How to Evaluate the Skills and the Professional Level of Your SEO Specialist

Ivan Paliy
7 July 2020

SEO is a kind of a vague field where there’s no say as to how exactly you obtain the desired results. More so, even the SEO specialist cannot really reverse-engineer their strategy and figure what worked well, what worked poorly, and what brought no visible results. How do you evaluate the performance of your SEO specialists then? Well, let us find out.

When Do You Need to Evaluate your SEO?

There are different circumstances under which you might need that:

1. When hiring a new employee, freelancer, or outsourcing agency;

2. When evaluating the employee for possible promotion;

3. When looking for a business partner;

4. When looking for a training or service consultant.

If you want to delve deeper, you need to keep certain important things in mind:

1. See a talented applicant who might not have any experience just yet.

2. Tell a professional from a liar among those who have the experience.

3. See both the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates.

4. To see whether a previously successful specialist would be able to compete in the niche, manage the team, adapt to the new search engines, and so on.

Basically, you need to see a clear picture of what your candidate is actually capable of.

It is easy to spot either a really good or a really bad specialist as these two ends of the spectrum catch the eye better than those in the middle of the range.

Here’s a list of hypothetical situations in which it may be harder for you to make a good choice.

1. The results of the assessment are fine but theoretical knowledge clearly lags behind. Each SEO specialist has their own view on the value of theoretical knowledge. Some think that following some top SEO blogs is a must; the others think that it is best to spend time experimenting and searching for new ways.

2. The results are fine, but the contribution of the specialist is questionable. It is easy to define the contribution of the employees if they currently run highly efficient projects or had managed the creation and realization of a strategy. However, sometimes a candidate might try to brag about some past projects they made no input in.

3. The results are fine but in low-competition niches or countries. In such cases, you might have a hard time forecasting the efficiency of such a specialist in highly competitive niches and markets.

4. There were great results 3-5 years ago. The candidate might have some decent projects in their portfolio, but those are old and no longer relevant, so you can’t tell whether this specialist is capable of adopting the new rules of the game.

5. The results are fine, but the specialization is too narrow. Sometimes we need those highly specialized candidates. Though sometimes we look for someone who’d be able to manage the project over several years, so there’s a risk that such a specialized candidate might fail to cope with all the tasks.

6. There are some good short-term results. Getting your website to the top and keeping it there are two different things. Poor structure, shady methods – all of that can lead to short-term wins turning into a long-term failure.

7. The results are fine, but at what price? You need to find out the reason behind dissatisfactory financial results: failure to analyze the niche properly, changing rules of the game, or did the SEO just waste a considerable part of your budget.

8. The results are alright, the search engine is not. Of course, any specialist would require some time to comprehend how the unfamiliar search engine works. Are you ready to turn the candidate down if their website topped in another search engine?

9. The results are great but not from scratch. When the SEO specialists start to run an already successful project, there’s no saying as to whether a good performance of the project is the direct result of the candidate’s efforts or just a snowball effect from the previous specialist?

So, how do you evaluate the candidate in such cases? Well, that depends on how much responsibility you are going to allocate to them.

Levels of Responsibility and Assessment Standards

1. The Specialist is responsible for a particular branch of the strategy

Whether it is link building, setting the semantics, or dealing with technical issues, or all of that; we only evaluate the quality of performing those tasks.

In this case, if the strategy does not work as planned, but the employee did everything right, it’s not their fault.

2. The Specialist is responsible for traffic

This is a kind of a specialist who forms and implements the strategy, so we can evaluate their performance using the following formula:

Expertise index = traffic from limited search through the entire time * niche competitiveness/promotion costs

This is a simplified way to calculate the efficiency. You can evaluate the competitiveness of the niche by using the price of a single click in Google Ads or by defining the keyword difficulty in Ahrefs.

The key here is that it does not matter what you do and how you do, what matters is whether there is a result.

3. The Specialist is responsible for product or website profitability

This level of responsibility is relevant for the specialists in the companies that mostly aim for the limited search traffic. On this level, SEO specialist takes additional responsibilities of marketing specialist and the manager of the product and the company.

The evaluation of the performance, in this case, can be done via ROI.

The key rule here is that the traffic itself does not matter that much; what matters is your ability to monetize the traffic.

When hiring a specialist for the first level of responsibility, you may inquire about their proficiency with particular tools and the key steps they take to create and promote a website.

When it comes to the second and third levels, everything changes dramatically. You only have 10 places at the top, so you’ve got to evaluate the efficiency of the specialist on these levels the way you would in a financial market.

“The very definition of proficiency in the finance market establishes that the majority of people would not be able to reach this proficiency.

To be proficient or competent here means not falling into certain standards of competency. There might be standards of competency for teachers or doctors. You can take a test to define those. You can say anyone could be a teacher or a doctor – anyone could get competent in these fields.

There’s no such thing as a competence standard when it comes to financial markets and stocks; the competency is defined in relation to other specialists. Their level of competence does not matter. Whatever your level of proficiency is, you are a competent player if you play better than average.

If everyone is dumb, you can relax because the competency will be really easy to get. But, if everyone is suddenly smart, competency would take much more training and preparation. The markets tend to get smarter over the years. The knowledge you had to win over the markets in the 20th century would prove inadequate now.” Alexander Silaev, Basics of Stock Trading

If you go through the requirements to the senior level SEO specialists, you’ll most likely see the following:

– Advanced command of Excel

– Command of Python, SQL, PHP, HTML, CSS

– Advanced command of Screaming Frog, A-parser

– Experience of working with PBN, drops, doorways, etc.

This, probably, helps in filtering the candidates. However, each time we put a certain requirement like the knowledge of certain tools or strategies, we considerably tighten the bottleneck for our talent pool.

If you look at who stands behind the top websites in different niches, you’d most likely see no universal soldiers capable of codding and working in Excel at the same time.

My strong belief is that in SEO, there is a huge imbalance in value people assign to the knowledge of different tools and tactics and the actual intelligence of the candidate.

Here’s how I ended up with such a conclusion.

Intelligence vs Experience

There are more than 60 SEO specialists in the Boosta team, all of them working in highly competitive niches and countries. They are the clients of our website analysis platform. I communicate with those guys from time to time to find out what tactics they implement, what works, what does not work, how they cope with Google updates, and what tools they use.

This communication helped me establish that each SEO specialist utilizes some sort of a mix of subconscious experience, conclusions drawn from empiric experience, analysis of the competitor websites, and the recommendations they took from the top experts in the field. More so, their beliefs, precognitive processes, and biases regarding failing techniques also blend into this mix.

A SEO specialist may implement a variety of techniques, and the website is going to get to the top thanks to some of those. The question is which of those.

Two SEO specialists might have two different ideas on how the strategy works. They might also use different tools that fit their style of work, management, and content generation.

Both of those guys might get their sites to the top regardless.

And I treasure such controversies and contradictions. If there are two people who can achieve positive results while using entirely different approaches, each of those might want to review their vision and find what steps of their strategy make their approach successful.

When I find such contradictions, I try to learn more about the viewpoint of these people. I find it exciting to figure out whether it is easy for them to rethink their approaches, considering the new factual data.

And the way these people change and adapt is the main marker of professionalism for me. Flexibility and the ability to adapt is what makes a high-level professional.

“Experience is overrated. When hiring, hire for aptitude, train for skills. Most really amazing or great things are done by people doing them for the first time.” Kevin Kelly, 68 Bits of Unsolicited Advice.

“The industry overvalues experience and undervalues strategic and intellectual flexibility. […] And I feel really strongly about that. […] Of all the issues we had at Google, I realized that I had no idea what to do, […], but I knew I had by far the best team ever assembled to address them.” Eric Schmidt, from the interview of Structuring Teams and Scaling Google.

Why Experience Deserves Less Attention

– It is hard to evaluate the contribution of the specialist in case they were a part of the team they did not manage.

– Experience acquisition is not a linear process. Two specialists with 2 and 6 years of experience might have the same kind of experience because they might have been doing the same thing for years and did not really learn anything new.

– Constant changes and updates in search engines make the previous experience obsolete.

It is great to have a candidate who is both experienced and flexible, though I would always choose the latter.

Which Traits to Evaluate

Learning Speed

Intelligent people are prone to mastering new technologies and tools much faster. So, if you have two applicants, one of which has an experience of working with four different tools and an applicant who only ever worked with a single tool, which one would you choose? The one with most experience and potential for growth.

Recognition of Regularities and Pattern

Each SEO specialist communicates with a search engine in a serviced learning manner. They give certain stimuli and receive a certain reaction from the search engine. The faster the specialist recognizes the stimuli-reaction patterns and regularities, the more successful experiments they may conduct.

Openness to New Experiences

Any detected pattern is but a hypothesis, a general idea of what might be the best solution for a moment. This is the knowledge the specialist must be able to rethink and adapt to implement improvements.

Try to check whether the specialist is capable of changing and rethinking their conceptions in favor of new ideas. With age, people tend to lose the ability to adapt, but high-intelligence people are more likely to be able to do that successfully.

Strategic Thinking

Is the applicant able to find solutions and evaluate possible expenses and risks for each step on the way?

Testing and Implementations Speed

How long does it take for a person to move from idea to action? The ones working faster get feedback from the search engine much faster. They make mistakes faster and generate more experience and knowledge.

Understanding of Knowledge Sources and Frameworks

People tend to acquire knowledge and make the right decisions if they know exactly where the knowledge comes from. The need to change and adapt your knowledge depends on the sources of your preconceived notions and facts.

Modelling People’s Consciousness

This is something people often call empathy or social intelligence. To know how to make a good website page, you need to know who the users are. You need to try their shoes and this is not as easy as it might appear.

Somebody said there are two types of empathy: one is a subconscious reaction to certain emotions exerted by people around; the other comes from imagination and intelligence whenever we try to imagine other people’s feelings and emotions. The first one is ancient and accessible for nearly any individual; the other is an evolutionary novelty that takes a lot of intellectual resources and is not accessible to everyone.

To evaluate these qualities of a candidate, you need to spend some time with them. However, you can establish certain things by asking the right questions.

Questions for Evaluation

These questions are the product of collaboration with Natalia Fialkovska, who held dozens of interviews for the position of a SEO specialist. These questions are designed specifically for positions with high responsibility levels.

1. How do you know our niche is competitive, and how much money can we make?

2. How do you analyze an unfamiliar niche?

3. What are the key parameters you consider when evaluating the competitors?

4. What are the key points of your SEO strategy?

5. How do you conduct SEO experiments? How do you evaluate the work you’ve done?

6. How, if ever, did your vision of the proper promotion algorithm changed over the past 3-5 years?

7. Name and rate the most and the least valuable sources of information you use when shaping your general idea of SEO.

8. What is your best, average, and the worst area of expertise in SEO? How do you develop the later?

9. What are the riskiest tactics you ever turned to? Why did you decide to take that risk?

10. How would you promote a given website if all you had were Google Analytics, Google Search Console, and Google Sheets?

11. What are your actions in case the website dropped after the update? And what if it went up?

12. How do you prioritize websites, pages, and keywords?

13. Which ranging factors are underrated and which are overrated among SEO specialists and website owners?

14. Which websites have the perfect SEO (in different niches)? Why so?

15. How do you evaluate content quality and link quality?

16. What are the biggest mistakes you’ve ever made? How did you change your approach since you’ve made them?

Evaluating the specialist based on what they’ve done in the past and what they might do in the future are two different things.

You need to look up for the intelligence that acquires and adapts skills and knowledge, rather than the experience itself.

Remember, a single strength may overweight all the weaknesses

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