Every week we see people asking the same questions on social media:

“I’m interviewing an SEO candidate—do you have any tips?”

“How do I make sure I hire the right person for the role?”

“I messed up on my last SEO hire. How do I get it right this time?”

This article addresses these questions. We’ll discuss general best practices for interviews, as well as typical questions you can ask to gauge your SEO candidates’ abilities and experience, to make sure you’re hiring the right person for the job.

For this article, we’ve talked to a number of people who have been hiring SEO staff for years, and followed that up with lots of online conversations, and last but not least our own hiring experiences.

Shaking the hands of the right SEO candidate

What makes for a great SEO candidate?

In order to evaluate whether someone is a great SEO candidate, you first need to know what traits you’re looking for. And that’s not easy, because in SEO hiring, you’re often looking for a five-legged sheep.

Important personality traits you should be seeking in SEO candidates:

  • Passion: that twinkle in their eye when they’re talking about SEO.
  • Grit: the desire and fortitude to work hard and think about long term goals.
  • Resourcefulness: the ability to think outside the box when they run into problems.
  • Shrewdness: the ability to question information and seek evidence and other viewpoints.
  • Learning: the desire to keep learning. The SEO field is constantly evolving, and so to keep sharp, you need to keep learning.

Important skills to seek in SEO candidates:

  • Soft skills: they need to be able to talk to both technical and non-technical people. Having soft skills is important: they won’t get anything done without them, as convincing others of the need to do something is an important part of working in SEO.
    If they don’t “get” soft skills, then they’re probably not very good at building links either, because that’s all about understanding what the person on the other side wants.
  • Technical skills: they need to have (some) technical knowledge of how the web works, how search engines work, and how websites work. But only some. Of course, if you’re hiring a technical SEO, they need to have a solid technical background; however, it’s neither a requirement nor a guarantee for being great at SEO in general.

Separating the wheat from the chaff: the SEO audit

Lots of companies ask candidates to do an SEO audit of a website, to separate the wheat from the chaff. Some offer compensation, while some don’t—they see it as a necessary investment that the candidate needs to make. It’s recommended that this audit be limited in scope to just one selected aspect of SEO, namely technical foundation, content, or authority & trust, depending on what you need from the candidate. That way you can really zoom in on that aspect.

Asking your candidates to perform an SEO audit serves two purposes:

  1. It gives you insight into their skill set and way of thinking.
  2. It shows you how serious they are about the job you’re offering. Especially if no compensation is offered, this requires quite an investment, and some companies really value this.

There is, however, a downside to not offering compensation: you could miss out on a great candidate who’s not willing to do an audit without compensation. In the end, that’s up to you. You’ll know what works best for your company.

Keep in mind that you won’t be present during their work on the audit. For all you know, they could have worked day and night on it, while you had only expected it to take them two hours. Or they could have put it up on UpWork and hired someone else to do it.

Don’t obsess over the SEO audit. See it simply as a milestone to be reached before moving on to round two.

General best practices for interviewing

The best practices for interviewing people in general apply for interviewing SEO candidates as well.

The whole point of interviewing people is to get to know them. To get insight into their train of thought and to gauge their abilities and experience. Your questions need to support this goal, and that’s where the STAR method comes in.

STAR stands for situation, task, action, result:

  • Situation: get a clear picture of the situation.
  • Task: understand what tasks were performed in this situation.
  • Action: understand in detail how these tasks were performed
  • Result: understand what the outcome of the situation was and what they learned.

Structuring your questions using the STAR method helps you to get a complete picture of your SEO candidates. Not all questions have to be structured using STAR, but it pays off to use it to get detailed answers for high-level questions.

Interview questions for SEO

Now on to the interview questions. We’ll apply the STAR method to one of the questions, to give you a better understanding of how you can put that method into practice. For each question we’ll mention one desirable answer.

Getting to know your candidate, focused on soft skills:

  • What is your proudest achievement in SEO?
  • What part of SEO do you like the most?
  • How do you feel about black hat SEO?
  • How do you make sure your recommendations are implemented?

Gauging your candidate’s content/relevancy skills:

  • What’s your approach to doing keyword research?
  • What makes for a great, optimized page?
  • You’re far behind the competition in terms of content. How do you close the gap?

Gauging your candidate’s technical skills:

  • Can you explain the basics of how a search engine works?
  • What are the risks of having a crawl trap? How can you fix it?
  • How can you prevent search engines from crawling certain URLs?
  • How do you remove accidentally indexed pages from Google’s index?
  • How do you optimize an image?

Gauging your candidate’s link-building skills:

  • In your opinion, what’s the best way to gain links from other sites?
  • As a white hat SEO, do we still need to be afraid of a link-building penalty?
  • Google has hit you with a link penalty. How do you deal with this?

Gauging your candidate’s ability to think about processes and reporting:

  • Your rankings have dropped. How do you diagnose what’s happening?
  • What does your SEO routine look like? What do you check, how frequently, and how?
  • What KPIs do you report on to show SEO progress?

Gauging your candidate’s ability to see the bigger picture:

  • How do you think we’ll be doing SEO five years from now?
  • 80% of your traffic comes from organic search. Are you doing great, or not?
  • When is doubling down on SEO not a good strategy for a company?

1. What is your proudest achievement in SEO (with STAR applied)

The candidate will mention a certain event that they’re very proud of. With this question, you can follow up and ask about the sizes of the projects that the candidate has worked on, and what type of clients they like to work with (SMB/Enterprise). It’s also a great question to apply the STAR method to.

  • Situation: Why was this your proudest achievement, and what was your role?
  • Task: What tasks did you perform?
  • Action: How did you perform these tasks, what methods did you apply, what tools did you use, why wasn’t tool X used, and was there a team involved?
  • Result: What was the end result? What was the biggest thing you learned?

2. What part of SEO do you like the most?

The answer to this question will give you insight into what area of SEO your candidate is the most interested in. There are no right or wrong answers; it’s about finding out where your candidate’s heart (and expertise) is at.

There are three pillars of SEO:

  1. Technology: the technical foundation of the website, which influences crawling and indexing.
  2. Relevance: meta information and content, which explain to search engines what your website is about.
  3. Authority: links to your website, which determine your authority and trustworthiness.

Recommended preparatory reading: The Three Pillars of SEO by Barry Adams.

3. How do you feel about black hat SEO?

This is always an interesting question. Some candidates will call black hat SEOs heathens, while others will say they’re SEO gods, and then there’s the most interesting—and desired—answer:

“I like to keeps tabs on what’s working for black hat SEOs. Black hats are often highly innovative because they’re playing a high-risk cat-and-mouse game with search engines, so keeping an eye on what works for them, and what doesn’t, can be really insightful.”

Example: we heard about a black hat SEO who was using negative SEO. He would briefly DDOS a competitor’s website so that their web server would return 5XX server errors, and at that exact point, he would try to get Google to crawl some of their pages. If Google hit a 5XX server error several times, they might deindex those pages.

While these practices are very questionable, and we’d never recommend doing this, it gives you insight into how they think and how they’re willing to bet—within this high-risk, high-reward environment—that Google deals with 5XX server errors. Very insightful.

4. How do you make sure your recommendations are implemented?

This question is meant to test your candidate’s ability to persuade people. To get their recommendations implemented, they need to be able to persuade people within all the ranks of an organization. There’s always someone who digs their heels in the sand when an SEO audit is done, and it’s up to the candidate to make sure that their recommendations don’t end up sitting in a desk drawer.

This one especially needs follow-up questions:

How do you persuade management?

You want to your candidate to talk about business cases and projecting growth and revenue. Management isn’t interested in technical details; they just want to know what the potential benefits (and risks) are so that they can make a decision.

And how do you persuade development?

Developers are very different from managers: they do need to hear about details. Your steps to persuade them to implement your recommendations can include e.g. sending over case studies, tests you’ve done, and articles from respected people in the industry. You earn respect from developers by discussing things on their level (or bribing them with donuts).

These are some examples of things that you want your candidate to mention.

5. What’s your approach to doing keyword research?

You want your candidate to mention that they have a well-structured workflow for keyword research, such as for example:

  1. Brainstorm and ask stakeholders for input
  2. Compile a list of keywords you’re already found for
  3. Compile a list of keywords you aren’t found for yet
  4. Merge the lists into one
  5. Retrieve information on keyword attractiveness
  6. Further expand the list of keywords with long-tail items
  7. Organize and enrich the final keyword set

Follow-up questions to ask:

  • How do you get accurate search-volume data on keywords?
    Answer: running Google AdWords campaigns, using tools such as Ahrefs that rely on clickstream data to determine a keyword’s search volume.
  • What is a good keyword?
    Answer: one that has business value.
  • How many keywords can you optimize a page for?
    Answer: potentially thousands, for long-form articles.

Some recommended preparatory reading: Keyword Research: the ultimate guide.

6. What makes for a great, optimized page?

You want your candidate to say that a great, SEO-optimized page is one that answers your visitor’s question. This can be broken down into several parts:

  1. The page should answer their question as quickly as possible, using the inverted pyramid approach for instance.
  2. The page should be well structured, with clear headings, and neatly split up into paragraphs.
  3. The page’s content should be written for visitors, not for search engines. Use keywords in a natural way. It’s recommended to use both the singular and plural forms of words, and to use synonyms.

7. You’re far behind the competition in terms of content. How do you close the gap?

You want your candidate to say that they’d perform a content gap analysis. This can be done either manually, or with the help of a tool such as Ahrefs. It comes down to comparing the site’s content, and the queries that it’s ranking for, to another website.

Some recommended preparatory reading: Content Gap Analysis.

8. Can you explain the basics of how a search engine works?

You want your candidate to mention the following processes:

  • Crawling: constantly checking the web for new content and updated content.
  • Indexing: processing documents, canonicalizing documents and rendering pages (including executing code such as JavaScript).
  • Ranking: ranking documents for queries.

Some recommended preparatory reading: The ultimate guide to controlling Crawling and Indexing.

9. What are the risks of having a crawl trap? How can you fix it?

You want your candidate to mention that search engines will be wasting crawl budget on these crawl traps. They won’t be able to spend that budget on the relevant parts of the website that need to rank well.

You can combat crawl traps by keeping search engines out of these sections of the website, and—since technical mishaps can always happen—by keeping these sections of the website from existing in the first place.

The following methods can be used to fight crawl traps. Please note that, depending on the type of crawl trap, one or more methods may need to be applied:

  1. Implement the robots noindex directive to communicate to search engines that you don’t want the trap pages to be indexed.
  2. Use the robots.txt file to instruct search engines not to access those URLs. If this isn’t an option for some reason, use the URL parameter handling settings in Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools to instruct Google and Bing not to crawl these pages.
  3. Additionally, when these URLs are introduced via links: be sure to add the rel=”nofollow” link attribute to these links. This will result in search engines not following these links.
  4. Remove redirect loops.
  5. Fix links and remove links to sections of the website that should have never been linked.

10. How can you prevent search engines from crawling certain URLs?

You want your candidate to mention the following methods:

  • A robots.txt file that disallows these URLs.
  • URL parameter handling in tools such as Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools.
  • The nofollow link attribute.
  • HTTP authentication.

They get bonus points if they mention that the nofollow link attribute has the drawback of being link-based. Thus if a page is linked via another link without the nofollow link attribute, it will still be crawled. Also, you have to be careful surrounding the use of nofollow attributes, because they prevent the flow of authority. This is actually an SEO fail that we’ve covered in Devastating SEO fails from the front lines.

Some recommended preparatory reading: The ultimate guide to controlling Crawling and Indexing.

What about staging environments?

You want your candidate to mention the following methods:

  • HTTP authentication—this is the preferred method, as crawlers will never be able to get past HTTP authentication.
  • The robots.txt file—this is a useful second line of defense in case HTTP authentication fails for some reason.

They get bonus points if they mention adding a robots noindex to all documents (both pages and PDFs) on staging environments.

Some recommended preparatory reading: How to keep your staging or development site out of the index by Patrick Stox.

11. How do you remove accidentally indexed pages from Google’s index?

You want your candidate to mention the following methods:

  • Remove the pages and make sure they serve a 404 or 410 HTTP status.
  • Adding thenoindex robots directive and letting Google recrawl the pages.
  • Removing these pages in tools such as Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools.

What about PDF files?

You want your candidate to mention the X-Robots-Tag HTTP header, as PDF files don’t have an HTML source.

They get bonus points if they know that it’s not supported by search engines other than Google, Bing, and Yahoo.

Some recommended preparatory reading: The X-Robots-Tag HTTP header and also check Google's documentation.

How do you prevent search engines from indexing these in the future?

You want your candidate to mention the following methods:

  • If the pages don’t carry any value: having noindex robots directives in place.
  • If they do carry value: the canonical link.

12. How do you optimize an image?

You want your candidate to mention the following methods:

  • Image filename
  • Context: content around the image and things like the page title
  • Alt attribute
  • Title attribute
  • Acquiring external links
  • Serving images through a CDN to speed up loading
  • Image compression

Bonus points if they mention canonicalizing other images to the one you’re optimizing.

Some recommended preparatory reading: 14 Important Image SEO Tips You Need to Know.

13. In your opinion, what’s the best way to gain links from other sites?

You want your candidate to mention the following methods:

  • Creating valuable content.
  • Having a solid content promotion plan in place.
  • Actively doing outreach.

Depending on their background, they may mention grey hat or black hat tactics too. This is thus a good question to get a feel for their approach to SEO.

Some recommended preparatory reading: 10 eCommerce link building tactics.

14. As a white hat SEO, do we still need to be afraid of a link-building penalty?

This is kind of a trick question, for several reasons. And you want to hear your candidate mention these reasons, as they’re essential to understanding how Google penalties work:

  • By definition, building links that improve your rankings may be penalized by Google. Google basically says: create great content, add value, and you’ll get links organically. With that in mind, even reaching out to someone for a link may get you penalized (although it's unlikely).
  • Ever since Penguin 4.0 was released in fall 2016, Google has been discounting bad backlinks rather than penalizing for bad backlinks. Since that update, bad links just contribute little to nothing; they don’t harm your SEO or domain authority. While it’s very rare, you can still get hit with an algorithmic link penalty—but overall, when a penalty is given, it’s usually a manual one.

15. Google has hit you with a link penalty. How do you deal with this?

There’s a couple of things you want your candidate to mention here:

  • They need to mention that they’d do a link audit to identify possible bad links, and then disavow these links and reach out for their removal.
  • Disavowing bad links in itself isn’t enough to get a penalty lifted; you need to do everything in your power to get the links removed. Still, their removal is not always possible, so you need to at least show that you’re making an effort.

Some follow-up questions here are:

  • “Have you ever dealt with a link penalty?” If they say yes, apply the STAR method!
  • “What are the potential drawbacks of disavowing?” You want to hear that by disavowing, you’re discounting links that are actually contributing. Even links that look really bad can still contribute, as Google works in mysterious ways.

16. Your rankings have dropped. How do you diagnose what’s happening?

This question shows whether your candidate understands all the possible reasons why rankings can drop, and whether they can prioritize. You want your candidate to mention excluding potential causes, starting with the most important ones and then working their way down.

As for the things you want your candidate to mention, check out our 10 Easy Steps to Diagnose and Fix Your Google Ranking Drop article.

17. What does your SEO routine look like? What do you check, how frequently, and how?

There should be a clear idea behind your candidate’s SEO routine; it shouldn’t be based on “this is just the way I’ve always been doing it”. Things that you want to hear:

  • Making a distinction between website audits using the three pillars of SEO approach: technical foundation, content/relevance, and authority.
  • The reasons why they chose a certain check frequency and certain tools.
  • That they’ve got alerts set up for massive SEO issues and ranking drops.
  • That they’re keeping track of changes.

Some recommended preparatory reading: The Continuous SEO Framework.

18. What KPIs do you report on to show SEO progress?

You want your candidate to mention the following methods:

  • Revenue + ROI And Conversions—this is what it’s ultimately all about, so if they don’t mention that, that’s a major red flag.
  • Traffic: Sessions And Their Behavior
  • Search engine rankings
  • Operational SEO KPI such as
    • Visibility in organic search results
    • Website health
    • Numbers of backlinks and referring domains
    • Crawl efficiency

Recommended reading to prepare: The KPIs to Measure SEO success.

19. How do you think we’ll be doing SEO five years from now?

Aspects of SEO that you’d want them to at least mention are:

  1. The need for answers: people will still search in need of answers; all that will change is their way of doing so. For example: from text search to voice search.
  2. Authority: what role links will still play (they’re used extensively to game search engines’ algorithms) and what role social media will play.
  3. Machine Learning: search engines are increasingly using Machine Learning in their algorithms. This will only increase, and at some point, the engineers working on search engines will perhaps also be trying to deduce what makes a page rank well, just like we SEO specialists do today 🙂
  4. User Experience (UX): SEO is all about answering questions users have, and good UX is essential to answering those questions well, within the shortest amount of time.

20. 80% of your traffic comes from organic search. Are you doing great, or not?

You want to hear your candidate say that you shouldn’t be putting all your eggs into one basket. At the end of the day, search engines determine who ranks and who doesn’t. Sure, if you’re a big brand that spends hundreds of thousands of dollars per month on Google Ads you have some leverage, but overall: your rankings could drop overnight. Unfair or not, it can still happen. And you need to be able to keep your business running even in that situation.

You want your candidate to see the bigger picture and mention other traffic sources such as search engine advertising (SEA), social media (both organic and paid), and email marketing.

21. When is doubling down on SEO not a good strategy for a company?

SEO isn’t the magic bullet for every company that wants to grow, or to stay afloat for that matter. Your candidate should know that.

Here are some situations in which SEO just isn’t a viable strategy for a company:

  • When you’re in a niche without any current search volume. If the niche is up and coming and there’s limited room to grow with SEO, your time and money are often better spent on Facebook ads and editorials.
  • When the website you’re trying to rank has a very short lifespan. Example: you’re organizing a one-off event and want to drive traffic. After the event, the website will no longer be used. In that case you’re better off buying the traffic.
  • When they’re on the brink of going bankrupt. Why? Because SEO takes time, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll actually rank. The money that’s left would be better spent on Google Ads, for instance.

Wrapping it up

Finding and hiring the right SEO candidate is fairly hard. So use these 21 questions to figure out if you’re talking to the next SEO prodigy, or to someone who looks great on paper, but knows very little in practice. Use them to hire the right person for the job.

Special thanks to Victor Pan, Dale Davies and Pixgarden for their contributions!

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