Search engine optimization (SEO) marketing — for all of its successes — is still not well understood by many. To be fair, it’s cloaked in mystery. Google, the leading search engine, doesn’t reveal what factors help its algorithm to rank content.
Instead, SEO marketing managers have had to figure it out by testing and sharing their insights.
This, combined with the fact that SEO results can take months to fully materialize, makes it hard to understand if a self-proclaimed SEO expert knows their stuff or not.
So, we’ll talk in this piece about what exactly SEO marketers do and the 12 SEO skills you should look for in your next hire –– freelance or full-time.
What does an SEO manager actually do?
Big picture: An SEO manager is a digital marketing expert who creates custom strategies to get brand content high ranking on search engine result pages (SERPs).
The aim is to gain organic traffic that can help brands attract more visitors, leads, and conversions.
Companies expect SEO experts to do more than hit traffic goals, though.
“They expect reporting and metrics,” explained SEO consultant Eliza Shamshian — and if performance declines, they expect SEO marketing managers to diagnose the issue.
Clients also expect forecasting. “A lot of companies want to know how much growth they can see if they implemented X, Y, and Z,” Shamshian said.
Given the plethora of processes involved, most SEO marketers work in tandem with a content marketer and, if they lack technical SEO skills, a developer to optimize content. This small team can significantly enhance your company’s visibility and leave your competitors in the dust.
12 mandatory SEO skills for marketers
An SEO marketing manager might take on a full-time in-house role, or work as a freelance consultant, guiding all your content efforts from outside. However they structure their SEO career, though, SEO experts need the right skills.
We talked to the following experts to understand what the essential SEO skill set includes:
- Brendan Hufford, SEO consultant and growth marketer at ActiveCampaign
- Eliza Shamshian, a longtime SEO consultant
- Nigel Stevens, CEO of Organic Growth Marketing
1. Empathetic analysis.
An SEO marketing manager must have the ability to balance optimizing metrics and understanding the human aspect of search engines.
So, an SEO expert should accurately identify the following by using analytical tools:
- Factors affecting an increase or decrease in website traffic
- Search volume
- Long-form and short-form keywords
- Potential content ideas
But as Hufford points out, understanding the human aspect of why someone is searching for a keyword or phrase is a crucial skill.
“Understand what people like and realize there are humans behind these searches," he advised. "Spend even just a small bit of time considering what they want and how best to give that to them.”
“Understand what people like and realize there are humans behind these searches."
That takes critical thinking. But once they’ve understood how to mix data with the user’s search intent, they can target key phrases better and, hopefully, achieve a higher search ranking.
“If you can’t look at a page, look at the keywords it corresponds to, and hypothesize about intent,” Stevens adds,“[it] doesn’t matter how great you are technically!”
At the end of the day, SEO is about appealing to other humans. You want them to relate to your content. Once they’re hooked, you can lead them down the sales funnel.
2. Collaboration with internal stakeholders.
“One of the most important skills that an SEO must have, whether you’re working with clients or in-house or anything else, is the ability to communicate and visualize the value of what you do,” Hufford said.
Whether it’s through graphs, infographics, or a collaborative project board, SEO experts must be able to show, not tell.
“Pasting an Excel table in a slide is not visualizing the value, right?” Hufford added. “Or just saying, here are our numbers. You must understand that design matters and communication matters.”
"Pasting an Excel table in a slide is not visualizing value, right?"
Communication also plays a key role when working with different teams in the same company or acting as an intermediary between a business and an SEO agency.
Poor communication — unclear instructions, not answering queries quickly, fumbling through project presentations — can ruin SEO campaigns.
3. Effective priority management.
Most SEO campaigns will have over 20 main tasks with many sub-tasks.
An SEO marketing manager must know how to prioritize every step based on deadlines, importance, and the lift involved.
For example, building backlinks is an important task that’s also very time-consuming. Link building efforts usually take weeks or months to become fruitful.
To do it well (more on this later!) SEO managers and their teams should…
- Identify potential backlink sources
- Figure out how to contribute content to these sites
- Send out pitch
- Plan out the content schedule
- Hire additional writers as needed
All of these are important elements, but depending on the client’s needs, some will take priority over others.
It’s up to the SEO manager to identify this and set a plan in motion. This is why prioritization management is a must-have SEO skill.
“[P]rioritization is the secret to achieving quick results and gaining the trust and budget necessary for long-term success,” Shopify content marketing manager Andrew Dennis wrote in Search Engine Journal.
SEO experts focus on creating content that will have the largest impact on search visibility. That means finding content gaps and opportunities and using excellent organizational skills to juggle multiple client and team requests at the same time.
4. In-depth keyword research.
All SEO campaigns involve keyword research.
Keyword research is the process of identifying strategic long and short-form keywords to include in brand content, including the website, blog posts, and social media posts to achieve a higher search engine ranking.
Every SEO specialist must strive to perfect their keyword research techniques, whether a freelance consultant or an SEO marketing manager.
SEMrush’s study shows that keyword research is one of the most consistently top-ranking required SEO skills in SEO job descriptions globally.
Keyword research requires an in-depth knowledge of search engine algorithms and search intent.
An expert knows that sometimes, targeting high-intent keywords — think “SEO optimization tools under $100 per month” — makes more sense than targeting high-volume keywords — think “marketing technology.”
Ranking for these less competitive, high-intent keywords also known as long-tail keywords, can often translate into less traffic but higher conversion rates.
There are more of these keywords to choose from, too. Most keywords are long-tail keywords — 70%, by Moz’s estimate.
Keyword research also involves sizing up a brand’s competitors and seeing what they’re ranking for and how.
This leads us to...
5. Competitive SEO analysis.
As part of the research and strategizing stage, SEO marketing managers have to see how competitors rank in SERPs.
Experts quickly figure out what keywords your competitors use, and which keywords they beat your brand for. Then they dig into the why.
- How are they ranking higher?
- Do they have better content?
- Does their website load faster?
An e-commerce brand selling shoes might lose out to Nike and Adidas when it comes to generic shoe-related terms, but those aren’t their actual competitors. Yet.
As a smaller brand, their first target should probably be to beat out local competitors, many of whom may be lacking in their SEO efforts.
A competitor analysis could show that the best keyword for them is actually a phrase, “buy shoes in Ontario,” or similar.
It could also reveal that Star Wars fans buy shoes prolifically, and they need to advertise on “Princess Leia shoes.” (Just kidding — TOMS and Adidas already own this keyword.)
A competitor analysis report is crucial to formulating a strong SEO strategy, and can help you target customer segments you hadn’t thought of before.
6. Editing and writing skills.
SEO goes hand in hand with content marketing and social media campaigns. It isn’t a separate entity.
When you’re an SEO marketing manager, you’re expected to oversee content writing teams — and, in a pinch, fill in for writers to get things across the line.
This is why good writing is an essential SEO skill to master. Search marketers must have a deep understanding of different content types and lengths.
You should be able to see blog posts, social media posts, and website content that a brand is publishing and identify if they’re pursuing the right content angles, where they can improve, and if there’s anything that can make the writing more memorable to audiences.
Successful SEO content is as attention-grabbing and high-quality as a YouTube video.
“YouTube is all about watch time and session time, and you have to keep people engaged and give them what they want,” Hufford said. “People forget that with SEO. There’s [often] just no time paid to the craft of writing.”
“YouTube is all about watch time and session time, and you have to keep people engaged and give them what they want. People forget that with SEO."
Unless you hire an expert SEO marketer who cares about it, that is.
7. Technical SEO.
Technical SEO mainly revolves around a company’s website.
A technically optimized website:
- Is fast and secure
- Is crawlable by search engines
- Contains minimal dead links
- Does not contain duplicate content
The goal of technical SEO is to ensure Google (and other search engines, like Bing) see that your website is well-built and helpful.
A key factor in all this: page experience. As of this summer, Google will assess this using a mix of seven key factors, including loading speed and HTTPS usage.
Typically, an SEO expert conducts a thorough website audit, examining each web page and the site as a whole to see if any of these factors can be improved.
For this, they need to either have some coding skills, or work closely with developers for website audits and optimization.
8. Link building strategy.
A backlink is a hyperlink from another website to your company’s website, and it’s a crucial factor in how Google ranks content for specific keywords.
Real SEO experts build up backlinks slowly, via internal and external links.
Internal link building is entirely in your control. You decide when and how you cross-link the pages on your website. the links are published. For example, you can add internal links to your blog posts.
External link building is a lot trickier, but crucial.
“The pages where you build links — specifically the quality and authority of those pages — play a key role in determining how high you’ll rank in search engine results,” writes expert marketer Neil Patel.
“The pages where you build links — specifically the quality and authority of those pages — play a key role in determining how high you’ll rank in search engine results."
Experts in the SEO industry tackle it using:
- Guest posts
- Case studies
- Expert quotes
- Image link building
They also know the difference between a good backlink and a bad one. There are six key factors that contribute towards a good link, including the host domain’s authority, the link’s relevance to readers, the anchor text and more.
Given how important backlinks are, an SEO marketing manager must know how to create and implement a backlink strategy.
9. Proficiency in SEO-related tools.
Google Search Console (GSC) and Google Analytics are two essential tools every SEO manager must know how to use.
A SEMrush study found that proficiency in these two tools was the most frequently required skill in SEO job descriptions — 47% demanded it.
Google Search Console allows a webmaster to check if their website is visible, indexed properly and crawlable.
Stevens confirms its importance. “Google Search Console is highly underutilized,” he said. “It’s the only direct insight Google gives us into search performance, even if data is continually more sampled and hard to come by.”
"Google Search Console is highly underutilized. It's the only direct insight Google gives us into search performance."
Google Analytics lets SEO managers look at user and traffic data, such as the number of visitors per month, average session durations and bounce rates.
Both these tools are free (at least for small businesses) and are valuable SEO assets.
Other SEO tools our experts recommend are:
- Microsoft Excel: For working with formulas to analyze data
- Clearscope: An intuitive content optimization platform
- SEMrush: An all-in-one SEO suite
10. Social media efficiency.
A 2021 report by Smart Insights states that over half the global population uses social media.
The prevalence of social media has made it a critical part of SEO and marketing efforts over the last decade.
“Brands and publishers have to walk a fine line on social media,” writes Anna Rose Iovine in the Columbia Journalism Review.”They want to be relatable, funny, reverent in certain cases, omnipresent, and all-knowing, without showing too much of a personal bias — kind of like a hip, cool god.”
That’s not just the challenge for social media managers — but also for SEO professionals, who need to devise campaigns that can gain traffic from social media platforms.
Typically, an SEO expert and social media marketer work together to identify how to target specific keywords on social platforms.
Search engines don’t directly index social media posts, but chatter on social leads to traffic and backlinks, both of which can help boost a brand’s search rankings.
Social media is also excellent for building awareness and community around your brand, which helps establish you as an authority figure within your niche — and get search volume (and click-through) on branded keywords.
11. Keen business sense.
To succeed as an SEO marketing manager, you need to have the business knowledge to recognize how a company works.
This is a skill gained with years of experience, but it’s a very valuable one.
An SEO specialist who understands the structure of the organization and its product can identify keywords better, and identify all the ways in which content can be repurposed.
More importantly, they can visualize this value to their clients and get them on board.
It’s good to be able to forecast the traffic and revenue an SEO-optimized article might bring in, Hufford said.
But “what’s even cooler is if I can show this [SEO story] works with sales enablement... and it’ll do six other things.”
12. Content strategy optimization.
Once an SEO expert has moved past the research stage, it’s time to build an SEO strategy that content marketers and writers can use as a guide.
Some companies will give you the freedom of starting an SEO campaign from scratch, but many brands want you to add onto what’s already there.
This requires collaborating with in-house or agency-based writers, marketers and product teams to understand their current strategy and build on it.
To do this, SEO experts need leadership skills and people skills — as well as strategy chops.
“You can’t do SEO on your own,” Shamshian explained. “You need to work with marketing, content, social, engineering, product. All of these different teams have to work together.”
“You can’t do SEO on your own. You need to work with marketing, content, social, engineering, product."
That makes the ability to collaborate on and communicate about strategy with multiple teams essential.
3 nice-to-have SEO expert skills
Besides the 12 must-have SEO skills, here are four bonus skills that can help an SEO manager excel, according to our experts.
1. Natural curiosity.
An SEO manager must do a lot of research before they can put anything into action. Someone that isn’t curious about their niche will likely do the bare minimum.
A naturally curious SEO expert will want to delve deeper into every aspect they’re handling.
Shamshian says this is one of the toughest skills to teach, but if an SEO expert has it, they’ll have an easier time keeping up to date on Google’s constantly evolving algorithms and best practices.
Every SEO strategy must be unique to the company.
A rigid SEO manager that just implements the same strategy over and over, and refuses to adapt to changing scenarios, can ruin SEO campaigns.
“The levers that we pulled that made a big difference in 2010 were ‘put your keyword in your header title,’” Hufford said. “That doesn't do anything anymore, because everybody does it.”
SEO managers must be flexible enough to change strategies in an instant.
3. Basic coding.
Sure, you can also outsource it to developers, but developers don’t usually do SEO.
“Understanding how code works can make you better at technical SEO,” SEO specialist Sam Oh explains in an Ahrefs video. “You can identify technical SEO issues that most crawling tools wouldn’t discover. You can also identify page speed-related issues.”
By combining both skills, you not only have a better understanding of SEO elements, but you can also do more for a client.
SEO is a vital tool that helps businesses succeed. It works — especially when the right person handles it.
Finding a good SEO marketing manager can be tricky. Sure, we’ve listed 12 essential SEO skills, but finding out if a candidate possesses these skills requires a thorough interview process, and ideally some in-depth SEO knowledge of your own.