link building interview questions

Hiring is exciting. Running a hiring process means your group is growing and you get more muscle to apply to hard problems.

At the same time, hiring is frustrating and stressful. It’s a high risk decision, often made after a mere 3 hours of questions and answers and some reference calls.

While we can’t make hiring easy for you here at BuzzStream, we can suggest a few interview questions and techniques for link building and content promotion professionals.  And for those readers on the other side of the table, here are some great prepatory questions to study before that big meeting with your (potential) new boss.

But before you jump into the questions, it’s important to get your goals in order:

Decide What You’re Looking For

You can’t hire until you’ve thought about what the ideal person in this role will look like.  What will this person have to do? 

Do you need someone more junior, more experience, or someone entry level?

We’ve seen people hire people out of school, not train them, and then be deeply dissatisfied with their results.

By contrast, we’ve also seen people over hire, and give a professional looking for a big challenge’ a fairly standard link building role, leaving them unhappy.

You need to think about the level of the job before you can find the person to hire – and often overhiring can be just as big a waste of resources as underhiring.

Is this job going to be about process execution or process creation?

Will this person need to be thoughtful and innovative and write your process manual? Or will someone else be giving them detailed instructions and they’ll need to go out and execute?

Often the people that are good at one aspect of this aren’t the best for the other, and vice-versa.

Increasingly we’re seeing content marketing and link development executives brought into organizations and agencies to develop new processes that work in an ever more competitive post-Penguin environment.  If you’re looking for this role, make sure that both you and your potential hire understand that their job will involve fundamentally rewriting the organization’s process book – not execute instructions and go home at 4:45.  

How much content vs promotion is this person going to be involved in? Will they be doing on-site SEO & keyword research as well? Are development skills necessary?

Both in-house and agency positions range from a ‘web marketing generalist’ who can do PPC, some light web development, the whole SEO process, write the blog, make the landing pages, etc., to someone who’s sole purpose at work will be outreach, content promotion, and link development.

It’s important to understand exactly where on this continuum the role falls before you start the hiring process. All people are painfully flawed in multiple areas, so it’s important to find strengths that align with your needs, rather than looking for a mythical unicorn. As venture capitalist and OpsWare CEO/Founder Ben Horowitz says, “The more experience you have, the more you realize that there is something seriously wrong with every employee in your company (including you).”  It’s almost impossible to find people who are world-class (or even, say, good) at every aspect of web marketing – make sure you understand what skills you need and where you’re willing to compromise.

Next, let’s look at some interview questions for beginner – intermediate outreach/link building professionals – folks who are relatively new, probably with 1-3 years of experience. These aren’t great questions for people right out of school, while experienced professionals should be able to breeze through these and teach you some new tricks.

Link Building Interview Questions & Answers

If I had to interview a content promotion/link building specialist, here are some of the questions I would think about asking, in order of ascending difficulty:

Why are links important?

Good answers will include some understanding that encompasses search engine ranking improvements, referral traffic, and a brand/reputational effect.

By contrast, a bad answer would be “PageRank”, “Traffic”, or any other single metric. A nuanced understanding of the value of different sorts of link value is key to prioritizing opportunities and thus delivering results.

How do you find good placement opportunities?

There are tons of right answers to this question. Any blend of prospecting queries, blogrolls, curated lists, using social networks like Twitter or Pinterest, social search engines like Topsy, and competitive link tools are all good answers.

The wrong answer is something like “I use a list”, or “I ask someone in Warrior Forum.” Digital Point is also wrong.  

The key understanding here is a broad range of tools for different opportunity types and different verticals – prospecting queries and backlink data tools, for example, are great at finding resource pages, where social prospecting and curated lists are good at finding influential bloggers to work with.

How do you go about securing placements?

Answers like “Creating mutually beneficial relationships” and “Helping the editor/site owner/curator achieve their goals” are the key answers here. When you dig deeper (as you should), the interviewee should share a variety of techniques, depending on whether the prospect is a professional journalist, hobby blogger, maintainer of a government site, etc.

More tactical answers like “I email them and ask for a guest post” aren’t terrible, but typically indicate a lower level of understanding of the outreach and promotion game.

Can you tell me about a few links or placements you’ve gotten?

Good candidates should have some stories they can’t wait to tell – like that time they got a link on FuelEconomy.gov or Mashable or the Guardian. Or the time they cold-called a University Professor in an attempt to get a link.  

Sometimes these will be under NDA with a previous client or agency, so you can ask the candidate to walk you through their process.  Ideally their process starts with ideation, moves through prospecting, and then through outreach, negeotiation, and placement.

Bad candidates won’t be able to show you anything – this is a really bad sign. Or even worse, if they show you something that looks like an invitation to a penalty with pride – that means you’ll have to spend a great deal of time ‘unteaching’ bad habits.

What do you read to keep up with the industry?

Good answers include the blogs that everyone reads – publications like Moz, Search Engine Land, and Search Engine Watch.

Better answers include niche influencers – anyone that’s an avid student of people like Deb Masteler, Ross Hudgens, Jon Cooper, and Ian Howells probably take their link building and content placements very seriously.

The best answers include all of those and some blogs outside the industry you’ve never heard of – the ones that showcase new technologies, data visualizations, cool campaigns from a variety of different organizations, new tech, psychology, and more. These are the folks that ‘link outside the box’ and bring ideas from other disciplines into online marketing.

What’s the last test or experiment you did?

Great marketers constantly look for the new, different techniques and campaigns that drive outsized returns, while working on the old standards.

If you’re hiring someone with some knowledge of the industry, they should have a good answer for this – “Oh, I tried to do some video posts or Google Hangouts”, or “Well, I tried implementing Twitter Ads.”

This is also a great time to ask if the candidate has personal projects – be it running their own blog about something their passionate about or helping a friend design a website for their painting business, side projects are a great indicator of initiative, drive, and a love of the work.

What have you tried recently that hasn’t worked?

This is a great interview question for marketers – even the best of have a hard time batting more than 33%. The right candidate should grin, laugh a little, and begin recounting tales of failed experiments.

If on-site or technical SEO is part of the role, you can ask questions about start with questions like this, and move through to questions about robots.txt, rel=”canonical” tags, or my favorite, ask about the best way to deal with paginated category pages. (The answer to that question begins, “Well, it depends,” and involves follow up questions about load times, number of pages, rel=prev and rel=next, and more.)

If someone was more advanced, and I was expecting them to improve processes, I might go deeper in some of these questions and ask how’d they’d scope and sell these processes, or how they’d go about evaluating what was present today and how they’d move the organization to better processes.

Case Interview Questions

hands in interview

In addition to conventional interview Q&As, it can be helpful to use the case method as an interview technique.  For those who are unfamiliar with case interviews, candidates are given a situation, and are invited to make a plan to resolve it. It’s up to the candidate to ask the interviewer more questions. Originally popularized by management consultancies like McKinsey, case interviews are now common in marketing interviews and used by companies like HubSpot.

You might start with a case like this:

Let’s say you’re going to launch a blog attached to an ecommerce store that sells chess sets. (If the interviewee doesn’t know anything about chess, ask them to pick a vertical they’re familiar with.)

Some thought processes to look for here are:
Good candidates will spend some time digging into audience targeting and goals, and ask lots of questions about demographics and online usage habits.  Often they’ll develop a hypothesis that will involve both content and promotion, and want to start by putting the technical foundation in place first.

Bad candidates will want to start pitching, and immediately start sending emails. (Bad leaderships candidates will begin by trying to establish a process to accomplish something they don’t understand.)

Good candidates will understand that content and promotion need to work together – and will ask if they can direct the content team to do some co-creation with other sites and influencers that have complementary offerings. (If they call it egobait, don’t necessarily hold that against them. Just know if they call it influencer cocreation it’s probably safe to let them talk to the CMO or client.)

Bad candidates won’t want to have a strong voice in editorial creations, or will say ‘That’s not my job’. As the front line of interacting with influencers, the right outreach and promotion person will understand what th audience is looking for, and communicate that to the rest of the team.

Good candidates will use a blend of techniques within the constraints they’ve been provided – every project has constraints, and good marketers embrace these and work within them, make friends with them, or find ways to overcome them.

Bad candidates will beat one thing to death, or otherwise simply go after the latest shiny object, social network, or ‘in vogue’ technique.  

Additionally, good candidates will have some system of organization – both in terms of using an ordered approach to build an audience and profile, as well using some blend of project management and outreach tools, from free basics like Google Docs to more advanced tools like Asana and BuzzStream.

Further Resources

The challenge of hiring and training link builders has been written about extensively by other smart people in the industry – I would encourage you to study some of their writing before you start drafting your interview rubric.

Some of my favorite pieces on hiring and training link development professionals are:

Hiring is hard. But with good preparation and the right questions, you can turn a process fraught with peril into something that effectively sources the right person.

 (Photo Credit 1, 2)

How do you interview great link development professionals? What’s your favorite linking interview question?

mattgratt

Matt works on customer acquisition at BuzzStream. Before BuzzStream, he worked as an SEO Strategist at Portent and a Marketing Manager at AppCentral (acquired by Good Technology). You can follow Matt on Twitter or Google Plus.

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