Growing as an SEO (2/4) – Levels & Seniority in SEO Roles
Since I’ve joined RVshare, I needed to think a lot about these questions (again): what people do I need to hire? What experience level do they need to be at? This made me reflect back on hiring for my teams at Postmates and The Next Web and my views on different levels in certain functions. As my background is, mostly, in SEO I started to think about what levels I would form within a big SEO team and what their differences are. This is my first attempt at this framework and part of the series about growing as an SEO, the previous blog post talked about how to write a proper job description for an SEO role.
In this blog post I want to talk more about the different seniority levels, what do they mean? What kind of role are you looking for: specialist or generalist? What level are they at? And what kind of levels do you need for your own team and what might be the different responsibilities for the different roles and how do they change (over time).
Generalist versus Specialist
Are you a smaller or bigger company and how big is your SEO team? What are you really looking for on your team? What is your own background? Do you know enough about SEO yourself to successfully guide & lead an SEO person?
You’ve probably heard of the idea behind a T-shaped role. Do you expect somebody to know a lot in one specific area (specialist) or do you want that person also to know a lot about the other areas that have a relation with SEO. This visual is just the tip of the iceberg o other skills that you can expect from an SEO.
I started myself as a generalist in my career, like most people. Back then, Springest had a need for traffic acquisition and I worked on their SEO, Affiliate Marketing and later on their Paid Acquisition (mainly Adwords). Next, to that, I worked a lot with Google Analytics to learn more about the keywords that were driving performance (this was before ‘not provided’ got introduced).
Mostly in smaller organizations, I see marketing leaders or founders hire for this type of person. In most companies, you early on need somebody to test the waters for all the channels and need to be able to manage more than just one thing. SEO isn’t usually the fastest growing channel for a company as it takes a while. That has a huge impact on why there aren’t a ton of people with a dedicated focus on SEO in most startups.
Later on, when I left Springest and joined The Next Web I was much more of a specialist. I focused solely on SEO, although later on, I added analytics and CRO (all before I lead their Marketing team). This meant that I needed to be proficient in all the areas that were part of SEO: technical SEO, content (we had tons of editors to work with) and figure out how to build out our authority at a big scale. All this type of work was very much only focused on SEO and didn’t have much impact on other channels.
Most SEO roles these days that I see are similar, they’re usually part of a digital marketing team and/or are the only person on the team with a dedicated focus on SEO to help that channel. They have often contact with a product manager. Marketing manager and the needed people focused on content, design, and development. But they’re the ones driving the specific roadmap for SEO.
Individual Contributor (IC) & Management (M) Roles
Not everybody is a generalist or a specialist, neither is everybody a manager or wants to focus on just one discipline. But for most people, it makes sense to belong to a specific ladder.
Individual Contributor Roles in SEO
With most companies, you’ll start at the bottom of the totem pole when you start your career in SEO. Most people will start right around the title of SEO Associate or SEO Specialist at the beginning of their career and work their way up the ladder. After a while, most of them will need to make the decision to either continue to be an Individual Contributor (IC) or move into the role of manager where they start managing (or better: leading) people.
- SEO Internship: We all need to build up experience and what better way to do that than with an internship/apprenticeship. This role will usually get the support of the SEO team while you learn how SEO works. Most people that I’ve seen enter this role have a passion for online marketing and are studying something in a related field (or totally not, sometimes even better). You’re never long in this role (at most 5 months), you either tend to like or not so you can move up on the SEO ladder.
- SEO Associate: In some cases, this role comes in between an internship and having the title SEO Specialist. This usually happens within enterprises where you’re dealing with bigger SEO teams. There is not a ton of difference between the role of an SEO Specialist and the SEO Associate. But usually, SEO specialists tend to have a little bit more of experience (1-2 years as a maximum). They’re starter positions and sometimes the titles are intertwined.
- (Senior) SEO Specialist: For most people, this is where they’ll start, the SEO Specialist. I’ve been and done there myself when I joined TNW this was my job title. I was the only person on the Marketing & Sales department dealing with SEO and was answering to the (at the time) CMO. This meant that I was working on all the aspects of SEO and was working with a development. When you’re getting more experience and depending on the size of the organization and HR structure it could be that you get the title Senior SEO Specialist after a while to claim the more experience that you have.
- (Senior) SEO Manager: You’re growing, you’re basically now sort of managing the SEO process and you’re not answering usually to somebody who’s leading the SEO team anymore. You’re the one in charge of SEO but you’re not leading anybody specifically on the SEO team itself.
- (Senior) Head of SEO: The highest level that I usually see on SEO teams as an Individual Contributor. It makes it that you’re not managing other people but work deeply on SEO and have the fundamental knowledge and resources around you to manage the whole process from start to finish. There isn’t a ton of companies that I know that are able to support this role as in most companies they’ll require you to become a manager.
Management Roles in SEO
Some people chose to go the route of the manager, they want to lead a team and be responsible for multiple people. This is where management & leadership skills are becoming more important as they’re not working 100% of their time hands-on on SEO anymore.
- SEO Team Lead: This role likely makes sense by reading the job title. You’re part of a small SEO team and you’re the lead. I like to apply this seniority level on a team when it’s small and the ‘manager’ isn’t very experienced yet as a leader. It’s usually the case when they have moved over from the level of SEO Specialist and you decide to hire another SEO Specialist. Somebody has to lead the wolf pack and decide on a strategy. If the 1st SEO person has the ambition to step over to a more managerial role over time, this is a good start.
- (Senior) SEO Manager: You’re managing the SEO team and you work with some people outside your own team to get things done. Usually, the case when you’re part of a bigger Growth or Marketing team and you’re the one deciding on what work is important to help the bigger team achieve its goals.
- Director of SEO: You can strategically think about SEO and you’re part of a bigger organization. That’s what my last title was at Postmates. Our overall Growth organization of which we were part of was around 50 people and we had multiple Directors of different functions (Growth Product, Growth Engineering, Paid Acquisition, etc.) report into our VP of Growth. You lead a team that can also work cross-functionally with other teams within and outside the same group.
- VP of SEO: Likely the highest seniority title that I’ve seen in SEO for in-house was that of VP of SEO. There are a few companies, mainly in the United States, that use that title. They’re enterprise companies (in all cases that I’ve seen at least). Where they differ from a Director of SEO role is that they’re focused on the bigger picture. They lead a team that is usually 1.5-2 times as big as the level lower and are responsible for just more than SEO. A position like this is usually also heavily involved in functions like Public Relations, Brand Marketing, and Content Creation depending on where that might live in the rest of the organization.
‘Global … Head of SEO’ – Global companies & reflecting this on titles
Through Twitter (@micahfk) reached out, with a good point about the title: “Global Head of SEO”. I’ve seen this level a few times myself as well and I agree with his point that this title can in most cases have more weight than a title on a Director level. In companies at scale, there will be a global team managing all of the enterprises’ SEO strategy where on the local level (usually countries or regions) teams will work on the local execution (and often strategy). They’ll have similar titles, but usually, the people who will head up a Global team will rank higher on the organizational chart.
This framework is simplified and not perfect. It’s a first shot at assessing what roles there are in an SEO function from an in-house point of view. As I’ve never worked with/for an agency I’m sure their views on this would be different, I won’t blog about that. It’s up for grabs for somebody who has extensively worked on that side of the fence.
Work in Progress: This blog post is a work in progress. I hope to extend it over the upcoming weeks with more information on the responsibilities and areas that the different roles work on.
Growing as an SEO
In this series I’ve also blogged about:
- Growing as an SEO (¼) – Writing better job descriptions for SEO roles.
- The next post will cover the topic of training & personal development for SEOs.