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How to Hire a SEO Savvy Developer

Stephen Hoops
How to Hire a SEO Savvy Developer

You’ve just landed a big one. After weeks of back and forth emails and phone calls (or in-person meetings), the prospect has made the transformation into a client. Now it’s time to get to work.

If you haven’t already done so, it’s time to dive in and perform a technical audit. With no gigantic issues jumping out at the gate, everything appears fine. But then the problems seem to keep mounting up. Turns out the site was built in an archaic programming language and had a timely redesign 6 years ago.

Pretty soon, you’re overwhelmed and this project just turned into a headache.

Where do you go from here? Do you suffer as you’re forced to deal with the current developer who’ll maybe answer your frantic emails in a week and accept that some things just can’t be changed? Or do you take the leap and strongly recommend your client get a brand new site?

You’re a Developer, Right?

Pros in the SEO world are often measured by their proficiency in a myriad of skills. Between staying on top of changes in search algorithms, writing killer content, and being social media gurus, there’s no denying that a career in SEO requires a lot of flexibility to be successful.

The fact is that a large percentage of the work in SEO is geared towards technical optimization. So to add to the growing skillset you need, having a base knowledge of programming is essential. But in cases where technical abilities fall short, leveraging the skills of a talented developer is the only way to achieve results.

Depending on the environment and resources available, this may include outsourcing or direct hiring a developer in-house. This of course presents its own challenges from an organizational perspective. While the normal processes for hiring should still be kept intact, hiring the wrong developer can cause bigger problems down the road.


Developers are more in-demand than ever and choosing one can be difficult. And with a pool of literally thousands of qualified developers to pick from, the decision process only becomes more complex.

Just like how Chef Gordon Ramsay can probably whip up a tasty cut of steak than you could ever possibly attempt, website developers are best equipped to build websites. If you could build a website as well as they could, you probably wouldn’t need their services in the first place.

It’s great that user experience is becoming more important among developers since ultimately search engines like Google wants to serve user content that is relevant and will provide a positive UX. There is no better example of this than Google’s push for mobile-friendly sites back in April 2015.

But let’s face it: developers are not SEO experts. They don’t have to be. The question here is whether or not the SEO professionals are able to identify what they need when considering to hire a developer.

Judge a Book By Its CMS

For the big stuff, you’re more than likely going to have to lean on your developer. Especially if you’re not particularly not code-savvy, things like functionality fixes will need to be handled by them.

Outside of that, you’re probably going to want to get your hands dirty and do some of the work yourself. From applying analytics tracking snippets, to updating meta, to creating brand new pages, you’ll need to access the backend of the site’s CMS.

With so many different CMS platforms to choose from, you’ll want to stick with one you have both familiarity with and has great functionality. As an industry standard, WordPress is certainly a solid way to go since using plugins can usually simplify and speed up changes to your site.

Every developer has their own preference, but ultimately you’ll be the one who it most likely affects. If you’re in love with a particular CMS, ask if they have experience building sites on that platform. If they don’t, just realize you’re taking a risk and may deal with potential headaches down the road.

It’s Elementary, Dear Watson

Ideally you’ll want to find a developer that has some serious experience under their belt. A potential developer will of course give their portfolio so you can see their work. So don your Sherlock Holmes hat; it’s time to do some snooping.

Ask to get a list of current clients or websites the developer is actively managing. While the look of these sites is definitely something to consider, you’ll want to dig deeper. This process may involve looking at the source code, so prepare yourself.


Here are a couple things to look at during your investigation:

1. Page Load Time

With tons of tools at your disposal, look at the general load time of pages. Since this is generally one of the consistently used ranking factors by search engines, an optimized page load time is critical.

Generally, your page load time should at maximum clock in at 10 seconds to load; the quicker the better. From a UX perspective, load times will have an effect on user metrics like your bounce rate. Mobile users accessing sites with slower connections will experience different load times than if they were on a desktop.

If during your investigation, you find that the developer’s current sites have unusually long load times this may be a cause for concern. Some of the bigger elements that affect site speed are things like bloated code, unoptimized images, or too many plugins. Looking at the source code for these pages can identify if the developer is actively optimizing these elements for faster site speed.

2. Will it Crawl?

With the release of every new version of the iPhone, Blendtec’s video series on YouTube has often asked the question, “Will it blend?” And if you’re a fan of these viral videos, you’ll know that the answer is always yes.

SEO efforts towards improving a site should always ask similarly, “Will it crawl?” And unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.

Search engine crawlers and spiders have become increasingly advanced since the early days of their inception. It used to be that only text could be crawled in order for search engines to understand what a site is all about. These crawlers have gotten much better at analyzing other elements, but often times there are still elements which can’t be crawled.

During your investigation, you should inspect individual page elements to see if they can be crawled. If the developer has an apparent love affair with flash or key CTA’s are represented as images without appropriate alt text, it’ll be as if they don’t exist.

It’s always a good idea to check and see if the developer regularly has a robots.txt file and sitemaps in place. For an SEO professional this is a no brainer, but it might not be as obvious to a developer.

While you’re at it, for sites with a robots.txt file in place try to determine which directories are being blocked. This may be a little more difficult to see, but try to see if this file is blocking robots from crawling directories containing all JavaScript and CSS on the site.

Essentially, Google wants to see your site just like the user would. More recently website owners have even been receiving alerts from Google Search Console for their properties if their robots.txt files are blocking these directories.

3. Caring About UX

Google has gotten quite good at detecting the level of positive UX a site may have. Your site could have the absolute greatest content in the world, but if the design only causes users to become frustrated, your efforts will be wasted.

Examining the work of your potential developer will hopefully have a wide selection of sites fit for the different niche audiences of their ideal users. Just perusing multiple pages can demonstrate how much UX was considered in the design of the site being studied. Ease of navigation and functionality are the keys to be looking out for here.

Mobile users are going to be the biggest sources of concern in hiring your developer. Either use your own smartphone or resize your browser to the screen resolution of the mobile device of your choosing.

Does the developer prefer to make mobile sites or are the sites responsive?

While resources will dictate which one will be utilized for a site, either solution needs to be in place for your mobile users. If the developers work shows a lack of consideration for mobile-friendliness, this is a huge warning sign.

Buyer Beware

Expecting to hire a developer with an expert level of understanding of SEO may prove to be near impossible to achieve. But armed with what to look for in their most recent work, hiring the right developer will essentially be better for your SEO efforts in the long run.

Since the best SEO strategy is one that looks to improve in the long-term, the wrong developer will only cause incredible setbacks, delays, and constant frustration.

But really the easiest way to sort out developer candidates? Ask if they think SEO is still important. If they say no, then it might be a good idea to keep looking.

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Stephen is a Search Marketing Associate and resident content guru with Direct Online Marketing, a digital and search marketing agency in Wheeling, West Virginia. When not obsessing about all things marketing and trying to write killer content, he can be found hitting the back roads on his iron steed.
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I think these are good tips for hiring developers in general. Not sure if there's any way to test for them, since many companies now use automated programming tests to evaluate skill level. These are very useful indeed, but on-site SEO knowledge must be evaluated separately I guess.
Jacques Bouchard
These days, it takes a village to build a website. I think the days of developers building websites that "work", or even ones that work AND look pretty, are going to be ascribed to smaller and smaller businesses until they mostly die out. Today you need to think hard about personas, UX, CRO, content strategy, and SEO, as well as your brand voice, to really build something powerful.
Stephen L. Hoops
Jacques Bouchard
Outstanding insights, Jacques! You are totally right; websites need to contend with multiple considerations if they have any hopes of being successful or even attempt to meet their goals. Sometimes it is a challenge in conveying the investment of time and resources required so that decision makers address all of these factors when creating new sites.
Jacques Bouchard
Stephen L. Hoops
It's like most things -- crappy is easy to do, but you generally get what you pay for when you do it right.Kind of like the difference between the Hobbit movies and the Lord of the Rings movies; half-assed doesn't necessarily get you halfway there.
Stephen L. Hoops
Jacques Bouchard
Mad props for throwing out an LOTR reference. And while I wish I could agree with your analogy, I still enjoyed The Hobbit movies. If I'm being honest, Guillermo del Toro should have stayed on to direct :)
Jacques Bouchard
Stephen L. Hoops
Well played to both of you! It's interesting to note that, according to Wilipedia. the Lord of the Rings trilogy had a $281 million budget and a box office total of $2.917 billion. The Hobbit trilogy had a $625 million budget and a box office total of 2.932 billion. So from a business perspective, Kathleen and Stephen, I stand corrected on both accounts. More money did not mean better results -- even when more than doubled, and their box office payouts are comparable. It's easy to fall into the trap of making emotional business decisions, but data should always weigh in on the argument. :-)

There IS the question of brand damage, however. The LOTR trilogy was the cornerstone of the franchise, with ratings on Rotten Tomatoes (for example) ranging between 91% and 96%. The Hobbit Trilogy had a much lower rating -- 60% - 74%. How much damage was done to the franchise by "milking" the brand but delivering what was generally perceived as a less impressive work, by the data? Kind of goes back to that marketing question "What is the ROI of a loyal army?" Whatever it is, they've lost some of it by not delivering what their audience was hoping for.

Also Stephen, for bragging rights: Without the Internet or a reference, how many of the dwarves can you name?
Kathleen Burns
Jacques Bouchard
However, the Hobbit was banking on the branding of LOTR which did most of the legwork to get people to see the movie. This is why characters like Legolas and Frodo appeared even though they weren't in the Hobbit book. They wanted to tap the fans from LOTR to come to the Hobbit by baiting them with popular characters from the original trilogy. All the numbers show is the power of branding.

It's the little details that created the big numbers.

SEO is the same way. Most brands bank on popular keywords to help promote their site in the rankings. The keyword may only appear once on a blog post or content piece, but if that is within a phrase or a popular question on Google or Bing, that post can help a smaller brand increase awareness because people search for that phrase.
Jacques Bouchard
Kathleen Burns
Yeah, that's kind of what I was trying to say with the second paragraph -- if there was a THIRD trilogy, what kind of reception would it get? Did the success of the second one ride on the coattails of the first? How much did the poorer reception affect peripheral product sales?

This ties in with both SEO and digital branding in general. For example, Wil Reynolds told a story at SMX East of the brand power of AirBNB, and how their branded search became the dominant keyword search term around their space in time. Or, in the case of a company like Basement Systems, where I worked, they gave something a name, and pioneered a keyword that formerly did not exist, such as "crawl space encapsulation" to summarize the process of installing a vapor barrier inside a crawl space. There are ways to hijack a keyword space -- your "Legolas".

Building on that, branding also impacts SEO by simple recognition of a brand in a SERP. If you trust the brand, you click through that preferentially over one you do not know.
Kathleen Burns
Jacques Bouchard
Very true Jacques! Great point. Sorry I missed that in your second paragraph.
Kathleen Burns
Jacques Bouchard
I agree with most of this, but I think if a company approaches a person with lower rates without checking their previous portfolio of work, it's their mistake to live with. Most designers and web developers host examples of what they do - if they don't have that, then the super low pricing seems fitting.

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