How to Get a Career in SEO with No Agency Experience

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Even despite the pandemic seeing digital marketing budget cuts in various areas, the recent State of SEO survey shows that 50.5% of client budgets increased. This sits in tandem with a 40% rise in worldwide traffic levels as we adapted to the “new normal”. This has seen SEO come to forefront like never before.

There’s also 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 and find your niche if you aren’t sure that you want to specialise yet. Depending on things like the tech stack and priorities of the company, the diversity of tasks and KPIs may not be as vast as in a smaller agency. 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 as well as stakeholders who may not understand what good looks like.  

There are plenty of resources out there detailing the pros and cons of agency and in-house SEO work. While it’s from way back in 2011, (an eternity in SEO terms!) this long post from Moz on agency vs in-house vs freelance SEO still stands true in many respects.

One other way of looking at it is from the perspective of a potential employer. What could they be looking for when they hire an SEO expert? Should they hire an agency or an in-house team? What about when they want to hire for many of the specialist roles in SEO? (the likes of which I’ll go into shortly).

There are also some interesting articles out there that are aimed at helping clients hire SEO experts. Check out this article from Reddico about hiring an in-house SEO team and what employers could be looking for in each of the specialisms. This post from UpBuild looks at the pros and cons of hiring an in-house SEO team or an agency. 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 and what employers are looking for.

Learn About the Different Specialisms in SEO

As I briefly alluded to, SEO has evolved massively over the years and there are plenty of specialisms within the channel. When you’re starting out, you may not know which area you want to home in on and this may be something that you discover with experience. If you do know what path within SEO, then that’s great. In either case it’s good to have an awareness of what these individual specialisms are, what they entail and what skillsets they require. Many firms expect you to have a well-rounded grasp of all the key areas of SEO, and this will be vital if you want to follow the career path into seniority where you’re managing teams or clients. Here is the lo-down on a few popular specialisms: 

Technical SEO 

Going back to basics, technical SEO specialists require a nuanced understanding of how the internet works and in turn, how Google works in terms of crawling and indexing websites. This is crucial in understanding how to get a website as optimised as possible in terms of accessibility to crawlers for better indexation and eventually ranking. Beyond languages such as HTML and CSS, technical SEOs are also expected to have an understanding of programming languages as SQL and Python in order to better troubleshoot issues and automate tasks. 

You’ll also need to familiarise yourself with popular technical SEO tools such as Deepcrawl or Screaming Frog and ideally will be able to build your own tools to troubleshoot nuances issues. 

Digital PR

One of the hot topics in SEO at the moment is digital PR. While certain areas of digital PR link to “traditional” PR with some sprinklings of reactive and proactive journalism, SEO and data-led approaches remain very much at its core. Digital PR involves creating content and getting placement on large online publications, be it newspapers, magazines or industry-specific publications. This is with a view to drawing in high-quality backlinks and in turn hundreds of thousands of eyeballs on your content and brand.

Digital PR requires sharp off-page SEO and linkbuilding skills with the ability to quickly spot and craft a keyword research-led story that is original and contemporary. Building a network of writers and journalists that trust you is key, and will ensure that the content you product gets the coverage it deserves.

International SEO

Lots of brands are constantly looking at going global as a way to diversify their revenue streams, and in turn agencies are always on the lookout for SEO professionals who can provide this service.

Being skilled in international SEO won’t necessarily require you to be fluent in other languages, though this is certainly a plus. It’s more about understanding best practice for websites expanding their content to other regions and languages from a technical point of view, with a thorough understanding of aspects such as hreflang and geo-targeting in general. 

Knowing where to go in terms of localised keyword research is a must, and while you may not be able to carry out keyword research proficiency in a language you don’t know, you’ll know the wider best practice for this and will know what to do when it comes to working with translation agencies or colleagues that do speak these languages.

Make Sure You Rank for Your Own Name and Have a Good Personal Brand

When you start getting your CV out there, you can be certain that recruiters and interviewers will Google your name. Make sure you have a website and social profiles that are all ranking for your name. Think about your personal brand – make sure there’s no unprofessional content on your Twitter and that your LinkedIn profile is up to date and professional too. Bonus points if you’ve been able to get some blogs or articles published in third party publications too. This will demonstrate your understanding of SEO, and it will show that you’re active in the SEO community (more on this in the Community section below).

How to Create a Personal Website for SEO

Aside from having you own professional corner of the web, a personal website for SEO can be an opportunity to show experimentation techniques. 

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. Look at experimenting with out of the box code changes. Break things. Experiment by building content on certain niches and see how you rank. 

When it comes to building a site, your best bet is to use WordPress for your site. Many clients will be running WordPress for their blogging platform and in some cases, they’re actual main sites. WordPress is very easy to set up and get hosting for: have a read on how to do that here. Other popular website providers include Squarespace and Wix, so be sure to check them out too. 

Get Certified, or Test Your Knowledge in General

Google has recently launched its own Search Engine Optimization Fundamentals course which is worth looking at if you want to consolidate any knowledge you already have or bolt it onto your CV. They also have a Digital Marketing & E-commerce Certificate which covers SEO.

You can also look at the Google Analytics Exam as well as various Google AdWords certifications to give you an extra edge. 

Many SEO technology platforms such as Moz and SEMRush also offer their own versions of “SEO Exams” though these are probably better for your own knowledge sharpening rather than having on your actual CV.

Ways to Get Ahead With Initial SEO Experience

If you think you don’t have experience, then get creative. Before you 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. Here, 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 with Prospective Approaches

A slightly bolder 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. Prospective approaches can be seen as real signs of creativity and entrepreneurship by the right kind of people.

This might sound a little crazy, but if you succeed, then you get to work for your top agency! Even if you fail, you’ll learn a lot and you can revise your approach. 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.

Exchanging 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’s website 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. 

Think about maybe your parents’ business, or another business within your family or network. Have any friends or family that may be local music teachers or run a dance school? Hit them up and see how you can help their website. Use any success stories as case studies in your personal website and wider portfolio.

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. Internships can be hugely valuable as if you’re approaching smaller agencies, you’ll get similar levels of exposure and experience than that of an entry-level SEO role. And if you’re good, there’s a good chance that the agency will do all they can to try and keep you full-time.

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 your family members. You’re now in a position where your profile is piquing the interest of some agencies you’ve love to work for, and you’re being considered for interviews. 

Now what?

If you have no agency (or internship) 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.

If it’s appropriate in the interview, talking about your own website will allow you to feel more in control in the interview. You can talk about a website you’re comfortable with, instead of fielding random questions about random websites or unfamiliar hypothetical scenarios. Though be prepared for being quizzed on scenarios or industries outside your realm of familiarity.

Aside from discussing your personal projects, 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.

What Not To Do During an SEO Interview

Firstly, a bit of levity. 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 explain how you want to come to work, put on your headphones, and listen to music all day.
  • Do not sit there and eat your breakfast while you are interviewing.

In slightly more serious “don’ts”: 

  • Don’t say things like: “I had no budget for links” and don’t say: “I don’t know about X Google algorithm update of SERP feature as I have had no clients with those issues.”
  • Don’t say “it depends” (or least try and avoid it where possible!) 
  • It IS however ok to say “I don’t know” in some circumstances. If you show a willingness to learn and are aware of the topic of a concept, then great. Don’t make up your answers to try and show that you know something you don’t, this is easily detectable.
  • Don’t turn up to an SEO interview without any demonstrable examples of SEO success stories to discuss or tests to show.

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.

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” (going back to my section on international SEO and other specialisms).

There are thousands and thousands of blog posts and beginner’s guides to on page factors (and much more). Here are a few favourites:

Off-page SEO

You should always have examples of linkbuilding you have done. If you have only two examples of links you have built to your personal website, then explain how you got them! Why was it was important to get those links? What was the process you used to get those links? How have they impacted your rankings and traffic?

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” and what your processes are. 

If you’ve never had a linkbuilding budget, think about other methods you’ve used such as getting links from friends’ websites you’ve helped with, platforms you’ve had blogs published on or on any affiliate projects you might have.

There are lots of beginner’s blog posts about link building and off-page SEO too. Here are some examples:

Client Servicing and Sales

Most new SEOs will not immediately 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. This is particularly true in smaller, boutique agencies where you may find yourself thrown into client-facing scenarios sooner than you think!

During the interview stage, even with no previous SEO experience, it is important to demonstrate how you have dealt with any variety of customers previously. These customers could be from any previous employment you’ve had or in the scenarios detailed above where you’ve offer your services to local businesses to get experience. 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 SEO 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!

SEO Chrome Plugins

In addition to full-blown tools, you should also familiarise yourself with the wide array of (mostly free) Chrome plugin tools for SEO that can give you an edge in the interview, and make you a better SEO in general. Show off your knowledge of them in the interview where you can. Some of these do enter into advanced fields of SEO though they’re worth exploring: 

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? What is John Mueller saying? Talk about it in the interview!

You should try to be authoritative on what direction you think Google is going in terms of its algorithm. While Penguin and Panda were some time ago now, there’s also BERT, MUM, RankBrain as well as general ongoing Core Updates. Talk about trends you’ve seen. 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.

Advanced (Beginner) SEO Factors

If you are applying for an entry-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. Going back to some of the specialist roles in SEO I detailed earlier, think about how some of these niches interest you and talk about them in the interview.

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? Can you talk about topics such as crawl budget and crawl traps? 

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 crucial given Google now works from a mobile first index.

Negative SEO:

If you have real experience of negative SEO or seen it happen – raise a discussion on this topic. This can include tactics such as hacking, dodgy DMCA requests leading to sites being deindexed, and scraping of content on separate sites to outrank competitors. While Google claims to be better at combating these tactics, they still happen.

SEO Conferences / Meet Ups

In the UK alone, there are some awesome free conferences and meetups. There are also conferences that are sponsored by some of the big SEO companies and tools, of course but these 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, US 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 BrightonSEOMozCon and Search Marketing Expo.

SEO X (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. Going back to specialisms, you can find plenty of thought leaders in these areas on Twitter.  

Along with LinkedIn, Twitter can also be a great place to find out about new SEO roles and opportunities if you follow the right people. 

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. This 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. There are couple of generalist SEO forums on Reddit that are a good place to start, those being Big SEO and Tech SEO to name a couple.

SEO 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

Don’t be afraid to be yourself during the interview process. 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. With SEO growing in popularity as a discipline it has become more important than ever to have your own voice.

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.

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.

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