I was recently asked by a colleague to present on “How to break into a career in SEO” to students in her college-level advertising course. As I planned my presentation, I actually found it a difficult topic to advise on because, as I like to say, I’ve been doing SEO since there was such a thing back in the ’90s. Back then, there were no courses in digital marketing, no internships and definitely nothing like professional certifications available.
Today, there are courses available on digital marketing — but even with those, is a formal education really what impresses me as a hiring manager? And what should someone interested in SEO know about pursuing a career in the field?
In today’s post, I thought I’d tackle the questions above for the benefit of those entering the SEO job market, to help guide them in their exploration of the (potentially) lucrative and exciting world of SEO.
Starting a career in SEO
My intent is not to tell you the right job boards to watch; it is to tell you the things a digital marketing agency or business are likely looking for in an entry-level SEO hire.
Would it be good to have an official degree in digital marketing, communications or computer science? Sure. But would it be enough to impress the manager and beat out others with a similar degree? Perhaps, but not likely. What is likely to make a difference?
- Your actual skill set. Give me someone who knows SEO basics, can read or code HTML, is a good writer and can have an intelligent conversation any day over someone who “only” has a degree. If you have some familiarity with analytics, even better.
- An ability to be client-facing. Of course, you can’t merely just depend on your skills — that’s only half the job. The other half is communicating what’s important to stakeholders. This means being able to talk about big-picture business objectives, not just about how cool AngularJS is.
- Any work history (job or internship) that involves working on a website, or even an offline publication. It could be that you’ve worked in tech as an editor, a copywriter, a general marketing assistant, posting photos to social media, or something else. This is valuable as long as it shows you’ve worked on a team. Yes, I know there’s a catch 22 — to get a job, you need experience, but to get experience, you need a job. But your ability to show you’ve worked with others in some form of media is important. It’s not often I need a knowledgeable hermit… I need someone who will show up every day and be able to complete assignments.
- No job history? Hone your skills on your own. I know there’s only so much a classroom can teach and only so much experience you can have walking into an entry-level opportunity. Those who will succeed in SEO are self-starters and, by nature, curious. A good signal that you, as a job candidate, have those skills is by showing that you’ve developed a website or a blog on your own with some specific focus. Maybe it’s a Tumblr site with crafting how-tos; perhaps it’s a fully developed travel blog; maybe it’s even a website for a favorite local charity or church. (And, no, just liking Facebook and “being online all the time” isn’t enough.)
- Certifications. Any Google certifications you can get will be a huge differentiator — Google Analytics individual qualification, in particular. Also of note: SEO Training Course by Moz (free), SEO 101 by Distilled (paid) and Bruce Clay SEO training (paid).
- An interest in/familiarity with industry blogs and thought leaders. The ability to keep up with the changes in the discipline is important — but more than that, your curiosity and willingness to learn are signaled by your self-directed “research” on sites like Search Engine Land. I will ask you what things you read and what you think is “next” in SEO.
The best way to start is by learning digital marketing “hands on.”
Is digital marketing the career for you?
Being prepared for a job is one thing, but enjoying it enough to make it a career is another. What are some of the pros and cons of working in SEO day in, day out that may determine how well-suited you are for the “SEO lifestyle?”
- Always something new to learn — constant change. This isn’t just a cliche; something big will happen every few weeks that you must learn about. Don’t get overwhelmed thinking you have to be an instant expert, just understand that you should know why something new matters (not necessarily how it all works).
- If you have an idea and plan to test and measure, seniority doesn’t matter. This is true of many tech-related fields. If you have a good idea, innovation or copy “hook” you think will grow traffic and revenue, only a fool for a boss wouldn’t listen just because you’re young.
- It is a “test and learn” culture. As long as you’re watching/measuring, surprises, and even setbacks, are seen as a path to improvement.
- Chance interact with cool people in the industry (Well, as long as you think nerdy is cool). People in digital marketing are usually an interesting bunch who are fairly laid-back and free with the knowledge they’ve gained.
- Fly all over the world. It’s all caviar and champagne, don’t you know? Well, not really, but if you’re in an agency of any size, it’s likely you’ll make a trip or two during the year to attend a client meeting, presentation or conference.
- Always something new to learn — constant change. The speed of change isn’t slowing, it’s accelerating. The constant need to stay informed and leave old tactics behind can be taxing.
- Hard to maintain work/life balance. This is probably the biggest challenge — because we love it, we are thinking about or working on SEO all the time. Sometimes, bosses even think that because you think it’s cool and you’re young, it’s not really like work if they give you impossible deadlines to meet. Well, it is real work, and even if you love what you’re doing, it’s possible to burn yourself out without anyone else pushing you. Know that you are a limited resource and there will always be some reason to work late or skip a vacation. Be smart, and get off the computer as often as you can.
- You won’t be management overnight. Sweet SEO skills alone won’t make you a manager, director or VP — it’s your ability to communicate, maintain an even temperament and focus on client needs (not SEO tech-ery) that will help you rise up the ranks. Those things are only gained over time and in situ.
- Clients and CEOs can have unreasonable expectations. There are definitely those who think SEO is like magic, and, if you just sprinkle some on their project, success will come overnight. Even with guidance, patient counseling and careful presentation of progress, you sometimes cannot reset those unreasonable expectations. This is closely related to the next item…
- Many have misconceptions about how SEO works. Part of what makes SEO cool is that a lot of people don’t really know what you do or how SEO works. But that can also be dangerous; they may have misconceptions about the level of skill required to execute a good SEO campaign or the time it takes to see results.
- You’re likely to step on toes. While it may be tempting to jump into a new project and start ordering SEO-based code changes or say that it’s SEO’s job to provide the language used in copy development, be aware that there are likely IT and PR departments in the room who think those things are their job. My advice: Before calling their baby ugly, always acknowledge the necessary role of IT to provide a good code base and/or PR to craft the brand’s message — then explain how SEO can enhance, not replace, their work.
Is SEO for everyone? Definitely not. If you like learning a way of doing things that you can execute until retirement, don’t get into the field. If you like figuring out the way things work — and you can recognize when talking about your SEO ninja skills should take a back seat to the business needs of the project — then jump in and stay humble.