How to Get a Career in SEO with No Agency Experience

SEO is not dead.



04/01/17: This post has been revised a little although not a huge amount has changed that would impact employment in SEO. I am going to keep the picture of Matt Cutts even if he no longer works on the Google web spam team. Apologies John, you drew the short straw. 🙂

For all the scary stories about SEO being dead, it is still very much alive and kicking. The last Econsultancy survey shows that companies increase spending on SEO every year. Companies are getting more sophisticated about how they spend their digital marketing budgets and measure their impact. The statistics are compelling: 55% of companies are increasing their SEO budgets this year, for example, and it was 51% last year.

This has created a huge increase of SEO roles, both in boutique consultancies and the big media agencies. Even Google Trends looks good for SEO… (this chart obviously comes with a lot of caveats).

I come from the generation of “bedroom SEOs.” I was self-taught, and I was experimenting with SEO before it became a core marketing channel. I initially found it difficult to get interviews in London at the big agencies without having agency experience.

But now, I have been fortunate enough to provide SEO consultancy from start-ups to billion dollar companies and interviewed over a hundred candidates for SEO roles.

If you want a job in SEO, it’s totally possible with some hard work and a little ingenuity—even if you have no agency experience. But there is no excuse for turning up to an SEO interview and having nothing to show. You should be able to show skills or use of technology. You should be involved in the community.

There are free tools, free events, and you can even create a website for free.

I’ve been where you are now, and here is my guide for getting your first job in SEO. Read this and you will ace that interview.

Should You Start With A Big Agency or A Boutique Agency? What About Client-Side?

There are advantages and disadvantages to going in-house with a large corporate agency, as opposed to a smaller boutique agency. If you are new to SEO and you want to achieve that steep learning curve, then I would recommend applying for roles within a more specialised agency as opposed to a larger media companies.

That is not saying that large media agencies are poor at SEO and don’t have the team skills. They’re great! You can learn a lot in those places. But these teams tend to be more distracted by client servicing or preparing pitch documents, and they may not have the time to spend educating and improving your knowledge. So if you want to jump-start your career and become a real SEO whiz, then smaller agencies have a lot of advantages.

You also have the option of trying to go in-house as an SEO at a big company. These companies are, of course, laser-focused on their product, so in this case, you will quickly become a specialist. This can be good if you want to keep working in that industry, but you might prefer agency life if you aren’t sure that you want to specialise yet. Additionally, your company might not know much about digital marketing, let alone SEO, and so you will need to be a very good communicator with non-technical people.

Here is an excellent, long post from Moz about the differences between working at an agency, in-house, and freelance SEO.

There are also some interesting articles out there that are aimed at helping clients hire SEO experts. For example, this short post from Layer3 tries to educate clients about whether they should hire in-house or agency SEO. There is also a similar, longer article from SearchEngineWatch. If you read between the lines on these articles then you can learn a lot about what it might be like to work for different clients

What Not To Do During An SEO Interview

You might laugh when you read these, but I promise, all these things happened to me. Here are some genuinely wrong things to do during an SEO interview:

  • Do not take replica handguns and draw them during an interview.
  • Do not sit there and eat your breakfast while you are interviewing.
  • Do not explain how you want to come to work, put on your headphones, and listen to music all day.
  • Don’t say: “I had no budget for links.” And don’t ever say: “I don’t know Panda or Penguin, as I have had no clients with those issues.” I will talk more about this below, but you should memorise this:

    There is no excuse for turning up to an SEO interview and not having any examples or SEO tests to show.

Do You Rank For Your Own Name? You Should Get On That!

When you start getting SEO interviews, nine out of ten interviewers will Google your name before the interview. Make sure you have a website, social profiles, and comments on SEO blogs that are all ranking for your name. This will demonstrate your understanding of basic SEO, and it will show that you’re active in the SEO community (more on this in the Community section below).

Creating Your Own Personal Website

There is no excuse to not show experimentation techniques with your own personal website. Web hosting can be bought for a few pounds a month and some even offer free web hosting when ordering a domain name.

I would look to create pages/posts on your personal website where you can show your testing for basic SEO skills for on page SEO. Your own personal website allows you to link your social accounts and demonstrate your basic understanding of why links are important in SEO.

Talking about your own website will allow you to feel more in control with the interview: You can do all the talking with a website you’re comfortable with, instead of fielding random questions about random websites.

Your website can show your mastery of concepts like:

  • implementation of schema to show Google additional markup,
  • hreflang to show that you know how to target different global regions,
  • using noindex so certain pages do not appear in Google,
  • different content ideas.

Your best bet is to use WordPress for your site, as most clients will be running WordPress for their blogging platform.

If you have negative websites appearing for your name, try and get those removed before the interview. This gives you the opportunity to discuss how you cleaned up your search results and improved your online reputation – showing off your skill set.

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Get Certified

Although there are no official certifications for SEO you can still improve your chances of achieving your career but completing certifications in some of Google’s other products.

These include the Google Analytics Exam and the Google Adwords Certification, the courses are free to sit, but there is sometimes a nominal fee to sit the exam which is required for the recognised certification.

You Think You Have “No Experience?” Think Again!

You don’t have “experience?” Get creative. Before you even begin applying for your first role, you can gain “hands on experience” in SEO. There are so many easy but also cheap ways to do this! You have no excuse for walking into an interview without a little experience in your back pocket.

In fact, I have six different ideas for how you can gain experience:

Personal Projects

Like I said above, you should definitely have your own website. Do you also have a blog? Did you make a website to test affiliate marketing? What about a prank website? Even small, silly sites can be great examples for your interview. It doesn’t matter if you made your site because you wanted to celebrate a beer brand with your friends. What matters is that you did it!

Some of my best interviews have been with affiliate marketers who discussed the “random” or “obscure” niche that they found to make money on a website. They don’t always know it at the time, but it really demonstrates their understanding of SEO, entrepreneurship, and creativity.

Prove Yourself

A slightly ballsier approach is to offer your services for free to agencies you would like to work with. Do some research on your local agencies, and pick the ones you really want to work for. Email them and offer to carry out an SEO audit of their existing clients in return for considering you for any SEO roles they might have.

This might sound a little crazy, but if you succeed, then you get to work for your top agency! And even if you fail, you’ll learn a lot.

If you are too nervous about offering an SEO audit, then you can just email your favourite agencies and see if they have internship roles available. They might have internships that aren’t listed on their websites.

Charity Work

Offer to optimise your local pet shelter’s website or the homeless charity within your community. You will learn a lot this way and you’ll get used to working with a client, too. Many agencies will already work with charities which they support which creates a mutual connection with the agency.

When you walk into an interview later, you can talk about how you addressed local SEO issues whilst giving back to the community at the same time. You can also showcase your client communication skills.

Exchange Services

Trading skills are nothing new, and if you do this, then you can save money at the same time. Offer to optimise your local hair salon in return for a free haircut. Or, if you are into fitness, offer to improve the rankings for a local personal trainer in return for free training sessions. Think about all the local businesses that have websites, but can’t afford an SEO consultant. How about taxi services? Maybe your parents’ business, or another business within your family?

Freelance

This is a no-brainer because you will actually earn a small sum of cash for trading (practising) your SEO knowledge on the hundreds of job opportunities on this website. This is not about making money, it’s about getting gigs on your CV. It takes ten minutes to register an account on Odesk or PeoplePerHour, so what are you waiting for?

Internships

There are literally hundreds of internships available in SEO. This is one of the easiest routes into SEO, and in most cases, these roles will supplement your expenses. A simple Google search reveals there are many available.

The bottom line is The more experience you have, the better. Even if it’s on a 5-page website.

How To Explain Your Experience And Ace The Interview

So you’ve gone and gotten all this experience. You’ve made a personal site and blog, you’ve worked on the website for your local hair salon, and you’ve optimised the websites of 72 family members, and you’re sending 20 emails a day to companies you want to work with.

Now, what?

When you have no agency experience, it’s really important to explain the experience you do have, rather than focus on what you do not have. Even if it is your own website you have been working on, treat it as a client’s website during your interview. Explain what you did, why, how you tracked results, how you got links—your goal is to show knowledge and understanding of the process.

Here are some things interviewers will want to know about. Obviously, every agency has their own questions and exercises, but if you’ve got a handle on everything below, then you’ll breeze through the interview.

On Page SEO

You must be able to talk about the basic on page SEO factors to look out for. When analysing a web page, start at the top and work your way through each page down the bottom: Go from title tags > meta description > URL. Every time you visit a web page, practice this and familiarise yourself with the pattern because this is how you will do it in an interview and with your colleagues.

No one is expecting you to know HTML inside out on your first SEO role. If you can’t code that’s fine, but you do need to know how to view source code and search for certain tags. When you attend an interview, it could be either a Mac or a Windows machine, so you should learn how to view the source code on different browsers. And don’t waste time scrolling through HTML. Use the FIND function on a web page.

For example, An interviewer might ask you to show the “title” tag. You need to be able to do it fast!

Always explain technical understanding with examples, even if you haven’t had a chance to experience a technique yourself. Again, you don’t need to know how to do everything, you just need to show familiarity with the field.

For instance, if you haven’t had a chance to use “hreflang,” don’t panic. Just say: “I haven’t used ‘hreflang,’ but I know it is used to help with geotargeting content and to prevent duplicate content.”

Off Page SEO

You should always have examples of link building you have done. Even if you have only two examples of links you have built to your personal website, explain! Why was it was important to get those links? What was the process you used to get those links?

No one expects you to have built 50 links to a big, popular website. You just need to show that you understand why links are important, and you need to know the difference between “good links” vs. “bad links” Bring an iPad or a smartphone to the interview and have your links ready to show.

While giving interviews, I’ve had candidates tell me: “I have never had a link building budget.” This is not an excuse. You can get links from friends, clients, and industry connections. Ask clients to link to your website. Ask your friends with blogs to do a link trade with you. If you are in a niche—let’s say you have an affiliate site for romance novels—then get in touch with other people in the romance novels niche and build links with them.

Client Servicing and Sales

Most new SEOs will not immediatley be client facing, but expect that once you have developed your SEO skills and knowledge, it won’t be long before you are dealing directly with clients of the agency. During the interview stage, even with no previous SEO experience, it is important to demonstrate how you have dealt with any vartiety of customers previously. These customers can be from a part time retail job, paper round or restaurant that you worked at. Detailing examples of how you managed service, complaints and resolved customer queries will demonstrate to a future employer how you might respond to the agency’s clients.

SEO Tools

Although many advanced tools require subscriptions, most have some kind of limited free model. You really should play around with most of these tools before an interview comes up—and you should check out the associated blog and Twitter for each tool, of course!

What’s Trending?

What is current in the SEO industry? Has there been a recent Google update? Are there new SEO products to the market? Have you been to a conference recently? Has anyone seen Matt Cutts? Well then, talk about it in the interview!

At the very least, you should know the difference between Penguin and Panda—this is the kind of knowledge you soak up by being active in the community. You should also show understanding of how other channels integrate with SEO, like pay-per-click (PPC) advertising and social media. It’s totally fine if you have never worked on these things before, but you need to know that they are a thing.

I’ll give you some places to start looking in the Community section, below. Just remember: It is hard to put a concrete value on community connections, but maintaining connections is one of the best ways to show interviewers that you are truly passionate about SEO. And you never know when you’ll hear about new gigs through the community.

Do not use NDAs as an excuse

I’ve had candidates turn up to interviews saying that they have “done that, but are not allowed to talk about it” due to an NDA they signed. Clearly, you need to honour your NDAs, but this answer does not go down well at interviews. You can anonymise the data and talk about what you did without revealing the client name. You can talk about success / failure without revealing data or information that would breach your NDA.

Advanced SEO Factors

If you are applying for a low-level SEO job, then no one will expect you to know this stuff, but it’s very cool if you do. And if one of these sounds interesting to you, then now is a great time to do more research and develop a new project.

Backlink Profiling:

Are you comfortable talking about the backlink profiles of websites? Do you have experience? If so, what tools do you use to investigate a backlink profile? How do you value a backlink?

Crawl Efficiency

Have you done a server log audit? are you able to diagnose and fix issues where search engine crawlers are struggling to find and index content?

Mobile / Tablet SEO:

Do you know the difference between responsiveness and adaptiveness for a website? How about building a mobile app – do you know how that will affect SEO? This is getting more important as mobile usage becomes prevalent. Do you know about Google’s “mobile first index” announcement?

Negative SEO:

Some say it exists, some say it does not. If you have real experience of negativeSEO or seen it happen – raise a discussion on this topic.

How To Be Active In The Community

There is a strong and active SEO community, and it’s obviously easy to find! You don’t have to know everything, and you don’t have to know who everybody is. But you should investigate at least a few of these things:

Free SEO Conferences / Meet Ups

In the U.K., there are awesome free conferences like LondonSEO and BrightonSEO. There are also top-tier paid conferences that are sponsored by some of the big SEO companies and tools, of course—but these free conferences are the perfect place to start out. Use websites such as Eventbrite.com to alert you when there are free digital events being organised in your area.

Paid for SEO Conferences

There are many paid for SEO conferences in the UK, U.S and around Europe. Prices do vary and there are many write ups about these conferences around the web, so I would check out the reviews before attending.

These include MozCon, PubCon, SearchMarketingExpo, the infamous ThinkVisibility and SearchLove.

Twitter

Although there can often be a lot of noise on Twitter especially within the SEO community, Twitter can often be the resource for the latest algorithm updates and staying up to date with the latest news. There are too many SEO twitter accounts to follow, a quick search on Google will reveal accounts to follow.

Blogs and Communities

There are hundreds of SEO communities online although few other any real value. There are a number of paid and free communities. I recommend you join a couple and contribute to helping others and also allows you to get to know the community and get your name out there. Commenting on blog posts with questions that offer value to the post will also help build your presence online.

Companies That Are Recruiting

Here are some companies and job boards that are always recruiting for great SEO team members. Follow them on Twitter, read their blogs, and you’ll learn a lot about the industry very quickly.

Bring Your Personality To The Table

If you have a strong personality, then don’t be afraid to show it. (If you don’t, that’s fine too!) Specifically, don’t be afraid to have your own opinions on search ranking factors. A lot of high-level SEO is subjective, and just because you disagree with some theory does not make you wrong. You just have to back up what you say.

Think about areas you would like to improve in and bring those to the table. Be honest about what you need to do better at—this will impress the interviewer. What are your long term goals? Do you want to be a developer or would you rather have a client-facing role? Are you interested in business development? (If you don’t know your long-term interests, that’s not a wrong answer.)

Also, if you have a strong personal interest in the company, let them know. Are you applying to an SEO company who has lots of gaming clients while you play poker in your spare time for two hours per night, every night? Tell them! Don’t hide your passion. In fact, if you are trying to think of companies to approach for internships or part-time gigs, then maybe you should approach companies that make products you love first.

One common interview question is, “If you had a £50k to spend on SEO, what would you do?” It’s good to have an answer prepared for this one. Don’t just say “blog strategy.” Know which tools you would buy, what sort of help you would hire, would you do a PR stunt or spend the money on giveaways. Even if they don’t ask this question, you can bring up your answer at some point anyway.

You’re All Set! – But Do You Want More?

These basics should help you a lot already… but if you are passionate about SEO, then I always have extra time for you. Feel free to get in touch for a confidential chat if you are looking for a job in SEO and need some advice.