Early in my career with Microsoft, I helped run the search engine optimization (SEO) program at MSN. A challenge faced by all businesses at some point is a common one – who to trust. This pops up with almost every facet within an operation in a variety of forms. Which hosting provider should we use? Which Internet Service Provider should we use? What bank? Which image on our corporate checks? OK, that last one…you’re on your own.
But when it comes to an important question – who should we hire to help with, or run the entire SEO program, well, I can help with that. We faced this issue when hiring for our team at MSN, both at the employee and consultant levels.
Generally speaking, there are a few options you can examine:
- Hire a consultant to do work as needed
- Hire a consultant to work on our project straight-through – from start to finish as one event
- Hire an agency
- Hire an employee
Pros, Cons & Considerations
Consultants are often subject-matter-experts, which puts their skills and time in high demand. They are very good at what they do, though being only a single person, time is tight. Sometimes you’ll encounter a company with multiple expert consultants, but that’s not as common in this industry.
To economize, you can look at having them only feed you inputs as fast as you can get work done. This would be a slower approach than hiring them to engage more exclusively with you, but might fit your ability to get work done by other internal teams.
Some consultants will actually “embed” with you for periods of time – working alongside your employees, staying in the office for days or weeks to help shepherd work forward and answer questions as they arise in real time.
Naturally, this can be costly, which is why many businesses prefer to engage selectively. This side of the equation is entirely up to you and your wallet.
Hiring an agency comes with the benefit of having access to more resources. You’re not limited, usually, to having work performed by one, maybe two individuals, but often a team is assigned to manage the workload. Your point of contact might be a single person, but you have access to more minds being applied to the problems. The flip side here is the level of expertise available – and knowing you are getting the very best. Simply put, that is beyond your control. You can request it, and you’ll be told you’ll get it, but the actual depth of experience at every level varies considerably.
Still, hiring an agency has great benefits, depending on your needs.
Hiring an employee is straight forward, right? Clear the budget, place the job ad, watch the experts roll in, choose one and win the game! Whoa there, Dreamer Dan. One fundamental item – and this applies across all three of these options – is this: do you know enough to know whether the person you’re interviewing is an expert or not? If you can yes at this point, you can cherry pick from the info below and use it as needed. If your answer was a bit more conservative, then read on.
Here is a list of questions across a few areas that might prove useful. We’ve included reasonable answers, too, so you have an edge. Don’t worry if the answers aren’t an exact match, but do be concerned if you ask a question and the answer is obviously off base, or they attempt to evade or redirect things.
Interview Questions to Ask
These questions originally appeared in my column at Search Engine Land, but have been updated here:
- What is your favorite blog and why?
Tell me about a time when you’ve had to convince strong-willed people to do things your way in the face of tough opposition?
- Determines how engaged they are with the community; is a sort of “who do you know” question.
- Helps you understand which direction they tend to focus their attention on.
- Helps you understand if they invest their own time in continual learning.
Tell me your worst crisis and how you dealt with it.
- Part of SEO is building relationships and selling the need for the investment in the work. Poor examples here, or folding in this regard can bring your program to a halt.
Tell me a situation where you had to make a prioritization decision; what criteria did you use, and would you change your mind now?
- Can be work or personal. You simply want a glimpse of them under pressure.
Describe SEO to your grandmother.
- No wrong answers here. You’re looking to watch them walk through a process.
- This suggestion came from a friend. I love this one, as it’s a great way to see if they understand things enough to dumb it down.
- Explain how search engines work and what the workflow of indexing and ranking for a new page looks like.
Give an example of some SEO work you have done in the past.
- Not looking for secret sauce, but do they understand the basic process of how an engine functions? To help you understand how it works, check out this info.
Define “crawler friendly.”
- Ask for specific examples of verticals and for their results achieved — the candidate need not be bashful about sharing their past efforts & successes. Ideally, their past work will align with your own business’s focus.
When should keyword research be performed in the SEO process?
- This basically means a search engine’s crawler, or robot, can find all of your content.
Pick your favorite search optimization tool and describe how you would improve it.
- Keyword research is best performed before a concept leaves the drawing board – this research will not only help you understand the taxonomy you should follow for your site’s layout, but it will give you clear guidelines on what content to develop. Well done keyword research will help you at every phase of site development and deployment.
Rank the top 5 most important SEO factors for increasing rank. Put them in order and explain your philosophy for why you consider those top to bottom the most important factors.
- Are they aware of the great, useful, SEO-centric tools on the market today? Do they know how to use the data the tools provide? This speaks to their experience, too.
- If they fail to mention the Webmaster Tools available from Bing and other engines, they fail this test.
Give an example of why you would use 301 and 302 redirects on a website?
- In reality, many items can fit into this answer — far more than 5 items – so you’re really just looking to see them think through the process and arrive at a workable conclusion.
- So you have a cheat-sheet on this one, look for things like: usability, quality of content, page load times, mobile compliance, authority of the site/page, quality of inbound links, structure of page (too many ads pushing content down the page?)
- For most SEO work, it’ll be the 301 redirect you’ll turn to. The 302 has value when you legitimately are moving content temporarily. In most instances, though, short-term moves won’t dramatically impact your rankings and traffic. The critical point is that they know the difference and recommend 301s as a safe way to help protect content’s traffic during things like taxonomy changes or domain swaps.
- Tell me about a time when you worked with a larger group to achieve a mutual goal. What were the issues in getting that group to cooperate? What things could have been done differently?
How would you go about selling the value of SEO to your company? How would the pitch differ depending on the level you are addressing?
- Here you’re looking for insight into how they build relationships.
Let’s say your company has done everything you’ve asked them to do but their SEO ranking hasn’t improved. What are your next steps?
- You’re looking to see how they tailor the messaging to fit the audience.
- Do they take responsibility, throw in the towel, review for missed opportunities, etc?
- Where should SEO fit within a company’s overall marketing scope?
When should SEO be performed on a website?
- Do they see the larger picture that SEO should work hand-in-hand with other marketing activities, content creation and social media?
- Ideally, they’ll say “before it launches” or something similar. Also a solid answer is “during the concept-stage of a relaunch." Basically, SEO should be performed early. Waiting to add it “just before launch” or “anytime” will drive up your costs.
Drive for results
- How will you know when our SEO program is a success?
Tell me about the last time that one of your projects fell off track. How did you identify that it was off track? What did you do to get it back on track?
- Standard metrics will tell much of the story here (visits, unique visitors, conversions, etc.), but also they should be aware of things like engagement within their own company. Are other teams involving them in the design & build processes early?
How do you decide what to work on each day? How do you decide what your priorities are?
- They may legitimately never have had a project get derailed, but chances are there was something that went pear-shaped at some point.
Give me a breakdown of the kind of metrics you would measure success by, and what each of them would mean to different parts of a business.
- This is a normal, run of the mill time management question; it’s critical for an in-house SEM to have a handle on this area.
- Do they grasp the basics of measurement and tracking to goals? Do they see the larger picture beyond the stats and understand how those numbers relate to the company?
Not all of these questions will be used every time, but they all could be useful at various times. Mix and match, add some of your own or refine what’s here to create your go-to list when interviewing consultants, agencies or inhouse hires. Oh, and don’t forget to ask to see examples of their work. If they won’t give you contact info for people at those businesses, be concerned.
When you do talk to people they used as references, you only have one question for them: Knowing the outcome of the work, would you hire this person/company to do the same work again today?
Never skip the step of talking to those references.
Sr. Product Manager, Bing
For more help with all things SEO, you'll find a wealth of information over on the Bing Blog.