot about vague concepts, never provide any concrete results, and hope the higher-ups never notice. This is mainly because it’s very easy to sound like you know what you’re talking about by gushing a few jargony phrases in an interview or in front of clients (things like “your meta tags aren’t optimized,” “you need to canonicalize your URLs,” “your conversion rate needs work,” “we need to file a reconsideration request” and more) and intimidate people into believing you.
I wanted to keep Infront from having to deal with these things, but at the same time, I didn’t want to personally interview dozens of people who weren’t a good fit because that would waste the final days I had at the company. So because I knew which questions to ask to help separate the wheat from the chaff, and I was sure I could judge the quality of the answers that candidates gave, I put my highly-sensitive bullshit detector to work, and created a 35-question SEO Test that I was sure would help me screen the time-wasters from the solid candidates.
I’d never really done this before, so I wasn’t sure how it would go. But we gave it a shot. We set it up in an efficient manner as well—the company president was the first one who would receive applications and resumes, and he would give everything the first pass, deleting anything that looked like a waste of time, and saving a few applications that he thought would be worth sending to me. Ultimately, he sent me about ten names, and I responded to each of them by emailing them a link to our SEO Test online. Most of them took the test, and I read through all the answers.
I purposefully worded the questions so that they wouldn’t be able to pick between a few options (like a multiple choice test). Instead, I forced them to elaborate on the answers in their own words. This helped me determine whether the applicant was answering a question based on Googling for an answer (which I had explained would be considered cheating), or if they understood the concepts at a very basic or more advanced level.
How did it go? I’m proud to report that it worked very well! It accomplished its objective in two ways: first, it scared off the people who didn’t know what they were applying for, second, it gave us a reading of how well-versed the applicants were that actually filled it out. Here are the test questions I created, and if you’re super interested, let me know in the comments and I’ll share my answers to them as well.
SEO Test Question for Hiring an SEO:
- What is your name, your email address and your personal website or blog? (I did this to see if the applicant had his/her own website or blog. If not, I’d subtract points. If you’re serious in this field these days, you’ve GOT to have your own website).
- What search terms have you optimized your website for? (Again, this is designed to see whether the applicant had spent any measure of time optimizing his/her site for any search phrases, or at a minimum: the applicant’s own name).
- How often does Google update its search algorithm? (In this case, I’m looking to see whether they understand how many overall algorithm updates are made in a year, as well as the big ones rolled out from time to time).
- What are the name of the crawlers used by Google, Yahoo, and Bing (in that order)? (This is not a make-or-break question but gives me an idea of the technical depth of the applicant).
- What is PageRank, where did the term “PageRank” come from, how it is calculated and why is it important? (Same as above: the way the applicant answers this question demonstrates his/her understanding of a very important topic).
- What is the difference between white hat and black hat SEO? (If an applicant doesn’t know the difference between the two, I would be concerned).
- What is the name of the file you put on your server to tell a search engine which parts of your website it should and shouldn’t crawl? (This is a technical and very important question).
- What is the end goal of a search engine? What specific task do they try to accomplish? (I want to see how the applicant’s mind works with this one—I want to make sure the applicant understands the business model behind a search engine, not just how it works).
- If you’ve just built a website that didn’t exist before, what’s the fastest way to make sure it gets indexed in Google? (I’m proud of this question—it stumped a few people. The “fastest” is arguably arbitrary, but I don’t care. What matters is that the applicant knows how to get a website indexed in Google very quickly.)
- What is a 404 error? (If the applicant doesn’t know this, I’m really not interested in hiring them).
- How can you make sure search visitors don’t see 404 errors after making significant changes to your website’s URLs? (This one deals with broken links—a very common occurrence in websites and an Internet Marketer MUST know how to deal with them properly.)
- What are some of the most important ON-page factors for search engine rankings? (The “most important” is fairly arbitrary, but I want to make sure they get the basics).
- What are some of the most important OFF-page factors for search engine rankings? (Same as above).
- If someone shows up at your website and leaves immediately without clicking on anything, what is that called? (If you don’t know this, you shouldn’t be applying).
- What kinds of optimization tricks did the “Panda” algorithm update focus on? Why was it also called the “Farmer” update? (This shows me how well-versed the applicant is in SEO news. A good SEO, especially in 2013, should be constantly reading and staying updates on algorithm changes and updates).
- If you change a URL or move a page, *what exact kind* of redirect should you use to tell a search engine about the new URL? (This goes with questions #10 and #11, but here, I want the SEO-friendly way to implement redirects properly).
- What was the “Penguin” update? How was it different than the Panda update? (Same as question #15).
- What is the difference between an algorithm update and a “data refresh”? (Same as question #15—I need the applicant to demonstrate an understanding of how Google works internally).
- Create a hypothetical robots.txt file below, with proper syntax. Tell all bots to crawl the entire website. (An SEO with a web dev background would ace this. An SEO who is not very technical would at least give it a shot and get close. A rookie wouldn’t even know what this means).
- If your website has issues that Google doesn’t like, where would you be able to get notifications about this? (It’s important to find out what an Internet Marketer would do if there’s a problem, and where he/she would look for issues and answers).
- If you receive a notice from Google about penalties or a unnatural link warning, what is it called when you ask to be added back to the index? (Same as above).
- Is a sitemap still relevant for search engines today? If so, which kind(s)? (Similar to #19, I want to know if the applicant understands the web development side).
- What is anchor text? (Obvious—you’ve got to know your terminology).
- What’s a “nofollow” tag for links and when would you use it? (This question is important not only to show an understanding of what will and won’t get you penalized by Google, but also because it would show me how long the applicant’s been in the field).
- If you take on an SEO client, how would you determine who the top three competitors are? (This question helps me figure out how the applicant would work with a new client, which is crucial because I want to know the process of how he/she would work, not just the end product).
- What’s the difference between alt attributes and titles on a photo? (This one tripped up most people, surprisingly. People with a web development background should ace this).
- What’s the most effective thing you’ve ever tried for SEO, or your proudest moment? (This is the applicant’s opportunity to brag. I want to hear what they think it impressive. Also, if there aren’t any success stories, I’d be worried).
- How do you determine which keyword phrases you want to optimize a website for? (Another process-related question. The answer is very open-ended, but I want to hear the applicant thinking out loud).
- How would you define “success” in SEO? (This is one of the most important questions of all—I need to know what an applicant thinks the ultimate goal of SEO is, because if it doesn’t match what clients expect, there’s going to be trouble).
- Have you ever run into a situation where you simply couldn’t get any results for a client, or have chosen not to take on a new client for some reason? Describe that situation in detail, including how you handled it and your reasoning behind why you made the decisions you did. (This one is an opportunity for me to hear how the applicant thinks, not just in SEO, but in dealing with clients. Also, if he/she said “I’ve never had any problems with any clients,” my bullshit detector’s siren would start going off).
- What kinds of reports would you give a client to prove to them that your SEO efforts are succeeding? (This process-related question helps me understand what the applicant is going to give the client in terms of deliverables. This is VERY important to me, because it is NOT good enough to do what most SEOs do, which is land a new client, get an initial meeting going, charge them every month but never talk to them again. That’s not how I work, and that’s not how my replacement was going to work—I was certain of that).
- Hypothetical Scenario: a client comes into your office and says “I need better rankings. I’m not ranking highly. Can you help me?” Question: what would you say to or ask the client? (This is like asking someone for their “elevator pitch.” I want to hear in 60 seconds or less how the applicant is going to describe what SEO is, what he would promise the client, and what kind of questions he would ask the client. Note: the difference between a good and a GREAT Internet Marketer is in the questions they ask the client, in my opinion. Most SEOs don’t ask enough questions, or they ask the wrong ones. You don’t want the client asking all the questions).
- What kind of Social Media tactics have you used in the past and how have they figured into your overall SEO strategy? (This shows me how social-media savvy the applicant is, which is becoming a more important tool for SEO every year).
- What is Google Authorship, is it important for rankings, and if so, why and how? (Nobody got this question right! This showed me that none of the applicants have really paid attention to Google’s foray into the world of social integration and personalization. This wasn’t a deal-breaker, but I was surprised that nobody knew about it).
- What tools and software do you use for SEO? (There’s no real “wrong” answer to this one—I wanted to know whether the tools used were old and outdated, or black-hat tools).
Ultimately the SEO Test was a success, because we hired the applicant who scored highest on the test! He did a great job and at least guessed on the questions he didn’t know (which was very few of them).
If you ever need to hire for SEO, try using this test like I did (or something like it). I’m sure you can come up with some questions that I haven’t even thought of, and this certainly isn’t the be-all and end-all of SEO Tests. I didn’t intend for it to be that. I just intended to use it in a very small way one time with our company, an it worked. Good luck!
P.S. If you’ve ever used a similar method for hiring, feel free to let me know in the comments below. I’d love to hear about it!