How to Hire an SEO Expert: Interview Questions and Answers

George Zlatin

By George Zlatin

SEO experience” is the new “Microsoft Office.”

Everyone lists it on their resume these days (or at least everyone in digital marketing).

Whether you’re hiring an SEO professional, or a digital marketer with some SEO skills, you need to try and quickly figure out their SEO experience level during the interview process. This is especially tricky if you’re an SEO neophyte yourself.

Filtering Through SEO Resumes

As most people do, I typically start with looking at the candidate’s resume. There are many types of SEO roles out there, but there are fundamentally two categories of SEO resumes that I get:

  • SEOs: People with a long history of SEO experience. SEO is their main interest when it comes to their work. 
  • Digital Marketers: People who have worked on various SEO elements, but SEO hasn’t been their core responsibility.

One is not better or worse than the other.  It depends on what is the best fit for the role you’re hiring for.  I’ll talk more about this further down…

The next filter is the type of SEO work that the candidate listed on their resume. Did they lead any SEO initiatives and/or strategies? Or does it look like they implement boilerplate SEO tactics?

This can also help gauge how excited the candidate is about SEO in general. A good SEO candidate should be curious about trying different tools, tactics and strategies. 

Good SEO’s are hard to find

I’ve been interviewing and hiring in the SEO space for fourteen years. In that time, I’ve interviewed over 200 people and hired dozens at our SEO agency

It’s a tough role to hire for; SEO requires left brain analytical thinking for the technical side, and right brain creative, bigger picture thinking for the marketing side. The ideal candidate is someone that is highly technical and creative at the same time.

Even though SEO is starting to mature as a profession, the demand for good people is still very high. There has been a talent shortage in our industry since at least 2015 and it has gotten more competitive each year, which has been driving salaries up quickly.  To combat that, we’ve had to create an environment that offers the best company culture, and offer more benefits and flexibility like flex time, work from home days, more PTO time, etc.

What type of SEO role are you hiring for?

There are many different types of SEO roles, but as mentioned above there are two main categories:  Dedicated SEOs and generalist SEOs.

If you’re looking for someone who can lead the SEO strategy for an extremely large 500,000 page enterprise website, you’re going to need someone who is a dedicated SEO professional and has a lot of technical SEO expertise.  This person would be responsible for crawling and auditing the entire website, making site architecture and navigation recommendations, as well as recommending overarching SEO strategies. 

If you’re looking for someone who needs to manage SEO for a small B2B site with a few dozen service pages and a blog, you would be better off getting someone who is more of a well rounded digital marketer or a content marketer with some SEO experience.  This person would be responsible for non-technical SEO tasks like keyword research, writing blog content, writing title tags, updating page copy, etc.

How much SEO experience do you need?

The first one to two years are entry level learning years. Someone with three-plus years of SEO experience is considered to have a lot of experience. Someone with five-plus years of SEO experience is considered a seasoned professional. Someone with eight-plus years of SEO under their belt is considered a veteran. 

Of course, these range estimates can vary greatly from person to person and company to company. 

Generally speaking, for the highly technical role above, you will most likely need someone with at least five-plus years of experience. For the generalist role, someone with a year or two of SEO experience could be enough for what you need.  

Resume Content to Look Out For

When hiring an for an SEO position, there are three things I look for:

  • Vague “SEO experience”
  • Overqualified candidates
  • Demonstrated professional growth

1. SEO Experience…Not!

Some people list “SEO experience” on their resume, but what does that really mean?

Just because you’ve fixed a leak once, that doesn’t make you a plumber. Just because an applicant has done keyword research and placed some keywords on a page, that doesn’t make them an SEO expert. Some people will also take the leap and say they’ve been doing SEO for five years, only to find out that they worked on various SEO projects throughout the last five years that had some SEO elements to it. 

Specifically, I’ve seen a lot of content marketers and freelance writers list SEO as a skill because they had a job where they had to write “with SEO in mind”. This type of tertiary SEO knowledge is very different from the SEO who runs Screaming Frog crawls, obsesses over page speed, and writes schema code.

2. Overqualified applicants

Don’t make the mistake of hiring a seasoned SEO veteran for a mid-level SEO role. You might think to yourself, “the candidate knows more than enough to handle the role that I’m hiring for”.  Once they start, they’ll quickly get bored and realize that the role isn’t challenging enough for their career.

3. Professional growth

If I’m looking at a resume showing a history of SEO experience, I always try and look for a clear pattern of SEO growth.  If they started out somewhere with light SEO responsibilities, and it grew into a full SEO specific role – that shows a strong interest in SEO specifically.

Or, maybe they started learning SEO at their last role, and they want to take their SEO skills to the next level. That person will likely be a good SEO hire. 

If the candidate has been in the industry for four-plus years and hasn’t specifically focused on SEO within their role, that usually means they are more of a marketing generalist, or their main role was a different marketing expertise (paid, social, etc.) that worked peripherally on SEO.

General SEO Interview Questions

Once you’ve screened the resumes, you want to make sure the interview process has some detailed, SEO-driven questions to dig deeper on your candidates. Of course, you’ll need to know the answers yourself, so I’ve provided those too.

Here are a few SEO questions that anybody with SEO experience should be able to answer. Of course their answers won’t be verbatim, but they should hit the main points listed below each question.

What is Domain Authority? How does it affect your rankings?

Answer: Domain Authority is a score developed by Moz (an SEO tools company) that gauges the strength of a website. It’s measured on a logarithmic scale from 1-100.  The higher the score, the stronger the website in search engines, and the easier it will be for that domain to rank for competitive keywords.

Name at least one popular tool for checking backlinks.

Answer: Some commonly used tools include Link Explorer (by Moz), Ahrefs, Majestic and SEMRush. You can also ask how they have used the tool.   If they have used the tool to analyze competitors that is good.

ahrefs reports display

What is Google Search Console?

Answer: Search console is a collection of tools and reports that Google offers free to webmasters to help them (and SEO professionals) monitor website performance. Basically, it’s Google’s way of letting you know if they see anything wrong with your site. Some of the reports include ranking reports, links to your site, Index status, crawl errors, sitemap submission, and more.

What is a disavow file and what is it used for?

Answer: A file is used to “disavow” links that are pointing at your website from other sites. The need for this arose when Google started penalizing sites for spammy link building practices.

A disavow file is submitted to Google via your Search Console account. It should list all inbound links that you want disavowed. The disavow file is simply a way to tell Google that you don’t want those links to count toward your reputation.

What does a site map help search engines do?

Answer: A sitemap helps search engines crawl and index your website pages faster. This is especially helpful if you publish new content on a daily basis to ensure that Google gets a fresh feed of all your new content. However, it DOES NOT help your pages rank higher. If you don’t submit a sitemap Google will still come around and crawl your site eventually.

Name three “On-Page” ranking elements.

Answer: Any of the following – title tags, URLs, page copy, H1 tags, image name and alt-text.

Technical SEO Interview Questions

If you’re looking to hire an SEO beyond a generalist, you’ll need to ask some more tech-specific questions to better understand their SEO techniques.

What is a robots.txt file and what is it used for?

Answer: A robots.txt file is a simple text page that is placed on the root level of the server (usually located at www.website.com/robots.txt).  This file is used to exclude certain pages on your site from getting indexed by search engines. You can also use the file to exclude your entire website.

What is a 301 redirect? What is it used for? How is it different from a 302 redirect?

Answer: A 301 redirect is a permanent redirect of a URL or a domain. This is mainly used to redirect old or inactive pages to a newer page. A 302 redirect is a temporary redirect and does not pass any link equity.

If a site 302 redirects an old URL to a new one, none of the rankings associated with that page or domain are going to get transferred to the new URL. It’s important to always use a 301 redirect in order to ensure that link equity is passed.

What is a canonical URL tag and what is it used for?

Answer: A canonical URL tag is a meta tag that is placed on a page to tell search engines which version of a page is the “preferred” version. It is primarily used to reduce duplicate content on your site.

A good example of when it is used is on e-commerce websites when there are 1,000 products in a category, which results in dozens of category pages for the same category. All of the “duplicate” category pages would have a canonical tag pointing to the first main category page. This helps search engines rank your main category page for the intended keyphrase.

Example of canonicalization vs. redirects

Can search engines crawl Javascript and how do you test it?

Answer: Yes, and you can test for it with Search Console. Using Search Console, you’ll be able to fetch and render any page to see which elements are read and displayed correctly. Search Console identifies elements that cannot be rendered so they can be fixed.

Can search engines crawl content in PDF files?

Answer: Yes, search engines can crawl content in PDF files. Not only does Google crawl and index them but PDFs will come up directly in the search results for some searches. Usually forms, templates and other documents like that.

SEO is a Complex Skill Set

If your candidate doesn’t know the answer to the above questions and you’re hiring for an SEO specific position, then they’re obviously not a great fit. 

However, if SEO is a small portion of the role and they know the answer to some/most of the above questions, consider that they might be a better fit than somebody that has a ton of SEO experience, especially if they have some of the other general skills you’re looking for.