Title: SEO Interview Questions
Hi and thank you listening to SEOFightClub.org. I’m Ted Kubaitis and I have 22 years of web development and SEO experience. I have patented web technologies and started online businesses. I am both an engineer and a marketer. My goal is to help you win your SEO fights.
This episode’s FREEBIE
With every episode I love to give something away of high value. This episode’s SEO freebie is a list of SEO interview questions that will help you screen and understand you SEO candidates. Most SEO interview questions online would barely make sense for for screening an unpaid intern. My list provides interview questions that would be appropriate for screening seasoned professionals. With each question I also give the reason why you would want to ask the question and I give examples of both good and concerning answers. In this episode I will walk through how SEO philosophies can differ and where that may be important to your business when selecting an SEO. This free download will save you hours on figuring out your SEO screening strategy. If you are an SEO then this download will help make sure you are prepared for the interview.
You can download the freebie at: http://seofightclub.org/episode7
SEO Interview Questions
So in today’s episode I have created 8 questions you can use in addition to the ones I provide in the free download. I hand picked these 8 questions because I feel they really reveal the heart of someone’s SEO strategy. To give you a feel for how the philosophies can vary I have prepared my own answers as well as interview another expert SEO Josh Bachynski about his answers to the same questions. We can compare how our answers differ. When hiring an SEO it is important to interview several candidates and compare their strategies. It is all too common that I find businesses just hire the first person they talk to. I like to tell people that they make better decisions when they actually have a choice.
Just for the record. This isn’t a contest. Different businesses need different things from their SEO. Everyone is the right person for some jobs and not so much for others. Its how you differentiate yourself that ultimately gets you to where you want to be. Hopefully this exercise well help you embrace the differences that make your skills uniquely qualified.
Ted: Let me give you a chance to introduce yourself.
Josh Bachynski: Sure. I’m Josh Bachynski. I’ve been doing SEO for over 16 years, digital marketing, branding. I have a master’s degree. I’m in my second year of a PhD in ethics and decision theory. I have been in the second year for many years. I’m technically on sabbatical because I realize I can make much more money doing SEO and it’s a lot more fun than teaching university courses. That’s what I do and I have also got a documentary coming out about Google and I recently did a TED talk in [inaudible 00:00:37] about Google.
Ted: If people wanted to reach you or look into you where could they find you?
Josh Bachynski: They could always email me at my email address at firstname.lastname@example.org. They can also check out my YouTube channel at youtube.com/jbachyns .
Ted: If they like your interview answers, can people reach you about your services?
Josh Bachynski: Yes, only if they are very, very rich clients.
1. What are the top 2 or 3 KPIs you use to know if your SEO strategy is working or not?
Josh: I think I just answered that one. The top two or three obviously rankings. You can’t ignore rankings, but also quite often in my social campaigns and SEO campaigns, I find that direct traffic will also go up as well. I think this could be from the chrome auto complete in the URL bar, which I’m not sure if it’s relying on Google data there or not. I suspect it most probably is. Anyway, you have to rely on rankings, of course, but I would also look at direct traffic to the site and just making sure that traffic to the site is increasing as well. Then finally conversions. It doesn’t matter if we got page one rankings or even spot number one rankings. It doesn’t matter if we increase traffic to the site if the conversions aren’t there. Those would be the top three. The fourth, I think, would be clock through rate on the Google search results page as well. Again, as I’ve often said, if someone is getting 100 impressions a month, but they have a five percent click through rate, then they’re missing 95 chances to make sale. If you can improve your click through rate, you’re going to get traffic right away. I also believe that click through rate is a ranking signal as well.
Ted: SEO revenue is my #1. Rankings are my #2. Revenue is first because it tells you so much about the health of the whole ecosystem. The health of crawlability, indexing, click through rate, conversions, and more all appear in the revenue signal. Conversions are good too but the needle doesn’t move as much. Rankings are second because they let you quickly triage whether the issues are likely to be on the technical SEO or SEO marketing side of the equation.
2. How long does your SEO typically take to start showing results and what are the milestones to achieving those results?
Josh: That’s a great question. I like that question quite a bit. The answer is, unfortunately, quite variable. For example, like I said, for improving the click through rate, or changing your title tag and things like that, you would see those results right away. If we improve the click through rate and start getting more people to the site, you would see those improvements right away. In terms of the general SEO … To tell you the truth, most of my SEO is more on the strategic level. I find myself, other than tweaking title tags and editing html or building back links or ye oldie back links and stuff like that, other than this ye oldie SEO stuff, which of course I do to the degree that that stuff is still useful or helpful, which I’ll call tactical SEO.
More and more I find myself doing strategic SEO where I’m working with a design team and I’m working with their marketing team and their writing team to improve sales, to improve conversions, to improve the user interface, to the improve the design and things like this. I think Google, or they were indirectly tracking, I think increasingly with the advent of RankBrain and the advent of the Zombie update, release-at least that’s what it’s called by Barry Schwartz. I think it’s becoming increasingly directly measured in terms of the design and where people are clicking and where they’re going. That’s being used as a ranking signal as well.
To answer in a long round about way, it can be both immediate results, but also the results can take a long time because I’m always waiting for the design team to finish their design, the writing team to finish writing. Then, for users to appreciate those changes and for Google to appreciate the fact that the users appreciate the changes. It can take anywhere from six to eighteen months. Also, it depends if whether or not the client is starting off when they start with me from a deficit. Most of my work is actually with clients who are not ranking well either because they just started a website and/or they had a website for years and it was hit by some kind of algorithm demotion, like Panda or a Penguin or some kind of manual penalty or things like that, a natural link notice, things like that.
First off, we have to clean off those problems first and then Google has to notice that. That can take months. It could take over a year for Google to notice something like that. Google being the lovely people they are, moving so fast as they do. That was sarcasm by the way. We have to clear that off first. Then, we have to make any positive improvements. It can take quite some time. Without fail, anyone who bothers who make all the changes I suggest … I usually suggest a lot of changes. Without fail, they all do see improvements over time.
Ted: When I make a change to a webpage I typically expect to see the change reflected in the search results in under 22 days.It could happen in 2 days or it could take 22. 22 days is the longest I’ve seen and that happened when I changed the page the morning after Google updated that page’s cache entry. It was literally a worst case scenario. If the changes have the desired results then additional cycles are needed to role out more pages. Those cycles typically take under 22 days too. The thing to remember is that we have to work on Google’s timeline so even though we want to move faster sometimes Google won’t let us do that. It can be frustrating but it is what it is.
3. How do you generally respond to clients who specifically ask you about ranking for keyword X?
Josh: That’s a great question too. That happens all the time, of course. I have two answers. The shorter answer is, of course, yeah, we’ll get [your ranking 00:10] for that, right? That’s the answer for a number of reasons, one because you’re a consultant so that’s what’s supposed to be the answer. In general, depending on what it is.
The longer answer is, again, I take more of holistic strategic approach. I’m not just going to try to get you ranking for one main keyword. We can’t ignore your major search queries. In some industries, one search query has the line-share of searches and the line-share of traffic. It could have one hundred thousand impressions and all the other long-tail ones have maybe ten or twenty impressions.
I find to try and be laser focused like that, again, that’s kind of 2009 SEO that you have to be very careful doing because of course Google is running more and more algorithms trying to text manipulation of that type of sort. In general, I would try to improve things overall and raise the rankings for all the search queries above the board, and increase the search queries.
By doing that, I would hope that that would also give them increased rankings for that one search queries XYZ that they are interested in, if not, has a fetish about, “it has to be this search query and no other search query.”
Again, that being all said, if at the end of the day I do my general strategic approach … I mean, I have to do that anyway to make sure [inaudible 01:27] have an liabilities or like … there’s site link algorithms like [inaudible 01:32] for example, it’s kind of subdomain now.
We have to make sure that’s being … we have to attack that in a general way, because there’s a general algorithm that generally affects a subdomain. Once that’s all done, if at the end of the day we’re still not ranking for that one query, then we need to ask a bigger question that I would probably ask ahead of time. “Is your site even optimized to be able to rank for that kind of query?” I find that more and more Google is trying to give kind of a one-to-one relation between the search query and this website they provide.
For example, I just did an audit today … I just did an audit today for a customer and they have kind of a site which I think they want to be transactional, but they have a blog on it and all their major internal links goes to the blog and the blog seems to be the most important thing, and consequently the only thing Google is ranking them for. Google thinks that’s they’re more of an informational site.
My point is that if this search query that they want to rank for is a transactional query, or it’s kind of the middle or lower down in the sales funnel, but all they have is blog articles and they’re only ranking for blog-type of stuff, and they have an general EMD … well that’s not going to work anymore, right? They’re not really tailored to rank for that place in the sales funnel as far as Google’s new algorithms can tell. It might require a sub-brand, it might require a complete overhaul of the website. Yeah, in a nutshell. In a very large nutshell, that’d be my answer.
Ted: I’m not opposed to putting keyword X into the mix and we will see how it does, but lets let revenue dollars indicate where to spend our time and effort. Some keywords seem great but don’t produce the same return as other keywords. It is more important to grow the business in the areas we find our best returns. Getting the white whale search term would be fun, but lets keep in mind that there is easier revenue we can reach sooner and I would advise targeting those opportunities first.
4. How do you hold yourself accountable with your SEO methods and what are the milestones to that accountability coming into place?
Josh: That’s another very, very good question. Everything I do is from a risk mitigation standpoint. I have said this before in my other videos on my YouTube channel that I use kind of a three levels of evidence. One, did Google recommend that you do this procedure and or did they directly forbade people to do this procedure? Two, have I ever tested this procedure out personally and do I have any anecdotal kind of SEO experimental knowledge on this particular procedure or tactic we’re looking at? Finally three, is there any kind of correlation data that supports whether or not this particular tactic correlates with stronger rankings or correlates with poor rankings? Of course Ted, you and I have talked a lot about the correlation stuff.
Ted: We sure have.
Josh: That’s the kind of philosophy I take in terms of the tactics that I wanted to go and do in terms of my risk mitigation strategy and that’s one of the ways that I hold myself accountable because the opposite is this, is I see a lot of SEO consultants out there who are recommending doing tactics that may have one of these things in the three levels of evidence but they don’t have all three levels of things in the level of evidence. One is a risk from that standpoint alone but even worse it can be against what will help the website.
The other thing I add into that three levels of evidence is typically I would only recommend something that is not also a direct benefit if I know and I’m very confident that Google said not to do this and it doesn’t correlate with rankings and you shouldn’t do this right? For example like improving your title tags to get a better click-through rate. Whether or not click-through rate is a ranking signal and I believe that it is, I think Rand Fishkin has done experiments to show that it is. Miley from Google told me personally that it is.
I think that it is but whether it is or not also if i can improve your click-through rate I can get you more traffic and more sales right now whether or not it’s a ranking signal or not. In a nutshell, this is the way I hold myself accountable is in my philosophy in the way I approach it. It’s what way, we are in the second, we are all seeing the second is that our only undergo and for the most part I will only recommend tactics that I can be very sure that if they are not a direct benefit to you as well regardless if they are a ranking factor or not, like improving your design, improving user interface, getting you more traffic, getting more conversions, getting you more sales, improving your click-through rate on Google whatever.
If I can’t be absolutely certain that that’s the case the only reason why I would have suggested is if I’m pretty sure that Google has said not to do this and it’s a risk and you shouldn’t try it to begin with anyway. That’s the first way I hold myself accountable and I think that’s the most important way that SEO consultants need to hold themselves accountable, is in their risk mitigation strategy. If their strategy is out to lunch to start then you’re already in trouble.
The other way I hold myself accountable is I stick with the client. If they ever have any problems, if they ever have any questions and this has happened before, they can contact me, they can always email me. I will always answer their questions. As long as they are not getting me to do hours and hours of work after the fact I’m more than happy to dip into their webmaster tools and take a look to see what’s going on and give them more further suggestions and recommendations.
This is happened. Clients have come back to me and they’ve said, “Hey Josh, I didn’t want to do it. I did not want to make all those changes to my design. I was kind of annoyed that you told me my design was ugly but I made the changes and now I’m getting more sales, I’m more getting more conversions and my rankings are getting better.” This is kind of the way that I proceed.
Ted: Revenue reporting. Commissions (part of my income is based on performance tiers). Thats how I know I am delivering value to the business and ensure I always produce more than I cost. You can’t even start this style of SEO until you have e-commerce reporting and SEO revenue attribution really dialed in and trustworthy. All the SEO setup work has to be properly completed before this style of SEO and accountability can start.
5. What forces are working against websites in the Google Search results?
Josh: That’s a good question, too. Of course, Google is the main force working against websites, in terms of they’re working against organic search. Even working against websites, because not only are they trying to put more and more out of their own ads above the fold on their search properties over the years. This is a fact. They’re, also, trying to put [inaudible 00:00:26] pad results, which are copied text, little snippets of answers, from websites that they extract, without permission I might add, and put on the Google search pages as well.
I would say people talk about negative SEO, which is … I don’t know if your listeners will be aware. Negative SEO is trying to use tactics to de-rank sites. They’re trying to use tactics to demote the rankings of, presumably, other sites as opposed to positive SEO, which is trying to do tactics to promote the search presence of your sites. People say negative SEO is a big problem. The biggest company that has negative SEO out there is Google, because they control the entire system. They demote far, far, far, more sites than anybody else could possibly demote, because they control the entire thing.
After Google, you’d have to worry about other people trying to play with your rankings or mess with your rankings. It’s very difficult to do. It happens rarely. It does happen, as you and I well know. It does happen fairly rarely. The biggest thing you have to watch out for is the people who control the game, which is the big sites. In this case, Google, but if we’re talking about socially you have to worry about Facebook, Twitter, and things like that, too.
Ted: Pardon the list but it is the easy way for me to answer this question:
Google is pushing organic results below the fold.
Google is reducing the number of organic results on page 1 to 9 for many search terms.
Google has wrapped organic results on three sides with ads that look more and more like organic results.
Google is posting website content in the results.
Google is inserting other channel results into the web results.
Local block is dominating more and more keywords which is favoring local stores over online stores for many search terms.
Google is punishing the medium quality with “Nothing wrong, nothing special” ratings.
and the list goes on and on…
6. What is the scariest part of SEO for you or your clients?
Josh: The scariest part of SEO by far has to be the risk. The risk, reward involved. You spend all this time. You spend all this money, and you have all these hopes. In fact, in some cases, your entire business plan, your entire business model relies on being able to guarantee a traffic channel that you can’t guarantee, and being able to guarantee that you’re going to have high placement in organic search, which you cannot guarantee. There is no certifications for this. There is no industry standard knowledge for this. People will say there is, but there isn’t.
That is completely under someone else’s control, that you cannot contact. You cannot email. You cannot pay them. You cannot get into any kind of agreement with them. It’s a system. You have no control over them. There’s no accountability over Google. There’s no accountability over the Google SERPs. They can do anything they want. They can demote any site they want. They can change the SERPs any way they wish to get rid of any vertical or even entire business market that they want. Any business type that they deem is shouldn’t, and I quote, “Belong on the internet anymore.”
That clearly is going to be the scariest thing in terms of doing SEO. You can spend all this time. You can spend all this money on tactics, and you can do your best guess to what tactics are going to be the safest, and the most powerful, but at the end of the day, it’s just a guess, no matter who says it. You have to put your faith … It’s very faith-based in a way. You have to put your faith that these tactics are at best going to promote you, and hopefully not demote you.
That’s the scariest thing to do, and that’s precisely why risk mitigation is my primary philosophy. In a lot of ways, I don’t do SEO consulting. I don’t do marketing and branding consulting. I do risk mitigation consulting is what I do. That’s why that has to be the primary tactic that every SEO who works for a general run of clients takes.
Ted: Negative SEO. Hands down. Biggest existential threat to online retailers. Googlebot Interruption Attacks are devastating if you can’t block them. Google punishments are weaponized by black hats. In my opinion Google is playing the role of arms dealer and all the pain and frustration just drives people to other channels like PPC which is probably working out well for Google.
7. How do you know that your past experiences and current beliefs about SEO still hold true?
Josh: That’s a really good question too. That’s something that I think each SEO has to make sure that they’re dealing with on a daily basis. If you kind of go a couple of years without rechecking your philosophies and your theories about how SEO works, well, it’s going to pass you by. The web’s going to change and Google’s going to change. They do so many experiments, something like over 500 experiments a year on how to change the rankings and how to make enhancements to the rankings not to mention the fact they’ve now released an artificial intelligence called Rank Brain, which has outperformed their senior search engineers in some cases in predicting search results. It’s a computer. It can make whatever decisions it wants. It’s hard enough to figure out what some other person is thinking. What are those engineers at Google thinking? What are they going to do? Now try and guess what a nonliving entity is going to decide. It can get much more difficult.
To answer the question, again it comes back to those three levels of evidence that I talked about. One, you have to pay very close attention to what Google is saying in their hangouts and in their communications. Go to a conference where there is going to be a Googler there if possible if you can afford it. I find that these conferences, they almost always are a little bit more generous in the information that they leak especially if you approach them in a friendly way. I’ve gotten golden tidbits of knowledge from Google by doing that at least back when they liked me and I didn’t call them out on a regular basis. I think I’ve burned those bridged. You have to pay attention to what they say to do but even more importantly you have to pay attention to what they say not to do and you have to kind of measure that against what’s in their best interest for saying that.
Two, then you have to check your own SEO experiments. At the end of the day you try and rank 10 sites in the year. Did you rank them or not? Are they ranking or not? That’s the main criteria. You have to be honest with yourself and you have to look and say, “Okay, these tactics are working and I was doing these tactics on these sites. Oh but these sites are not ranking so I guess these tactics are not ranking or if they’re not ranking, why are they not ranking?”
Finally, three, again you have to do correlation software reports. You can’t just rely on the SEO Moz surveys, which are essentially, if I understand Moz’s surveys correctly, they’re just asking industry experts so that’s just opinion. That’s like going and asking 100 people on the street how they think gravity works. Scientific knowledge that does not make, right? Even search matrix correlation studies they do on hundreds of thousands of SRPs or 10,000 search result pages, that’s just a generalized approach, which is blending in all the different types of search queries, knowledge based searches, transactional searches, and even navigational searches. That’s going to give you too broad a result as well. You have to do correlation software studies. There’s very powerful correlation software out there and there’s also consultants who can provide that information for you.
Ted may be able to help out with some information there at a later time but you have to do the correlation studies to see what’s going on in your verticals and your search result pages and you have to compare those three levels of evidence. You have to get a check mark … Preferably you get a check mark on all three different things. One, Google says to do it or says not to do it, whatever. Two, your anecdotal experimental knowledge seems to suggest that it’s helping or at least not hurting. Three, it correlates with strong rankings on page 1 and does not correlate with rankings on page 19 or something like that. Then you can say with a pretty good … Four, it doesn’t hurt to tell the client to do this. In fact, it will only help them to make their design better or something like that or at least it doesn’t hurt. There’s no risk for the client to do it. Those are the four things that I would need to be able to say that it’s worth doing and that’s how I would proceed to make sure that my knowledge is still accurate and useful for people.
Ted: I don’t rely on past SEO experiences. They have always let me down. Instead I measure what appears to be working today and make educated guesses that are better than most because they are backed by empirical data and methods. I get better results than the others I’ve seen because I don’t rely on unproven advice that keeps reappearing in blog posts year after year. There is a phenomenon where people think that since everybody keeps saying it that it must be true. Experimentation has shown me that is usually not the case.
8. What are some of the SEO experiments you have conducted in the past year?
Josh: Let me see. Which ones can I admit to? Because there’s always a lot of experiments that you’re running that you might not want to publicly admit that you’re doing. No negative SEO, I assure you, because I don’t want to bother with that. Definitely I’m running quite a lot of experiments when it comes to the SERP and click percentages and click rates and things like that. I’m testing fairly extensively in there to see what, if anything, Google is tracking, and how good they are at detecting paid traffic and blocked traffic and things like that.
Quite frankly, every single time I SEO a site, I’m running experiments. You’ve got to do it that way. You’ve got to pay attention to what you’re doing. Every time we optimize a site, we have to test to see how well things are going also, again, just to make sure that your knowledge base, your picture of how Google ranks, is even remotely accurate or accurate enough to sell this knowledge to clients. We’re also doing experiments into social as well. Social has been for a long time the next big thing, but people have had trouble monopolizing on social, not only in terms of getting it to be some kind of positive ranking signal for Google, but just in terms of developing it as a channel in and of itself. We’re running lots of experiments in social as well. How to make the best, cheapest, but highest quality viral content. How to get more clicks. How to improve traffic and throughput on those kinds of things. Adoption, Likes, and things like that, all those kinds of things.
You always have to be learning. You always have to be doing experiments. If you’re not, you shouldn’t be in this industry.
Ted: Overcoming several kinds of negative SEO attacks. Disproved placing content closer to the top of a page influences rankings. Understanding keyword stuffing has interesting implications. Last year I proved social signals had no effect on rankings. Currently I’d have to say that it looks like that may be changing now. Something interesting keeps popping up with H4 tags… they keep correlating stronger than the other headings in a lot of searches. I’m not sure why that is or what that means.
Question 9: What advice do you have for SEO Interviewers and Interviewees?
Josh: The advice for the first people is, hire me. No, I’m just kidding. My advice for the first people is, you have to go on those 3 levels of evidence and then you have to judge based on those 3 levels of evidence, and how careful of a risk mitigator they are. That is the key, because at the end of the day, I have studied different SEO ideas from YouDo. I like to think we’re both intelligent people and we’re both conscientious people and we both look at the data very carefully, but we still come up with different, not very different but slightly different SEO methodologies and pictures. The question is, well why is this? Well it’s very simple, it’s because it’s human nature, and our slightly different experience. My point is, is that you’re going to have that happen no matter how good your intentions and no matter how similar the conditions are.
Then the thing is to keep in mind is that then you have to take a risk mitigation strategy, right. Because at the end of the day nobody knows except for Google, and most people who work at Google don’t even know. Their own artificial intelligence is predicting search 10 percent better than they are, so even they don’t know so much any more what ranking factors are being tracked and to what degree. You have to take a risk mitigation strategy, and so when you’re selecting an SEO, that’s what you need to do. You need to listen to what it is they say and what it is they do and the process they take to make sure that they are going to give you the best solutions that are not also going to risk your rankings and your business plan.
For SEOs who want to answer good questions for SEO interviews I would say the exact same thing, because at the end of the day that’s the most important thing. SEOs are kind of like doctors, we have to take the Hippocratic Oath, right. Our first philosophy should be “do no harm.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come into this where big, big clients, clients who make like half a million dollars a month online, no joke, clients who make half a million dollars a month online or just organic revenue alone, come to me and say, “Well we want to change our design, we want to change this, we want to change that.” My answer is, “Well why? Why? It’s not broken, don’t try and fix it. Why do you want to make these changes? Why do you want to change your URLs, why do you want to switch to HTTPS, why do you want to change your design? You do realize you could mess up the entire thing.”
Risk mitigation, I know I’m sounding like a broken record but quite frankly it’s that important, risk mitigation is the most important thing. You have to take kind of like a doctor’s approach and to not make any changes. I don’t mean like a plastic surgeon approach either. You have to take a doctor’s approach, where you don’t want to make any changes unless it is absolutely necessary. It is not absolutely necessary unless there’s some important things that are going on.
If you’re trying to apply for an SEO job, that’s the kind of approach you should take. You say, “Listen, I go for the 4 levels of … I have the 4 levels of SEO philosophy, right. I listen to everything that Google says, what to do and not to do, and I listen to that with a critical mind and realize what out of that they’re saying that could be self-serving. 2, I have lots of SEO experiments and I read SEO experiments and I try and keep that in mind about what seems to be working and what doesn’t seem to be working. 3, I have correlation software, I know how to use correlation software. I can do massive correlation reports to see in all of our verticals what’s correlating with rankings on page 1 and what’s correlating with ranking on page 19, i.e. where you don’t want to rank. Then finally, 4, out of all that, I do no harm, right. I mean I take … I’m only going to suggest things that are only going to help the website. Even if it’s not a ranking factor at all, at least it’s going to help us convert more so you get more traffic there, it’s going to make things better, it’s going to make things more technically sound, you know, etcetera etcetera.
I mean that is the answer for both questions. That’s what people should be looking for and that’s what people should say I do, because at the end of the day that’s the most important thing. At least in my opinion.
Ted: Now if people wanted to learn more about your style of SEO, is there a good resource for that?
Josh: Yeah, I mean, as I said, I have a YouTube channel where I put up free videos, where I ramble on like this on a regular basis so if you don’t have quite enough rambling or ranting in your life, go to my YouTube channel at YouTube.com/jbachyns. In fact I just put a video out on, every year I put a video out on how to rank for that year, for 2016 and I just put it out. It’s all about rank brain and the clicks they’re tracking and stuff like that so go check it out.