How to Become a Senior Agency SEO
Updated: Feb 21
The SEO industry is a great place for sharing thoughts on how deliver better campaigns. We get less content around career development though. Hints on skill gaps identification or what "good" looks like is lacking. Graphs moving up & to the right are more universal in their appeal.
Spurred on by Tom Critchlow's new SEO MBA Newsletter I've compiled my thoughts around career development agency side. The skills you need if you're looking to become a senior SEO.
How to Use this List
If you read this and think "shit, I can't do all that" don't worry, that was exactly my feeling whilst collating these.
This list could be utilised to plan development, write job descriptions or inform appraisals. This is not exhaustive or definitive. But I plan to develop it further.
If you read this and think "shit, I can't do all that" don't worry, that was exactly my feeling...
Every agency is different. The skills you need are dependent on clients, industry, team size and structure. Some of the skills won't be as useful to you and I'll have missed some specifics from here for sure.
I hope you can use this as a sounding board for your own skills. A help when you need to have a word with yourself. Or others.
BUT don't use this as something to kick someone else's ass. Constructive development only please.
Key Skills for a Senior SEO
These are the skills which are important for any senior SEO (Agency or Client-side).
An SEO skills list without mentioning SEO Tools, Python or Excel skills...
We're going to assume that a strong knowledge of SEO is a given, a risky assumption, but even a mid-level SEO need this. There's a great resource here from Aleyda which should help you backfill a lot of that information.
Can put technical issues into context. You can understand & appraise the impact and prioritise the steps to remedy them. (Stephen Kenwright uses a system I like, called PIE for this)
You have the super-power of being able to get changes implemented. Which is as much a diplomatic skillset as it is a technical one!
The ability to distill complex documents into concise ones. This requires clear recommendations and storytelling. (Some great hints here)
The realisation that not everyone is as interested in SEO as they are (!!)
Can identify the level of knowledge in a room and can adapt communication style.
Understands where the usual problems with CMS and web-technology lie. Can route out the most probable cause of a problem without having to audit a system for days/weeks.
Knows where other channels impact and influence organic search. For example relation between paid/organic channels. How affiliate schemes can impact SEO campaigns.
Is able to understand (or uncover) the goals of key project members (not just stakeholders).
Can be credible and compelling when sharing ideas. Whether on teleconferences, meetings or pitches this skill will cement your progression.
An SEO skills list without mentioning SEO Tools, Python or Excel skills... I hope you don't think that makes it deficient.
Senior SEOs have to think beyond how they'll handle that CSV which is too big for Excel. Their impact is more than solving individual problems.
Agency-Specific Senior SEO Skills
Agency side you work across industries which means you can gain a broad knowledge of SEO. You also have the ability to witness what does/doesn't work more often.
This difference means that the following are great skills for seniors team members:
You have a broad platform knowledge. You understand the different challenges across four or more different CMS platforms.
There an understanding of how to solve the most common SEO issues in the market-leading CMSs. This is beyond a simplistic "go fix this" method. You need to be able to steer developers or call BS if there are any blockers.
Can prioritise different client accounts and workload. Knowing when to pull tasks forward or push them back. You need to be able to understand when work should be done for greatest success.
Are able to solve problems. Finding new solutions AND able to crystallise that knowledge to share with the rest of the team.
Understands how adjacent teams/agencies work. Key touch-points, strengths and weaknesses. You'll have to work with developers, designers, social media managers and more. There's a strong chance they will factor in your success more than your own work.
Proficient in distilling data into insight. Web analytics and CRM is not SEO (yes, I will die on that hill), but a Senior SEO needs to know the workings beyond basic usage.
This list can grow and it risks getting diluted. You may well want to add further points. But if I found someone who covered most of those bases, I'd hire them!
Commercial/Technical Knowledge Balance
Achieving the balance between commercial and technical knowledge is an important rite of passage.
As an industry (tech) SEOs are fierce when it comes to technical knowledge. I guarantee that people worry their technical knowledge is what will hold them back. But deep technical understanding does not guarantee a successful senior SEO.
"it depends..." wears thin for the client and doesn't make you sound more knowledgable.
Your ability to remember the nuances of robots.txt syntax is not going to break you. You almost-always have time to research and check the appropriateness of your recommendations.
As I mentioned in the earlier lists, you need a broad knowledge.
You need to recognise potential issues early and think laterally.
You also need to know when to say "I'll need to research that further" and when not to say "it depends..." trust me, this wears thin for the client and doesn't make you sound more knowledgable.
Knowing what's right commercially isn't always technically correct.
Having a developer revise all templates because the heading structure is slightly wrong is not an effective use of budget. There are circumstances where this isn't the case. If you're able to identify that, you have the commercial/technical balance pretty strong.
Because something is wrong, doesn't mean it pays to make it right. Understanding this requires experience, intuition and most of all - confidence.
There are circumstances where your remit is to make thing technically perfect. In these cases do your best, but this isn't the norm.
Because something is wrong, doesn't mean it always pays to make it right.
Key to your progression here is your understanding of the client, their product and the website. What is the most appropriate way for them to be profitable? Can you identify the route to that via SEO?
The emphasis here becomes even greater when "Head of" or "Director of SEO" is your goal. You will have to be able to weigh the balance of being technically correct with the commercials of your client in mind. How do you achieve these AND maximise the commercials for your own agency/department?
People management is an interesting one. A senior SEO will have to guide junior members. But I wouldn't consider line management here. When you're in a senior position you'll understand what management is about without being responsible for them.
As you progress there will be a crossroads, this is beyond the Senior SEO question but do you;
embrace management, process & operations, or;
focus more on becoming a subject-expert, deep-knowledge consultant-type?
This is a question to ask yourself in a few years time. Your opinion on this may change by then, but come back to this semi-regularly and check in with the idea.
How well you get on with managing people, their performance and complex needs has a big influence on which path is the most appealing.
If you have been through this list and found some gaps, great! If you are unsure with what to do with that information, that's natural. It is not going to be easy to fill these gaps as a lot are time/experience based - but being aware is the first step.