How to Build an Exceptional SEO Staff

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A talented SEO staff is a critical element of successful business operations on the web. Three primary tasks exist for a manager or executive seeking to create an exceptional SEO team – recruiting, structuring and training. During my tenure leading SEOmoz, I’ve had the privilege of building an in-house team, in addition to helping several large firms train and manage their teams. Below are some  practical guidelines to help steer you on the right course towards putting together an exceptional SEO staff.

Recruiting

Possibly the most challenging part of team building is finding the right people. First, you’ll need to know where to look – certain portals on the web lend themselves well to the demographics of the young, web-savvy, tech-obsessed, eager-to-learn man or woman that will make for a great SEO team member. I generally recommend Craigslist, LinkedIn, JobsinSearch, Oaseo and the major search industry forums (SearchEngineWatch, DigitalPoint, Sitepoint and HighRankings).

During the interviewing process, you should be on the lookout for people who are passionate about learning, excited about your company, and already deeply involved in the web. If an interviewee uses sites like Digg & Reddit, knows who Danny Sullivan and Matt Cutts are, and can name five characteristics of the Web 2.0 movement, chances are they’ll make a great candidate. Remember that unless you’re specifically hiring a senior member of the team, it can be far more valuable to bring in junior members whose enthusiasm will carry them through the learning process.

Before you actually make the final decision to make a job offer, keep a few critical questions in mind.

  • How long do you want this person to be part of your company?
  • What are the growth opportunities for the position?
  • What will be the person’s primary tasks and responsibilities?
  • How well does their personality match with your firm and the other members of their team?

The best employees inevitably are those whose background and personalities are great matches for the answers to those four questions.

Structuring the Team

When you’re beginning to build an SEO team, it’s important to keep in mind that one size does not fit all. For very large sites with hundreds of thousands or millions of pages in a competitive marketplace, you will need a large team with many SEO folks to keep track of projects, deadlines, content, reporting, tracking, etc. When you’re operating smaller properties, a team of 2-4 people might be perfectly appropriate.

The key to determining size is to segment your site (or sites) into manageable sections. If you have five unique segments of content and conversion, five individual teams may be required (depending on size). The size of a team is dependent on the ROI that can be generated by additional effort. If one content builder and one pro-active marketer are providing maximum value, your team size is two; however, if a team of four content builders and two active marketers can more than double the costs of their employment with the value of the work they do, your strategy is clear.

Another golden rule for structuring the organization of your SEO staff is that if you wind up with more than two SEO teams, you will need to add an SEO manager to assign tasks, set deliverables, and hold workers accountable.

The different positions in a typical SEO team include:

  • SEO Manager – responsible for strategy, assigning tasks and managing projects/employees.
  • Content Builder – primarily responsible for creating search-friendly and link-friendly content that will attract attention to the site. Often, content builders will also contribute to a blog, create articles, and edit existing landing pages.
  • Link Builder – assigned to marketing the site across the web through link requests, directory submission, social media marketing, and community participation.
  • SEO Technician – responsible for keeping the technical side of the site (URLs, CSS, link structure, keyword use, sitemaps, feeds, etc.) clean and search friendly.

A SEO team member’s tasks may overlap or require collaboration with those persons holding positions in marketing, IT and analytics (if your company is large enough to warrant a separate analytics department). It is a wise move for management to decide who has authority over certain matters, well in advance of the onset of any conflict. If not dealt with, companies likely will experience internal strife from those in SEO positions pushing against other departments if they don’t receive what they need to do their jobs as SEOs.

Training

The final element in developing a great team is training your SEO staff to be as up-to-date and savvy as possible. The world of SEO changes constantly and demands a high level of attention to the search engines themselves, the search marketing industry, the world of social media, changes in Web 2.0, and the evolving technologies of the Internet.

You have several options when it comes to building on the knowledge of your staff – a combination of these techniques can yield phenomenally talented SEOs. One technique I highly recommend is letting your staff get their hands dirty on their own. Have them go out and build a blog at Blogspot or Yahoo! 360 and experiment in attempting to rank it for search terms related to your industry. Encourage them to build profiles at the major social media sites, read and participate in the blogs and forums of the search marketing world, and link and content-build their way to relative success. Like Google, you can institute the 80/20 rule that lets folks spend time at work pushing their own websites through experimentation.

During the early stages of training (the first 2-4 weeks), I reverse the rule and try to give my employees 70-80% of their time to concentrate on reading, learning and getting involved. This ensures that their value later on will be considerably higher, and it also helps to get them excited about the work.

Many companies focused on SEO are choosing to bring in outside help in the form of a search industry personality or guru. I’ve done several of these on-site training sessions myself, and have always found the value to be excellent. If you can identify a consultant, blogger or marketer that your staff admires and looks up to and you are able to bring him/her in for a day of presentations and Q&A, you will inspire your staff, grow their abilities, and often see a huge spike in productivity among the team.

Wrap-Up

Building a great SEO team takes time, dedication and the concrete recognition of what these people can bring to your company. It’s often a tough job to put together the right group for two very daunting reasons – there are no formal training grounds for SEOs, plus many of the most experienced can make 100K+ working for themselves or consulting.

The recommendations in this article can provide you with guidelines on how to create a great team, but it’s also important not to forget the high value SEO can bring to your business and be sure not to lose sight of your ultimate goals. Reports of incredibly high turnover rates of SEOs, even at large corporations, are commonplace. To avoid the negative consequences of high turnover or high burnout rates, build your team with longevity, a positive work environment, excellent training and appropriate compensation. Your bottom line will thank you.

About the Author

Rand Fishkin in the founder and CEO of SEOmoz.org, a Seattle-based search marketing firm. Rand's also the blogger behind the SEOmoz website and a frequent speaker at search conferences. He dropped out of the University of Washington's School of Business in 2001 to pursue his entrepreneurial passion.

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