Red Flags When Hiring An In-House SEO

Corey Northcutt    By under SEO.

Hiring an in-house SEO specialist is often difficult.  Especially if you aren't familiar (and staying current) with SEO yourself.

An in-house SEO will always benefit from support.  Maintaining an SEO system is a full-time job.  Hard problems require a crew to bounce ideas off.  And, SEO is interwoven with other disciplines that deserve specialists too.

It's not for everyone, or even ideal for most brands, but I understand and respect why many will want an in-house SEO specialist.  So let's get to it.

How To Screen An In-House SEO Specialist

You'll want to ask them to explain their system and its basis. Here are the "red flags" that you're listening for.  Ask follow-up questions until you feel good on all these points.

1. If they only consider 10-15 factors from a Moz crawl instead of the many hundreds that exist.

There are hundreds of ranking factors that matter to Google no matter how you slice it.

Moz is a great tool.  It's one of many. But a report from a tool will not make your brand successful in Google. The issue is that no tool comes close to discussing the full picture, much less solving it.

2. If they don't understand the difference between tools and systems.

Tools alone are worthless. What matters is how they're used.  For context, our agency uses over 100 different tools, situationally, for solving specific problems based on a system for auditing.  There's a lot of feature overlap, but most digital marketing tools are mediocre at all but one thing (at best).

And this is actually one of the most common mistakes that I see other business owners making overall.  SaaS salespeople are a little too effective these days: they invent solutions to problems that you're not ready to solve.

3. If they don't understand the difference between tactics and strategy.

One of the greatest rookie mistakes in digital marketing is catching shiny object syndrome. I can't tell you how many times I've been asked..

"What's the one thing our brand can do to outrank everybody?"  

Really?  Put away the Tim Ferris book.  Success is not a commodity.  You can work smart.  You can outrank brands with far larger SEO budgets.  But you need to work hard too.  Tactics win battles and strategy wins wars.  If you don't design a custom foundationfunnel, and flywheel -- testing and iterating as you go -- you're going to lose.

4. If they don't understand the practical differences between speakers/bloggers and practitioners.

There are two SEO industries.  One preaches wild tactics for other marketers. This attracts clicks and conference attendees but it doesn't scale or relate well for most in practice. It's what it is: this is just how they optimize their own business for success.

The other focuses on process and practicality. Because they're only successful when they (or their clients) are getting results from Google.  Follow the link in the previous paragraph for more on this epidemic.

5. If they buy sketchy links/articles.

There are also "black hat" and "white hat" SEO specialists. Black hat works, short-term.  It's the bread and butter of "guaranteed SEO" services that we spend so much time cleaning up after the damage is done.  This process goes:

  1. Spam spam spam.
  2. Take the money.
  3. Run.

What's considered black/grey is too deep to cover in this post.  But as a rule, if an activity doesn't double as legitimate marketing with direct benefits, it's probably going to be harmful now or in the future. Google just continues to get better at what they set out to do: return the most relevant and popular solution for every problem.

Another good test of this is investigating the longevity of their past results.  Ranking #1 is actually pretty easy in almost every industry. Staying there is the challenge.

6. If they think content marketing is a replacement for link building.

Half of all SEO occurs off of your website.  Most of all, in the form of people linking to your site.  Content marketing attracts a lot of links.  You have to give people a reason to link to you, after all.

In the earlier phases of your web presence, you'll have no readers and no rapport, however. So you need to be exceptionally proactive about earning links.  There are industry directories, blog aggregators, digital PR spots, and hundreds of other varieties of easy links if you're smart and organized.  Much of it will also send relevant traffic, directly, forever.  It's good marketing too.

This is why, early in your SEO development, we advise that you should be 80% link building, 20% content marketing.

7. If they think link building is a replacement for content marketing.

The later stages of SEO require earning most of your links through content marketing.  Big brands with engaged social communities hit "publish" on their blog and immediately earn hundreds of links organically.

This is always a long-term goal.  You can't "hack it" with your SEO forever or you'll be forever swimming upstream.  Google wants you to earn most of your links editorially.  This is why, in the later stages of your SEO development, we feel that you should be 80% content marketing, 20% link building.

8. If they think links don't matter.

Well that's just not true, but it's a very popular myth.

Just review the factors.  Or better yet, experiment with a blog for even a month and compare what having links does vs. not having links. Having a well-developed system for gaining a natural variety of high-quality links is still (at least) half the battle. Even an amateur SEO specialist should come prepared with media relationships and a database containing a wide variety of link opportunities.

9. If they think on-page SEO doesn't matter.

A simple reverse of the stance above.  We see this one almost as much these days -- mainly from non-practitioner bloggers. It's just as idiotic and for the exact same reasons.

Review the factors.   If you're still feeling contrarian, try running a blog with vs. without some basic optimizations from the checklists.  It's so incredibly simple to prove this one false.

10. If they're basing their system off correlation studies (usually junk).

Just a few weeks ago, a popular SEO software vendor released one of these. It said "traffic" was a factor because it correlated with rankings.

Do I even need to explain how flawed that is? Apparently I do, because few in our industry so much as flinched- most distributed this advice as fact. So let's talk about this.

Correlation is not causation. Billboard ads imply big marketing budget, meaning a bigger SEO budget. But Google doesn't look at billboards to rank websites. The data tends to be interesting but the conclusions are usually dead wrong.

11. If they're basing their system on popular opinion/surveys (even more-often junk).

The only explanation I'm giving here is that most our industry treats correlation studies as direct ranking factors.  Anyone can teach anybody something, but one person's ignorance is not equal to another's knowledge.

We have a whole post that dives deeper into the philosophy behind #10 and #11.

12. If they approach every situation the same.

Finally, every situation will be different.  Steps 1 through 11 assure that somebody is smart enough to reason from a good place.  But they're going to need to solve issues.

I once met an agency owner that told me "all we do is play with title tags". They still got results and their clients didn't ask questions, but that's scarcely SEO. You need to look deeper if you want to remain competitive.

Our industry is plagued by "intern with a checklist" mentality.  I see the irony that we fall back on a framework of checklists too.  This is because remembering 1,000 opportunities is impossible for one human. But even this massive checklist is not expected to solve for all.

We treat SEO strategy as an executive-level role and think that you should too.  Along your path to #1, you'll need to solve some of the hardest business problems that you've ever encountered.  So in closing, make sure that you're hiring an engineer, not a mechanic.  Make it somebody that you'll respect and be capable of managing as such.