What it’s Like to be… an SEO Strategy Lead

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I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about what I want to be when I grow up* and I realised I really enjoyed making my How To Get A Job series last year – and that recruitment is a pretty interesting subject.

With this in mind, I wanted to go a little further down this rabbit hole and look into the different areas of work people can go into. I had a fairly rural upbringing and when I was a kid, everyone’s parents were very basic jobs – teachers, secretaries, police officers etc. I look at my friends now and realise that I have so many people doing really amazing things, so I decided to question them!

Over the next few weeks I’ll be publishing the results every Wednesday. If you’d like to join in and answer the questions, please let me know!

First up we have a friend of mine who works in SEO. Through blogging I have some idea into what someone can do with it, but I really enjoyed knowing more about what my friend does. If you have any questions for them, please write them in the comments and I’ll pass them on!

*Shut up, I know I’m nearly 30…

What is your job title?

SEO Strategy Lead

What does that actually involve? What do you spend most of your workday doing?
If you don’t already know, SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation, so the aim of my job is to get my clients website ranking higher in search engines for certain keywords.

I am in an odd position in that I don’t actually have anyone else working under me at the moment, which would normally be the case for a role like mine, so most of my working days are spent doing mundane things like writing meta data, running technical audits, mapping redirects for sites that are being migrated and reporting, but I also have to do more high-level tasks like plan the next few months’ activity and work out how much we can do with the budget we have, forecasting traffic, and having status calls and meetings with clients.

Also, working at an agency means we do a lot of pitches for new business, so we will have to put together a presentation to show a company who is looking for an agency how innovative and exciting we are. It’s basically like sending a CV out for a job, but a lot more desperate 🙂 It’s quite fun, as it breaks up the monotony of the regular tasks and if you win you usually get champagne! I’ve presented at a few pitches as well, which used to be nerve-wracking, but it’s fine now. Once you realise that most people have no idea what you do, you realise how easy it is to impress them.

Did you always want to do this as a job? If not, why did you come to do it? 

No! I don’t think anyone sets out to become an SEO, haha! After studying advertising and media at university I initially wanted to go into advertising and had a few interviews at various agencies, but I was very quiet (still am) and apparently not really ‘right’ for the industry. I gave up on that and had a brief stint selling advertising space in a magazine (cold calling) before working as a waitress/barista for about 2 years. While I was working in the cafe at the British Library I got more interested in the web and started to teach myself web design with Dreamweaver, then pure HTML and CSS, and built a load of websites. My mum very kindly offered to pay for me to do a course at Birkbeck University so I could get a web design qualification, which I did in the evenings after work. Part of that course was a unit of SEO, which I thought was a nice mix of marketing and web design, so I bought some books and taught myself the basics of that at home.

I was reading one of these books in a quiet period at the cafe and I got chatting to one of the IT guys from the library. I think he must have suggested I email the library to see if I could get work experience – I’m not sure if the idea came from him or somewhere else, but that’s what I did. I had a kind of mini interview with the woman in charge of the library website’s design and user experience and worked with her on a few of my days off. Despite being 21 and having no experience at all, she let me make working HTML wireframes for the section of the site she was developing and then we presented them to some other stakeholders at the library.

From that, I got a nice LinkedIn reference and something relevant to put on my CV and I got an entry level SEO job at a gambling firm. That didn’t last long, but it was another step towards my first agency job, where I worked for over 2 years. I’ve jumped around a bit and have worked at 4 different agencies and 1 client-side role, but I’m really happy at the agency I’m with now.

How did you get to do your job? For example, did you train? Do internships? Did you take exams? What did you have to study at school/uni to do your job?

I think I’ve answered all this above, but I should mention that things are a lot different now and information about SEO is a lot easier to find. They might even cover it in school computer lessons – I’m not sure – but the most important thing, I think, is to get real-life experience. SEO is one of those things that you can’t learn by reading, you have to actually do it. I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t bought ‘SEO for Dummies’ and built myself lots of crappy websites in my living room.

If you wanted to, where could you move to from this job? What could you progress to?

The usual route is to become a Head of Search, which encompasses both SEO and PPC (pay-per-click) and also now, sometimes, social media. Then you would become something like Head of Digital, which would also include things like email marketing, display advertising, etc. It depends on the size of the agency though, and in a client-side role you would probably go on to be Head or Marketing  or something similar.

I could see myself being Head of Search, but other areas of marketing don’t interest me, so I’m not sure if I would want to progress past that.

Thankfully, there are lots of other things that exist now that didn’t a few years ago, like social media and content marketing, so I could potentially move into those if I wanted to, although I enjoy the technical aspect of SEO the most, so I wouldn’t want to stop doing that. Analytics is another area that is growing and is very technical, although I don’t have the patience for it most of the time!

Being honest, what’s the worst part of your job? What’s the best?

The worst part, for me personally, is that I am basically doing two roles, so I have to do all the boring, repetitive things as well as the top-level management things. The boring tasks are things I mentioned earlier – writing meta data for hundreds of pages, reporting, redirects, etc. I don’t mind doing them per se, but sometimes one task like this can be huge and take a couple of days, so it feels like a huge cloud over my head that is stopping me from getting other things done.

Also, clients (and colleagues, actually) ask a lot of stupid questions that could be answered with a quick Google search. I don’t mind helping people most of the time, but sometimes I feel like banging my head repeatedly on my desk. On the flip-side, it can be nice to be the go-to person for all the questions, as it means people appreciate my knowledge, and it makes me feel valuable to the company.

One thing I really like is solving problems, so getting a new client and figuring out all the issues with the site and how to fix them is something I love doing. Then, when everything you’ve planned goes ahead, your recommendations are actually implemented and you start to see results, it can be really rewarding. It’s much nicer to have status calls with clients when you have good news!

How is the work/life balance? Do you often have to do overtime?

At the moment I have a great balance because I don’t let myself stay late or get bogged down. At the other agencies I worked at I used to regularly stay late to get things done before the end of the day, but I try to avoid it now. We don’t get paid for it, so unless it’s going to directly affect someone else, I don’t see the point in being stressed. Having said that, work has peaks and troughs and sometimes there just isn’t enough time in the day. I prefer to start earlier than work late though, my evenings are precious to me!

Pitches often involve staying later at the office though and that’s fine, because we all do it as a team together. It’s not one person being lumped with a ton of work.

People who are newer to the industry will often stay late to try and impress the bosses (I know I used to) and it’s sad, but it’s probably necessary if you want to be promoted. If you treat it like a 9-5 then you can coast along and be fine, but you probably won’t get many opportunities to work on exciting projects or move up within the company.

How would you describe the kind of people who are in the same field as you? Are they a good bunch to work alongside? 

I am the only SEO in my company, so the only other SEOs I know are ones I worked with at other places. Everyone’s pretty nice, I’ve made some good friends and conferences are fun to bump into everyone again. It’s hard to find an SEO who isn’t a bit ‘geeky’ (I hate that word), so most of us will build websites in our spare time or be really into gaming and technology.

In terms of the people I work with now, my team is great. We are a mixture of SEO, PPC and social media and it probably helps we are all women, which is unusual for a search team. I am least girly of everyone though, so I often find myself involved in conversations about makeup and skin care, which I find difficult to contribute to 🙂

Agencies always have dickheads though. ALWAYS. There are people who are literally just idiots who have somehow found themselves in charge of things. These people have sometimes been my direct boss, so I didn’t stay long at those places as it’s impossible to enjoy work when your boss has no idea what they are doing. That’s not the case now though, thankfully, although there are a few of them about. You just have to learn how to deal with them and avoid them wherever possible.

On a scale of 1 – 10, how would you rate the salary and benefits that come from your job? (1 being the worst and 10 being amazing)

Currently, I would say about 6 or 7. I get paid well and am told we get a small bonus in the new year but our office is a bit crappy and we don’t get a pension. I get 20 days holiday a year, including Christmas, which isn’t as good as I’ve had before. In bigger agencies you can get amazing benefits, like a pension, free meals, 25 days holiday a year, an allowance to spend on personal development, etc. It’s a good industry for salaries overall, I make more than most people my age.

Finally, what advice would you give to someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?

Learn by doing!

I can’t tell you the amount of people I’ve interviewed for entry-level SEO jobs who have just parroted answers they have memorised the night before with no understanding of how websites work. I would rather hire someone who only knew 20% of the answers but who had a bit of basic experience in building their own site or blog, or who had tried out some free SEO tools to see what they do. Qualifications aren’t even important (Although you probably won’t get far without any, that’s how the world works unfortunately).

Also, don’t be a dickhead.

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