Everything You Always Wanted to Know About An SEO*
*(But Were Afraid To Ask)
What follows is a survey I completed for a student at Alverno College today. I think it’s interesting what students, hearing about SEO and SEM, want to know about the field. What follows is the survey of 37 questions I was asked to complete on SEO.
**Student Questions in RED | My Answers: BLACK
1. What influenced/inspired you to pursue this career/field/position?
I started in search marketing several years ago, after a long stint in teaching in the Milwaukee Public School system. I called in a favor to a friend, who happened to be working in real estate website design, and the rest is history.
As for the Optimization side of SEM, I saw that not many people actually knew what it meant to optimize or how to do it efficiently. Therefore, I spent time learning through experimenting with websites, reading professional industry sites and blogs, attending conferences.
2. What are the educational requirements (and other forms) did you need for this job/type of work/career area?
Educationally, there really are no requirements. (Although I have heard of marketing curriculums now offering a very basic segment in “Search Marketing”). I have my Masters, but I think all you need is someone who has a genuine interest in search marketing, is pragmatic, and is analytical by nature. Our work is steeped in data analysis. Those who can break this information down, relay it in its simplest terms to prospective clients, implement it, and then form strategy based on their knowledge, will be the truly successful ones in this field.
3. Where did you attend college and what did you study?
- University of Wisconsin – La Crosse : Bachelors: Literature and Sociology
- University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee: Masters: Creative Writing and Literature
4. What was your starting position out of college? What was your “career path” to your current position?
My first position out of college was teaching 9th – 12th grade Grammar, Literature, Social Studies, and History to “at-risk” students. In 2003, I was deployed to Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom). Upon completion of my tour, I decided that teaching was something I would always do; I just wanted to do it in a different capacity.
I started as an Interactive Account Manager, held the position for 6 months, promoted to Senior Account Manager for Move, Inc. It is at this point that I began my foray into the world of website design and usability, working closely with clients to achieve marketing goals.
I was then offered a position at a traditional ad agency, Laughlin Constable, as a Senior Account Manager in their “digital” division. Digital is being gracious to them. It was nothing more than an over-priced web design division, not interested in truly engaging in search engine marketing. My stint was very short at this agency, as I could not stand by and participate in nothing more than a traditionalist’s perspective on “digital” branding with no thought as to how it was truly received and perceived to the online public.
From there, I moved to Aloha Digital Marketing, as the Search Marketing Manager (head of SEO and SEM). It’s at this position that I truly learned the balance between what was in the best interest of the client search marketing strategy and what was achievable with their budget. I learned to make concessions while staying true to solid search marketing and optimization. Looking back on this, this was the key position I held, and quite possibly the one that taught me the most. And due to my success here, a better offer came along that I could not pass up.
I then moved to my current position at Top Floor Technologies. I have been here over 1 year. During this time, I have started my own LLC, Silver Arc Search Marketing, which focus solely on search engine marketing strategy and search engine optimization, my strongest disciplines. For accreditation, I have taken the Google AdWords Professional exam, and I am taking the SEO Master Course through Market Motive.
5. What is your suggested career path someone should take?
Honestly, there is no suggested career path one SHOULD take. Everyone arrives at SEO/SEM in his/her due time. If out of college and working w/ a digital crew, then this is the perfect opportunity to learn an SEM discipline: SEO, SMM, PPC, or SMO.
- College major and minors, and then entry level positions suggested:
If you look at the search landscape today, our backgrounds come from multiple and various educational disciplines. Some have marketing degrees, some philosophy, some history, some engineering; the list goes on and on.
At some level, once you graduate, where you end up is based on availability of positions and what you want to do. If search marketing is something that sets you off, then find entry level positions, such as Account Management, or entry-level position at a search firm.
- And any other outside education (e.g: SEMPO Institute training or ??):
Anything you can to further your education through conferences or certification is always a plus. More than anything else, whatever discipline of search marketing you decide to throw yourself into, it is always wise to have a good understanding of how other disciplines engage the space. This way, you’ll build your value and become multi-faceted threat in the search marketing space.
6. What are the most important skills needed for this job?
The most important skill(s) need for this job is to be analytical and have vision. You’ll spend most of your time analyzing keyword and keyword phrase selections, reviewing site architecture in conjunction with the client’s marketing goals, dissecting websites looking for optimization flaws, and creating strategy in comparison with those in their vertical or space.
7. I understand 80% of SEO positions reside in the marketing department, but I’ve read many people that enter the field from I.T. areas (database, web back-end, web front-end, etc.) can troubleshoot problems better? Do you agree?
Perhaps. It’s a difficult question to answer as each individual’s skill level, when dealing with code will be different. If an SEO dedicates himself/herself to working with developers/designers, which will be a large part of your daily interaction, as you will have to teach them what things MUST be done as a part of your optimization, you’ll learn to understand what goes on in their world and pick up on it.
Simple answer: In the beginning, yes, a person deeply embedded in development/design is going to troubleshoot better. The question arises when actually principles of SEO/SEM must be employed, can an I.T. person do it with the deft touch a person rooted in SEO/SEM can do it?
8. What are employers looking for in a candidate that they continually have a hard problem finding?
Someone willing to learn. Someone who is dedicated to continually learning their craft, their science. It’s taken me a long time to be comfortable giving SEO advice to clients that are spending tens of thousands on SEO/SEM.
The moment you think you know enough to stop learning, is the moment you need to find another line of work.
9. What software and tools do you use and what’s the most important to know?
Wow. Nothing like giving away trade secrets, huh? I use the following on a daily basis:
- Google Analytics / Google Webmaster Tools / Google Local Business Center / Google Search Query Functions (not an actual app, just knowing specific queries to get the results I want) / Google Trends
- Browsers: Firefox and Chrome and Opera (Internet Explorer only if I have to J)
- Open-Source CMS Platforms: Drupal / Modx / DotNetNuke
- Social Media Tools: Twitter / Google Wave / Facebook / PRWeb/ Social News Media Sites (i.e. Various Blogs, Digg, Reddit, Mixx, Sphinn, Newsvine, etc.)
- Keyword Tools: WordTracker, Google Keyword Tool External, Trellian
- Competitive Analysis Tools: SEO Quake/ SEM Rush / SpyFu / Link Diagnosis / SEO 4 Firefox
- TechSmith SnagIt
- Microsoft Excel / Word
10. How long have you been working in this field?
I’ve been working in Search Engine Marketing for 5 years now.
11. Things you wish you would’ve done before entering this field?
The honest answer: nothing. I’ve been blessed with leading a charmed existence and have done a lot of things with my short time on the planet.
However, if the question is directed as in, “Do I plan on making this field my long-term career?” I would say yes to that. Will it be my career forever? Perhaps. I couldn’t tell you what’s going to happen 10 years from now, but I know that this field will always be apart of my life, and I’ll have some connection to it, no matter what my job title says.
12. What values are important to you and to your career area?
This is going to differ depending on who you ask. But, for me, I value strong work ethics as the premium. I do whatever is necessary to get the job done, no matter how long it takes, no matter the hour count, no matter the day.
I also value ethics. There’s certainly room in this industry for highly unethical behavior (i.e. spamming techniques). If you’re coming across to me that your ethics and mores are flexible, I don’t want you on my team. Period.
As an independent, you may have sites to torch, but mine is the business of providing results while maintaining one’s integrity. Applying strategy and optimization, for me, has to be in a way that doesn’t comprise my values or ethics, I want to be able to know that I’ve provided honest work, with proven techniques, to help someone’s search marketing efforts catch fire.
13. What do you like about your job? What do you dislike?
I love my job as a SEO/SEM. I like that I get to help make someone’s business go from ZERO to AWESOME by applying my knowledge. I love creating strategy and implementing it; it’s like giving birth in a sense. You have this idea, this little spark that catches lightning, and turns into something tangible right before your eyes.
Dislikes? There aren’t many of them, but the monotony can be draining. There will be occasions where you are repeating the same tasks over and over. And over. The long hours can be rough too. Sometimes, in this business, you have to go on runs of 24 and 48 hours without much sleep in order to meet deadlines. Coffee will be your best friend.
14. What do you find most challenging in your work?
Creating the right search engine marketing strategy for the client based on their budget and goals. Learning to comprise is going to be an essential skill.
15. How stressful is this position?
Depends on your client base and what internal initiatives your company wants to accomplish. If you have needy clients and many internal company initiatives, then your life is going to be extremely stressful.
I don’t find the position stressful, though I have needy clients and quite a few internal “projects”; I find it to be more of a challenge to outperform expectations and our surrounding competition.
16. Do you have to travel at all? Locally, or otherwise?
I don’t travel much out of state, except for conferences. Otherwise, its day trips to meet with clients.
17. Describe the typical work environment for this field?
Again, this is dependent on a number of factors. But, typically, it’s a close-knit SEM team interacting with developer teams, design teams. You don’t have to be a social butterfly, but it helps if you can communicate effectively.
18. What is a typical day like for you?
Email. Strategy Building. Client Meetings. Internal Meetings. Keyword Research. Strategic Results Reports for clients (reports that tell our clients how our strategy performed in conjunction with website)
19. How many hours on average do you work per week? Weekends too?
On average, I work anywhere from 45-55 hours Monday – Friday. Add in the weekends, and it’s closer to 70.
20. Do you ever need to take work home? Is it expected?
That’s the one nice thing about our field: you take work home. It is, unfortunately, a bad thing too. Is it expected, not really. I expect that you get work done at work, and that you LEAVE WORK at WORK.
However, since a lot of what SEOs and SEMs do can be done nearly anywhere, there is a tendency to bring work home. It will take time, but you must learn to create a separation of WORK and HOME.
21. Can much of your work be done at home? (Telecommuting)
I would say that nearly 90% of the work that needs to be done each day can be done from home. Save client meetings and specific software that is housed on the office server. Yet, even then, if you can get remote access to office servers, you could conceivably accomplish 95% of what you need to get done daily from home.
22. What obstacles or struggles did you have to overcome to get where you are today?
Quite a few actually. The biggest being that what you have expertise in is NOT “dark art”, “mystic”, or otherwise known “Snake Oil”. That there is an actual science behind the things we recommend, and that optimization can’t just be done without specific knowledge of knowing how a single effort will affect another effort down the line.
23. What are the future trends expected in this field? Do you expect this industry to grow tremendously?
As for the future trends in SEM and SEO, well, that’s an entire paper unto itself. As far as growth in this field, yes I expect that it will grow tremendously. Current projections for industry-specific pollsters and general pollsters indicate that the boom has only just begun.
24. Do you find that people need to know more (wear more hats these days?) or is the field geared toward specialties and becoming and expert at one thing?
It’s not a question of “hat wearing” but a question intertwined knowledge. In my case, I certainly favor SEO over other SEM disciplines and would consider myself a highly knowledgeable professional in this niche, but with my SEO knowledge, in order to be effective, I need to know about all disciplines and be fluent in them. The days of specific, niche knowledge of a single discipline are drawing to a close, and not just in SEM.
25. If so, which specialties are becoming more prevalent in this industry? (software, education, experience)
The huge buzz “specialty” is certainly SMM (social media marketing) and SMO (social media optimization). There are certainly professionals in these areas, who’ve been doing for as long as SEO has been around, but this specialty explosion will only lead to second-rate hacks. These second-rate hacks who feel that because they’ve got a Facebook account and Twitter account, believe they know something about the mechanics of how people operate online.
In the same way that SEO has been the bastard step-child of the online marketing community, most because of second-rate hacks posturing and feigning knowledge, so too will SMO and SMM go through this.
26. What are you teaching yourself right now?
Actually, I’m trying to teach myself how to build a website from the ground up: applying CSS templates and writing code. Time’s pretty lean right now, but I make small strides toward this goal. Mostly, I spend time reading SEM professional blogs and books not related to anything SEM.
27. Do you attend informational events in the U.S? If so, which ones?
I’ve attended a couple events the past few years, mainly conferences from the SMX family tree. But if given the choice of one conference, the only that is a must attend for any SEM/SEO professional is SMX Advanced in Seattle.
28. What is the one thing that interests or excites you most about this field?
There’s never a dull moment. The technology changes so rapidly and the possibilities of optimization opportunities materialize in step, that there is no possible way you could ever be bored!
29. Are freelancing and contract jobs becoming more mainstream (or less) in the future?
I believe that Todd Mintz wrote, “If your SEO isn’t moonlighting, they’re not doing it right.” Freelance will become more prevalent in the future. Be on the lookout for small SEM/SEO shops to springing up across the country.
30. Are there any SEO positions/jobs (Guru, Specialist, Marketing Consultant, Link Builder, Content Writer, SEO Researcher, Client Relations Coordinator) that will be downsized because of outsourcing overseas?
Don’t let any SEO tell you they’re not outsourcing, it’s a lie. Every one of us outsources something, it depends on what you can a) trust the outsourcer with, and b) what you absolutely don’t have time to do yourself. The majority of what an SEO does encompasses all of these things; one should be competent in every single facet you have listed above. This is your job description.
As far as the positions, I’ll tell you this: if there is a “Guru” position out there (in writing) don’t apply for it and never hire them. Via David Leonhardt: “Guru” is a term that must be bestowed upon someone by others. Coming from oneself, it is meaningless.”
31. GoogleBot doesn’t read Flash pages unless it’s built in. Do you teach your Flash expert to build the pages properly, or this is not a concern really as other means are enough to get ranks.
(Small correction: GoogleBot is learning to read Flash, but parses it horribly.) If you MUST use flash, then it is imperative that it built with some engine readability behind it. The term is graceful degradation. That is, when it the flash fails to operate, in this case in the presence of GoogleBot, it can still provide key information that would otherwise be “hidden” or “locked up” within the flash application.
32. What are the best steps to take to get an entry-level job and then move up and get better experience?
The best steps? The best steps are to use your social networking connections to get in to a search marketing outfit. Save that, the next best steps to an entry level position is to keep your ear to the ground for positions (even within traditional agencies) for anything they have open in their search marketing divisions or “interactive” divisions.
As for accruing more experience, it’s about finding a mentor. I had one (James Shore), someone who led me to waterholes and then let me find my own way from there. Beyond finding a mentor, the first years will be spent listening and absorbing all the information you can. Yes, that means even the pure nonsense. Once you start understanding the jargon and idiosyncrasies within the field, you’ll be able to distinguish what’s credible and what’s pure nonsense.
After a time, you’ll move through the ranks, applying your knowledge and expertise. I hate to say it’s results-based, but it is. The better results you can provide, the fast more doors will open for you.
33. How many years experience does it take to move from entry-level to average and then expert level employee (I realize the dynamics in SEO are always changing, but please generalize).
This is a difficult question to answer. There are so many externalities in relation to this question that even a generalization is difficult to assume.
Honestly, it depends on how quickly you pick up the art and science of SEO. If you show an expert ability early on, people are going to recognize it, and you’ll can leap-frog your way through the ranks quickly.
34. What can I start doing now that would prepare me for working in this field in the future?
Start familiarizing yourself with various aspects of the field. There excellent primers out there by some of the best and brightest in the field:
- SEOMoz SEO Beginners Guide
- Google Webmaster Central Blog: SEO Starter Guide
- Hobo Web: SEO Beginners Guide
- SEO Book: SEO Training Overview
- Silver Arc Search Marketing: SEO Beginners Guide
35. If you could choose this career path all over again, would you and why?
Absolutely. Beyond finding my calling in business, I’ve made amazing relationships over the years. The SEM/SEO community is a tight one, and once you become one of us, it’s a life-long community. (That is, of course, unless you happen to be complete and utter anti-social person)
36. Do you belong to any professional organizations? If so, which ones and why?
At this time, no. But, credentialism is an important factor of the game. Having acronyms associated to your name can go along way toward earning credibility with clients and prospective clients.
37. Are there any websites that you refer to or research to help you in your field?
See Question #35
I also use Twitter as a means of information gathering on the industry. The amount of information is truly staggering, so being judicious with your time is something that will go along way.
Sites I read religiously:
- Search Engine Land
- SEO Roundtable
- The Huomah SEO Blog
- Search Engine Journal
- Search Engine People
- Outspoken Media
36. What is the average starting salary? What is the salary potential with experience?
The average starting salary is going to be largely based on the COL (cost of living) of your area. I would expect the starting salary to be anywhere between $30,000 and $40,000 a year. SEOMoz did a great survey themselves that could help you answer a lot of these questions: http://www.seomoz.org/dp/seo-industry-survey-results
As for the salary potential, it’s limitless. If you can prove your value to an organization, or to a marketplace, there’s no limit to what people will pay for a competitive advantage.
37. Can you suggest other professionals who may be willing to speak with me about their careers?
Absolutely. There’s plenty of agencies, firms, and independents in the Milwaukee and Chicago area who’d love to talk. Contact me and I’ll give you a list of locals.