Welcome to the SEO Careers interview series. This week, I (Nick) am super excited to share an interview with my former boss, Jonathan Wilson. Jonathan is the Director of Digital Marketing at Wolters Kluwer.
With 17+ years of experience in the digital marketing industry, I am very excited to share his insights and advice with everyone.
You can connect with Jonathan on LinkedIn & Twitter.
If you are interested in being featured in the SEO careers interview series, please submit your name and contact details on our contact page.
Let’s jump right into this interview!
Hi Jonathan! We’re so glad to feature you on SEOjobs.com. Please introduce yourself to our site’s readers.
I’m Jonathan Wilson, working from the mountains of Vermont. I’ve been working in SEO since 2005, so at 17 years in the industry, my skillset is now old enough to drive. Haha. During that time, I’ve easily overseen at least 15,000 website and managed SEO teams around 90 people. It’s been a wild ride!
Please share with us your current role and for what company you work for.
Currently, I’m the Director of Digital Marketing at Wolters Kluwer, leading a team of smart people responsible for SEO, SEM, and email marketing. I’m coming up on my 3rd year here and am really happy with this position.
On the side, I also do freelance digital marketing for a select group of clients. These days, I’ve been taking less pure SEO work and more focusing on building marketing ecosystems to help them implement, evaluate, and prioritize different digital channels to get the best ROI.
Can you share with us how you entered the SEO industry?
I got a double major in philosophy and political science. Out of school, I got my Series 7 and 66 stock broker’s license, but quickly learned I didn’t love sales. I moved to a marketing role at that same bank, where I first started learning about SEO and the power of the burgeoning practice of digital marketing. I think my salary was ~$50k as a new marketer.
A few factors influenced my desire to move to my next role: I wanted a shorter (or no) commute, I wanted to live closer to snowboarding, and wanted to see more of the world. I read a book called, “The Creative Class,” by Richard Florida, and decided Vermont would be a good fit for my next role.
When I got to Vermont, I took a 50% pay cut and had to work a side job in retail to afford rent, but it fit my other goals, so I figured the money would come eventually (it did).
How did you start to learn SEO? What are you currently doing to keep up with the ever-changing SEO industry?
I have always been a reader, so I spent 6 months immersing myself in SEO, graphic design, and analytics before I felt like I understood the landscape. From there, I started building websites for fun to get hands-on learning about how SEO works.
Twitter was really helpful in the 2010s for learning SEO. The algorithm emphasized sharing content, so I used it to crowdsource articles to read from folks like Wil Reynolds, Matt Cutts, and Rand Fishkin. Over time, the Twitter algorithm has evolved to prioritize more emotional content + flame wars (https://business.twitter.com/en/blog/psychology-of-shareable-content.html), so I use it much less for SEO insights these days.
My current setup is via RSS feeds with Feedly (https://feedly.com). I read through SEO headlines from SEJ, SEwatch, different blogs, etc and if I see a theme, I’ll add all the articles to Pocket. Then during my free time, instead of commenting on a Twitter thread about how SEO A doesn’t like SEO B, I read articles from Pocket. It’s a good way to cut through the noise.
Of course, I also love a good newsletter, so Nick’s “SEO for Lunch” does a great job of summarizing and curating good SEO content.
Attending conferences is also a great way to stay up to date. The presentations are still a draw, but I get the most value from the hallway conversations. It’s so amazing to find someone dealing with the same issues you’re having and brainstorming solutions over a beer. Plus, there aren’t many other opportunities for search geeks to talk for hours about esoteric SEO concepts with people equally passionate about the space. Pubcon and MNSearch in particular have been really helpful.
Another tip – try to build an SEO group together in your local area. It can be as simple as reservng a table at a brewery and setting a time. Even if only 3 people show, you’ve got a great foundation of additional people to brainstorm with. Plus, your non-SEO friends will be glad someone else is there to listen to your SEO rants. 🙂
Can you share what factors are most important to you in an SEO career and why? When do you know its time for a new job? Do these same factors play a role?
Everyone has a different set of criteria to define “good job.” When I was in my 20s, it was all about learning. I evaluated positions by asking, “Where can I go to get the most opportunities to learn SEO, while still developing tangential skills (SEM, design, public speaking, presentation skills, understanding how businesses work, leading a technical team, how to interview, developing comp plans at scale, etc)?” As I’ve gotten older, investing heavily in your own learning and broadening my capabilities has helped me differentiate myself and has led to some great opportunities.
Also, if you review salary data (https://www.roberthalf.com/salary-guide/specialization/marketing-and-creative), specialists tend to command lower rates than “T-shaped” marketers, so there’s no real downside as an SEO to learn, say, SEM.
Now that I’m more mature in my career, learning still is my primary driver, but I also strongly value a work environment of high-performing colleagues, remote flexibility, and a salary commensurate with experience.
My biggest tell that I need to find a new role is when I don’t feel like I’m being challenged or that I’m regressing. In an ever-changing industry like digital, coasting for a few years can really inhibit your future growth. If you’re coasting, you’re going downhill.
You have a lot of experience interviewing and hiring SEO talent. Can you provide some tips for people going through the hiring process?
I’ve interviewed 300+ of SEOs, and reviewed many more resumes. Everyone is different, and their unique perspective and circumstances should be taken into account, but I have seen a trend of autodidacts – people who can teach themselves – being very successful in this space.
SEO always changes. Each day there are SEO questions that have literally never been asked before. If you can’t do your own research, form a hypothesis, and implement and measure the impact, you’re going to lose. Similarly, If you expect someone else to give you a “perfect” curriculum, you will always be miles behind someone that can build their own curriculum and team themselves.
In interviews, highlight how you solved problems independently, set up a website to test SEO theories, or built your own curriculum. It’s much easier to turn an autodidact into an SEO, then to turn an aspiring SEO into an autodidact.
This is also why I don’t care about college degrees. There have been multiple studies showing college enrollment correlates more to your parent’s financial situation than intelligence (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/05/28/upshot/you-draw-it-how-family-income-affects-childrens-college-chances.html). Some of the best SEOs I’ve worked with don’t have college degrees.
I also love SEOs that can think beyond “traffic” as a KPI. Think of your website like a store – is it better to get 1,000 in your shop with no purchasers to 10 people in your shop that each spend $10,000? Your website should be no different. Traffic is a good leading indicator, but if you can show how that traffic drove a business outcome (revenue, leads, sign-ups, votes, etc), you’ll differentiate yourself from other people interviewing.
What recommendations would you give to someone who is looking to join the SEO industry and get their first full-time SEO position?
This is evergreen advice that worked in 2005 and is still relevant today: build your own website. It’s the best way to go through the entire SEO process: ideation, keyword research, setting targets, creating content, technical optimizations, using GSC and other tools, adding analytical tracking, competitive research, link building, etc. As you struggle through issues, you’ll end up reading more on SEO and become very competent much faster than someone taking a purely academic approach to learning.
I’m a voracious reader, so I love books, although different media fits different learning styles. Books often get criticized as being “out of date as soon as they’re printed,” but many of the themes remain unchanged over 2 decades: conduct research, build a strategy, write for users, make your website UX good and fast, measure impacts, patiently adjust as necessary.
I read books like “The Art of SEO” or “Web Analytics: An Hour a Day,” to build a timeless strategic foundation and then augment those older publications with bleeding-edge tactical insights you can get from blogs, like SEJournal, Moz, SEMRush, etc. Resources like Wall Street Journal and Harvard Business Review can also help expand your view beyond the SEO niche.
Finally, I’d also recommend folks to read job descriptions. Do a quick meta analysis of 20 job postings that you’re interested in. What tools, experiences, and capabilities seem to be trending in the industry? That’s a good directional input on things to learn to be a valuable prospect. You don’t need them all, but the more you have, the greater your likelihood of getting a call back.