Demand for digital marketing skills is exploding and there are opportunities for people with the right skills to rise to greatness within as little as 5 years. Far from being dead… yet again… SEO is perhaps the most fascinating digital discipline of all.
But little has been written about the skills needed to pursue a successful SEO career and this infographic is designed to fill that void. A clear understanding of the SEO skill-set can help aspiring SEO professionals plan their development. It can also support senior executives seeking to increase revenue from organic search (with $0.00 Cost Per Click!)
SEO has the ability to deliver a huge commercial impact and a strong ROI. Content-driven campaigns can be compelling and fun to work on – and they have the potential to drive value in a range of other channels, from PPC to social media to referral traffic and even offline.
These are the 16 key skills necessary for success at each key section or stage in your SEO career. The score out of 10 provides an indication of the relative level of skill necessary at each level:
Few individuals have what it takes to excel in more than one or two these areas and people who can excel in several of them can be very valuable to business organisations. You can use this resource like a check-list, to identify skill gaps in order to fill them with training and experience.
The 16 Fundamental SEO Skills Are:
- Communication and people
- PR and publicity
- Link acquisition (other activities)
- Creativity / ideas
- Social media
- Leadership and management
- Commercial / financial
- Web / technical
After sheer intellect and communication skills, I would rate the ability to write, recognise and proof read excellent copy as the most important and fundamental SEO skill of all.
Some of these skills are very broad and could be further segmented. In particular, PR and publicity, Content and Link acquisition are of paramount importance and can be broken down into several distinct and important skills. Some of these may require separate specialist roles within the SEO team – or even an external supplier (particularly in the case of video, animation, CGI and interactive content).
Because content and link acquisition skills are of fundamental importance to SEO I have segmented them into their main components here:
- PR and publicity
- Content placement
- Competitor link analysis
- Converting brand mentions to links
- Broken link re-purposing
- Acquisition of brand mentions, nofollow links and co-citations/co-occurrence (it’s not all about links)
- (A wide range of other link acquisition skills)
(As you can see, there is overlap between the skills and their subsets – a sign of the integrated nature of SEO).
Expertise in each of the 16 skills will become increasingly important as your career in SEO progresses. The first few skills on the list are likely to be important from the earliest stages of your career and the last few may only become important towards the pinnacle of your career within SEO. A successful SEO professional needs to be able to write excellent copy and to recognise, plan and contribute ideas towards engaging and shareable content. That is the foundation of any successful SEO or content marketing campaign.
Below are the three main types of role that feature in a typical SEO career path over time. A score out of 10 indicates the relative level of skill that may be needed for each skill type for that level/role:
- Communication and people (6/10)
- Content (6/10)
- PR and publicity (5/10)
- Outreach (6/10)
- Link acquisition (other activities) (6/10)
- Creativity / ideas (6/10)
- Social media (6/10)
- Analytical (6/10)
An SEO Executive might have been hired as a graduate trainee or even an intern and may have had previous junior roles or internships. Indeed, internships can provide an excellent way to develop fundamental SEO skills at the start of your career in order to significantly increase your employability. The best interns will often be earmarked for succession to a junior SEO role – most likely SEO Executive.
The executive’s skills could be regarded as the fundamental building blocks of an SEO career and they are likely to remain constant throughout your career.
You can also clearly see how additional layers of skill bricks are added as you ascend the ladder of success. In general, the depth of each skill needs to increase with career progression. Indeed, your development needs to develop even more rapidly than your career development.
Within the spheres of creativity and content, the ability to write or at least recognise excellent copy stand out as one of the most essential skills for beginning and continuing a successful SEO career. Every team and ideally every individual in the team should have the potential to be a first class communicator and an excellent writer.
Exec-level skills may be spread across multiple individuals and some may require advanced knowledge. For example, a content or social media executive may need advanced graphic design skills, or specialist knowledge of social media tactics. (Of course social media posts, and even graphics, probably require good copy to be written).
The SEO exec’s next career move might be SEO Account Manager within an agency, or SEO Manager client-side.
SEO Account Manager / Director (agency) or SEO Manager (client)
- Communication and people (9/10)
- Content (8/10)
- PR and publicity (6/10)
- Outreach (8/10)
- Link acquisition (other activities) (8/10)
- Creativity / ideas (8/10)
- Social media (8/10)
- Analytical (8/10)
- Leadership and management (7/10)
- Commercial / financial (7/10)
- Web / technical (7/10)
- Planning (7/10)
- Integration (7/10)
- Strategy (7/10)
As an SEO manager or account manager you need deeper knowledge. You also need to become more strategic and more managerial.
At director or Account Director level, slightly higher scores are necessary – particularly for the higher-level skills (from Strategy to Leadership and management). But the actual skill set is basically the same.
Building and managing relationships is fundamental – and becomes increasingly essential as your career progresses.For an agency account manager, communication and people skills may be of paramount importance, because building strong relationships is is key. But for a client-side SEO manager, these soft skills are important for playing an effective role within the chain of command, with clear 360 degree communication.
The scores for PR and content are lower than might be expected – that is because the role is more strategic in nature. It is likely that tactical specialists, such as designers, PRs and outreach professionals would undertake the tactical work, with direction and strategy from the manager/director.
The logical agency career path at this level would be Account Manager, Account Director and then Head of SEO. For client-side professionals the path might be SEO Manager, followed by SEO Director.
Head of SEO (agency) or SEO Director (client)
- Communication and people (10/10)
- Content (8/10)
- PR (8/10)
- Outreach (10/10)
- Link acquisition (other activities) (10/10)
- Creativity / ideas (9/10)
- Social media (10/10)
- Analytical (10/10)
- Leadership and management (9/10)
- Commercial / financial (9/10)
- Web / technical (9/10)
- Integration (9/10)
- Planning (9/10)
- Strategy (9/10)
- HR (8/10)
- Entrepreneurship (8/10)
Whether agency-side or clients-side, the leader of the SEO function is a professional at the top of her/his game.
As you can see, the skill set at the top level does not actually differ radically from the skill set at Account Manager/Director level. But greater depth of skill is needed across the entire skill spectrum and the difference in experience between an Account Manager and the Head of SEO can be substantial. The top-level SEO leader really needs to have mastered most or all of the necessary skills over an SEO career spanning at least 5 years. (Again, the scores for PR and content are lower than might be expected because the role is much more strategic in nature and specialists will be employed).
But I think that what separates a Head of SEO from mid-level managers is an entrepreneurial flair, combined with an HR mindset (particularly within an agency setting where the average team size tends to be larger and to have more layers). The ability to recognise, recruit, retain, lead and manage exceptional individuals is essential for building and maintaining effective teams – and in larger teams, succession planning becomes a key component of the role.
Success as a Head/Director of SEO requires enhanced commercial and people skills and the ability to communicate very effectively, along with the confidence to pitch and sell to C-suite executives, both internally and externally. SEO is important enough to be high on the agenda of the CEO and the board and yet often it is not. If an SEO leader cannot push organic search up towards the top of the agenda then they will be unable to move strategically important keywords towards the top of Google search results because buy-in is needed across functions and at all levels. It is necessary for the Head to see the bigger picture and to serve as the point of integration across channels and campaigns.
The top-level SEO leader is a passionate entrepreneur, building the department in much the same way that a typical entrepreneur builds the business. With ownership of profit and loss, at this level it is necessary to innovate, to disrupt and to take on financial and operational risks. Such a person is probably quite a visible force for growth in revenue and profit within the organisation – and a budding business powerhouse (perhaps with CEO potential). Logical next career steps for the Head of SEO might include Head of Digital within a brand or CEO of a digital agency. (However, sitting at the top of his game, having built a great team and with a constant supply of challenges from clients and from Google, a good Head is unlikely to change roles without a particularly compelling reason).
Deepening Your SEO Skills
As discussed above, the SEO skills mix varies at each step on the SEO career ladder. But it is good planning for all professionals, at every level, to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses and particularly to identify and bridge their skills gaps. Novices, such as graduates and interns, should set their sights high and start to think strategically about the competencies that they will need to develop in the long-term. Even senior SEO professionals will benefit from consciously revisiting the skills matrix, focussing on opportunities for improvement with a training plan. Personal development is something that every serious professional needs to take personal responsibility for.
Titles vary somewhat from organisation to organisation, but, in line with the example job titles suggested above, most SEO teams and career paths are divided into 3 sections or stages:
2. Manager/Account Manager/Senior Account Manager and Director/Account Director
3. Head of SEO
Although both an exec. and a department head need strong communication skills, people skills and content skills, the depth of expertise required varies significantly. The nature of the work can vary significantly too, from basic, tactical and hands-on, to high-level and strategic.
To illustrate this point, the Head of SEO is unlikely to be manually engaged in outreach. But they need to have a sound understanding of outreach, in order to explain it to senior stakeholders and to mobilise resources appropriately. It is necessary to possess deep knowledge of how content and outreach work, both as standalone activities and in synergy.
The manager operating at advanced level clearly has a deeper SEO knowledge than an executive – but they will tend to use their knowledge to delegate and manage more effectively, with greater visibility of the over-arching strategy. Without deep awareness of tactics, it is not possible to formulate effective strategies.
(The principle difference between an Account Manager and an Account Director, other than depth of skills and experience, is that an Account Director might look after more and/or larger clients and would tend to liaise with clients at a more senior level).
The level of expertise needed in each role will also vary depending on the structure and composition of individual teams – but essentially the level of any given skill required in any given role will be one of the following:
i. Basic and hands-on
In general, the level of skill required at exec. level will be basic, with account managers needing advanced skills and heads of department needing a high/strategic level of knowledge and involvement.
The necessary skills vary across the thee key stages – although you will notice that some skills are fundamental and remain constant. Those skills should be the focus for development over the long-term (especially for people in the early stages of their career.
The fundamental SEO skill set will continue to evolve over time – and I hope to update this content if necessary. But I think it will remain relevant for many years to come.
Not all SEO skills can be learned. Some are talents that come naturally only to a few, whereas some can be developed naturally with training and experience. The SEO skills-set overlaps and inter-relates and works together and each skill is important in its own way.
Properly understanding the SEO set will not only help you to develop yourself as a professional. It will also enable you to think strategically, as a leader and manager and the architect of successful teams.
So, if you are a senior manager seeking to build a team or hire an excellent agency, then I hope that this graphic and the accompanying article will help you to understand what it takes to succeed with organic search.
And if you are pursuing, or considering a career in SEO then you have an exciting journey ahead – and there is plenty of demand for the skills that you will develop along the way. Good luck…