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SEOMoz has just published an article about hiring SEOs with advice from some of the top agencies.
While I'd agree with those polled that hiring with the 'heart' or from gut instinct about a person's ability to fit into the team and learn quickly. I'd also agree that the key skills we look for in an SEO are the desire and ability to continue to learn and develop, to enjoy the changing nature of the industry, an analytical mind and a knack for problem-solving, and an understanding of how websites work and how people use them - I would disagree that a good SEO does nothing but SEO all the time, day and night.
This collection of wisdom, in particular, irritated me:
"Someone who owns and runs a successful site of their own is highly likely to have developed SEO skills beyond that of an SEO with no sites at all." - Richard Baxter
Yes, Richard, I'd agree, for someone coming to us at entry-level, having a website or two can provide an edge over other candidates as it shows a level of curiousity and can provide some much-needed knowledge and experience. For someone experienced who has been in an agency environment for a few years and has worked on a range of sites, this isn't particularly important as they'll have probably seen more different SEO issues and challenges than someone having a blog or two, or a few affiliate sites. It also means there's no chance they'll be in competition with any of our clients or us (or trying to sell their own services on the sly to competitors of our clients). There's also less chance they'll leave in 6 months to pursue freelance work or because they're now earning enough off their own websites to pack in their jobs.
"Any experienced SEO should be able to show sites they have set up even if they are low quality affiliate sites." - Patrick Altoft
Why? I mean really, why? Yeah over the course of my career I've had blogs and helped friends and family with their websites; but I spend my workdays behind a computer, I prefer to spend my evenings weekends being a bit more active. Besides, what does having low-quality affiliate sites show beyond a lack of understanding of how to do things right?
"I want to see what the candidate does online from 5 to 9, not from 9 to 5." - Russ Jones
Again - would you rather have a candidate who works on SEO all day in the office and then does SEO all night, or would you rather have an SEO who does really great client work in the office and then is engaged with the world and people outside the industry in their spare time? The latter will do better dealing with clients and understanding a range of different businesses and their markets and the issues they face. They'll probably be more interesting people too. I think you'll also find that people with varied offline interests and hobbies are better at coming up with creative content and linkbuilding ideas because they have more experience from which to draw.
"If you don't own your own sites, you should still be involved in SEO networking events or online communities." - Rob Kerry
So either you spend your spare time building websites, or you spend your spare time with other SEOs, otherwise you're not worth hiring? Frankly, I don't care if job candidates are actively involved in SEO forums or spend their time tweeting at other SEOs provided they remain up to date with industry changes and can adapt.
I'd rather have someone who can learn off their own back, has good ideas, can go off and find solutions to problems and who just wants to come into work and deliver for our clients, than someone who desperately wants to be an SEO rockstar. The former will do great work for us. The latter probably won't be loyal to the company or our clients when something better comes along and will be more interested in their own development and notoriety than in doing a good job for us.
I think there's this extremely damaging misconception in SEO that if you aren't outspoken on SEO sites or on social media, and if people don't know your name, then you must not know much about SEO. I'd argue to the contrary - there's a lot of amazing SEO consultants doing good work who are more interested in the quality of what they deliver to their clients and employers than in glory or fame within a rather fickle SEO community.
I'd even go so far as to say that you may find some of the best SEO consultants are the ones who are busy working long hours at their jobs, who probably read some industry blogs, keep an eye on Twitter and a wealth of RSS feeds for anything else they may find useful and who stay out of the ebb and flow of the communities. These are the guys I'm trying to drive out of the woodwork when I hire because they're inevitably the ones who will be with us for the long haul, as they're the ones devoted to our company and our clients, not to their own fame or pocketbooks.