The SEO Career Ladder: Levels & Salary

The SEO Career Ladder

When you’re searching for a career, especially one related to digital marketing, search engine optimization is a great place to start! There’s a level of flexibility that comes with working in SEO. For example, you can work on your own as a freelancer, as a contractor, or as a consultant.

You can also work for a digital marketing agency that takes on SEO clients or do SEO in-house for a company.

In today’s business world, everything centers around search engines. We go to Google for everything and thus, the SEO career field is in-demand. For businesses to be visible where their customers are, most businesses have no choice but to focus on their SEO strategy. And that’s not likely to change in the foreseeable future.

If you decide an SEO career is right for you, it can be overwhelming to know where to start.

Fortunately, you can forge a path for yourself that works for your preferences and skills.

SEO Job Overview

The following provides an overview of what the role of an SEO is and what you can generally expect in this career field.

SEO Job Description

An SEO specialist can be generally categorized as a marketing professional who uses research and analysis to help a website rank on search engines. By far, the most popular and commonly used search engine is Google.

An SEO expert helps get more traffic to a site from search engines.

An SEO specialist should have a deep understanding of how search engines work to tailor strategies accordingly.

Search engines send out what are called search engine spiders (or crawlers) that discover web pages across the internet.

They crawl a page and then, once the page is crawled, it’s evaluated to see if it will be added to that search engine’s index. A search engine index is a collection of web pages that they deem worthy enough to show to users when they are searching via keywords.

When someone enters a search term, Google will return the most relevant indexed pages for that search term (aka keyword).

Hundreds of factors and variables play a part in search engine algorithms. These are used by search engines to deliver high-quality, relevant results to people when they search.

Due to how many ranking factors there are, an SEO expert has to learn many things. They have to be able to optimize a site as best as possible so that it’s in compliance with search engine best practices.

As a result, specialists need to have an understanding of the broad components of digital marketing. For example, there are core SEO skills you need to be proficient in, but I recommend that you should also have other digital marketing skills like copywriting and basic development skills.

You may work with a team that handles creating pages and content for you, but if you at least know what’s needed for those projects, you can more effectively manage them and get much better results.

Some of the skills you need as an expert in SEO include:

  • The ability to do keyword research. The goal when finding keywords to target is to look for those options that are lower in competition so that you have a higher likelihood of ranking, but high-volume so that there’s enough interest in the terms to ensure people are looking for them in their searches.
  • A general understanding of HTML
  • Knowledge of how to incorporate keywords on a page
  • Some understanding of copywriting and visual content
  • Link-building knowledge
  • Understanding of technical SEO and how it affects site rankings
  • Knowledge of Google algorithms—you have to constantly learn and stay up-to-date with algorithm updates, SEO trends, and best practices. These change frequently.

SEO vs. Local SEO

There is general SEO, and there is also local SEO. There are similarities and overlaps between the two, but also key distinctions.

Overall the goal of a specialist in both areas is to ensure that they are helping direct quality traffic to a site and giving users what they want and need.

Local search engine optimization is a more specialized subset of general SEO. There is a location keyword included in the search term being used, and therefore the search engine results are relevant to the users location (or location they want to see results for).

Local SEO is important for businesses that need foot traffic in particular or ones that might be service-based.

General SEO might direct someone searching for white sweaters to an optimized eCommerce site. The user doesn’t care where the business is located because they can have the item shipped to them. A local search would, as an example, connect someone with results for “plumbers in Louisville” where the user could go visit the business in person.

With the white sweater search, there’s no need for localized results.

The intent behind local search is location-centric. Along with a search term + city, search terms might also be “term + near me” or “term + closest to me.”

As far as strategy, the big difference between SEO and local SEO is using location-driven keywords. You have to think about the local customer.

Strategies for local SEO also include the creation and optimization of a Google My Business profile and building out a presence in directors and local listings. Local keyword targeting, managing online reviews, and local PR are also integral to local SEO.

Salary vs. Hourly Pay

There are different ways you can get paid if you’re an SEO specialist.

If you work as a contractor, freelancer, or consultant, you will typically charge either hourly or by the project. You’ll work out the terms with the client before you officially accept the job. You don’t have to just follow one way of being paid. You can change it based on what’s the best fit for a particular job.

If you’re going to work in-house for a company doing SEO or for a digital marketing company, you might be paid either a salary or you could be paid hourly.

Salary Pros

When you’re salaried, you have a sense of security stemming from a steady paycheck. Salaried workers, regardless of their role or industry, also tend to have a higher income than hourly workers and more access to benefits. Benefits can include paid vacation and sick time, bonuses and benefits packages such as health insurance.

Salary Cons

If you’re an employee working for a salary and you work more than a standard 40-hour workweek, for example, you won’t be able to get overtime. This can be challenging if you’re facing a big project deadline and putting in long hours.

What can sometimes happen with salaried workers and corporate culture is that there’s a push to stay competitive by working longer hours and just generally doing more than your coworkers. There’s a higher level of stress that comes with salary roles as a result. It can erode your work-life balance and disrupt your priorities.

Hourly Pros

When you work hourly, if you do a good job and make yourself an asset, there are opportunities to get more hours. If you work overtime or work on holidays, you might also get double your regular hourly rate.

There tends to be an incentive to be a standout employee when you’re competing for hours.

Hourly Cons

There are ways that employers can keep their costs low in how they manage hourly employees. Employers might want to keep more part-time workers, for example. There may not be a sense of stability, and there’s always the potential that you’re not going to earn as much as you’d like if things are slow and you’re let go early.

It’s less common for hourly employees to be offered retirement and insurance plans, and bonuses as well.

SEO Levels, Skills, and Salary

As with other industries and professions, there are different levels of working in SEO. Preparing to become an SEO specialist doesn’t have a defined formal education path. Instead, it’s based primarily on skills development, which is usually self-paced, paired with on-the-job experience.

Successful SEO professionals tend to be willing to educate themselves via educational content shared by other SEO professionals and by seeking out opportunities to put their skills into action.

SEO Apprentice

An SEO apprentice is someone new to the industry. You might have just completed college, or perhaps you’re looking to change careers. As an apprentice, you will continue learning, which is then combined with hands-on experience working with clients.

If you find employment as an apprentice, you may gain full-time and more advanced employment with the same company when they feel you’re ready.

The Role of an SEO Apprentice

The role of an SEO apprentice can depend on the client or company you’re working for, but some of the tasks you may learn and then implement include:

  • Basic SEO principles of on-site optimization and keyword research
  • Get acquainted with tools such as Ahrefs, SEMrush and Moz
  • Learn how to fix broken links
  • Writing page titles and meta descriptions
  • How to analyze data in Google Search Console and Google Analytics
  • Inbound link building strategies

The Skills and Education of an SEO Apprentice

You could theoretically go into an apprenticeship role with limited skills or education. You might have your bachelor’s degree in a related or unrelated field. You could also have completed some independent study to learn general skills.

As far as actual on-the-job experience, to be an apprentice or beginner SEO professional, it would require very little. The goal of an apprenticeship or entry-level SEO position is to help you get that experience.

SEO Apprentice Salary

Since the primary goal of working in an SEO apprenticeship or beginner role is getting experience, the pay is relatively low. You will most likely be paid hourly in this position as well.

The national SEO trainee salary on average, according to ZipRecruiter, is $59,896 or $29 an hour, but you may be paid as little as $10 an hour when starting out.

SEO Specialist

A digital marketing specialist may or may not have a bachelor’s degree in a related field like marketing or communications. An SEO specialist can work as a freelancer or contractor, in-house for marketing departments, or at a digital marketing agency.

The Role of an SEO Specialist

As a specialist, you would have the experience and skills necessary to create full-scale SEO campaigns from end-to-end with the help of a senior SEO or supervisor. You would also be responsible for assessing your campaign results, and you would likely work with other marketing professionals along the way.

While an apprenticeship is largely focused on developing singular skills and learning to apply them, as a specialist, you would need to have more strategic and holistic thinking.

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The Skills and Education of an SEO Specialist

To get the point of being an SEO specialist, you would need two to three years of experience in the development and execution of SEO campaigns, and you would need to understand ranking factors and search engine algorithms.

Some of the things you might do as an SEO specialist include:

  • Creating tailored optimization strategies to improve search engine rankings
  • Perform SEO keyword research
  • Negotiating backlinks
  • Managing site content
  • Setting goals for SEO strategies
  • Monitoring performance metrics to understand where adjustments might be needed
  • Communicating with other stakeholders, such as other marketing professionals or clients, to ensure your goals are aligned with one another
  • Creating content or outsourcing the creation of quality content

SEO Specialist Salary

The national average salary for an SEO specialist on ZipRecruiter is actually listed just below that of an apprentice at $54,144. With that in mind, you do have to remember that these salaries are only averages, and you are likely going to make more as a specialist than as an apprentice. However, this can vary depending on factors like where you’re working and who you work for.

SEO Senior Specialist

An SEO senior specialist might have more of a leadership role than a general SEO specialist. You may have advanced to the point that you’re perhaps coaching other employees or delegating some of the necessary work after a number of years working in SEO.

The Role of a Senior SEO Specialist

There are similarities between an SEO specialist and a senior specialist, but the best way to think about it is that a specialist has more seniority and may take on more of a managerial role. A senior specialist might also be responsible for more advanced technical tasks.

The Skills and Education of a Senior SEO Specialist

Some of the specific duties of a senior SEO specialist could include:

  • Continuing education to keep up with trends and changes in the industry
  • Conducting SEO audits and using relevant monitoring tools
  • Strategic planning
  • Advanced knowledge of organic search, display, PPC, and remarketing
  • Working on multiple client accounts simultaneously
  • Communication with both internal team members and clients
  • Execution of on-page strategies
  • Reviewing analytics reports, server logs, and crawl reports
  • Using analytics data to provide feedback to internal teams
  • Analyzing site visitor behavior
  • Coordinating with business development and website development teams

Education requirements for a senior SEO specialist vary. Some may have a bachelor’s degree, but you also might be able to advance to this role with a combination of informal training and hands-on experience.

Senior SEO Specialist Salary

While the national average for an SEO team lead, according to ZipRecruiter is $55,710 a year or $27 an hour, there’s a significant range. The salary range is anywhere from $20,500 up to $108,500.

SEO Manager

The role of an SEO manager is, in many ways, similar to a marketing manager. Your goals are driving traffic and awareness. You do so in a more technical way, however. The shift that occurs between being a specialist and a manager is that you are overseeing a team in most cases. You are delegating the large majority of the technical work, and you’re managing employees’ productivity and providing coaching.

You’re in charge of large-scale marketing projects.

You become less of a technical SEO professional and more of a project manager once you’ve progressed to the role of SEO manager.

You’re not going to be able to work independently as a manager, and you will have to have good communication skills. This is something not everyone in SEO might be comfortable with or enjoy. Some SEO professionals like the idea of working alone.

The Role of an SEO Manager

An SEO manager will be responsible for all aspects of a project from start-to-finish, including managing the employees who work on that project.

Some of the specific roles you might take on as an SEO manager include:

  • Project management
  • Data analysis
  • Brand management
  • People management at multiple levels
  • Client meetings
  • Creating and managing online communities
  • Market analysis

The Skills and Education of an SEO Manager

If you’re working as an SEO manager, beyond formal and informal technical and on-page SEO training, it’s beneficial to understand business and analytics. This will help you frame your projects within the larger market context.

Your skill set should be broad when you reach this point, and you should be comfortable working with data and analytics as you plan strategies.

Depending on the employer and the role, you might need a bachelor’s degree in business, marketing, finance, or computer science. You’ll also need to have at least a broad understanding of common coding languages including CSS, HTML and JavaScript.

SEO Manager Salary

According to ZipRecruiter, the nationwide average salary for an SEO manager is $69,629 a year. Salaries can be upwards of $112,500 depending on where you live, your experience, your educational background and the type of company you work for.

SEO Director

An SEO director might also be called the head of SEO.

Much like a manager, the focus of an SEO director is on strategy. An SEO director will oversee entire SEO departments and teams and will lead SEO managers in many cases.

Research and analytics, innovation and opportunities, collaboration, and leadership are important components of being an SEO director.

The Role of an SEO Director

An SEO director will more than likely have a bachelor’s degree in business, marketing, computer science, information technology, or in another related field. It would take several years or more for someone to reach the point of being an SEO director. Typically you would need at least seven years’ experience in the design and delivery of SEO strategy.

They would need extensive and broad experience in all areas of SEO as well as digital marketing.

The role of an SEO director is results-driven, which means you understand how to assess certain metrics and make adjustments. At the same time, it’s also a creative role. You’re juggling a lot of moving parts to make sure projects are effective and stay on budget and also are delivered in agreed-upon timeframes.

The Skills and Education of an SEO Director

Along with potentially having a bachelor’s degree and relevant educational on hands-on SEO experience, some of the skills and things you might be responsible for in your role as an SEO director are:

  • Strategy formulation
  • An SEO director should be comfortable working closely with marketing and content departments
  • Leading on-site and off-site SEO strategy and implementation
  • Leadership skills—an SEO director will likely be directly in charge of the SEO manager and support staff
  • The ability to set quarterly and yearly performance targets
  • Innovative thinking is necessary to identify new opportunities to maintain a competitive edge
  • An SEO director would need to work with HR to identify departmental skills gaps and work on filling positions
  • Data and analytics proficiency
  • High-level proficiency in HTML, Java, CSS, and other media technologies

SEO Director Salary

ZipRecruiter reports the national average salary for someone working as an SEO director is $112,857 a year. The range is anywhere from $89,500 to $161,000.

Types of Employment

Briefly touched on above were the different environments you can work in if you’re an SEO expert. The right choice for you is going to depend on your skills and experience but also your personal preferences and career objectives.

At an Agency

A digital marketing agency can be a great place for someone who specializes in SEO to work. The focus of most digital marketing agencies is on optimizing online traffic, but digital marketers do a lot more than that. A digital marketing agency might provide services in content creation, running ads, social media management, analytics, and more. Digital agencies work to build and maintain robust online brands for their clients across all channels.

There’s a lot of collaboration between the different departments working in an agency, so client strategy all works well together.

If one of your big goals is to begin to work somewhere with advancement opportunities, an agency can be a good option. There are often opportunities for advancement, as long as the agency is big enough.

I definitely recommend starting at an agency if you can because you will gain a ton of knowledge about other marketing channels and this is very valuable information to have as an SEO.

In-House

An in-house SEO professional works for a company and manages the companies SEO campaigns directly. There’s a sense of stability that you may like. The downside is that your career growth potential may be limited if the company isn’t very big. If you’re the only person working on digital marketing, you’re going to have few if any chances for advancement.

What could happen if you’re employed as an in-house SEO professional is that you can grow the role and maybe create your own team or department over time and as there’s a need.

Self-Employed

When you’re self-employed, at first you have to do everything independently without resources or other people working on a team with you. You will have to find leads and then turn them into your clients.

You’ll be selling yourself and your services consistently. Then, once you land clients you’ll have to communicate with them regularly, troubleshoot issues they may have, and implement all of their campaigns. You’re the ongoing support person as well.

These are all things that you do in addition to SEO itself.

With working as a self-employed SEO comes advantages along with the challenges.

First, there are very few limits to your potential growth. You could eventually hire people to work for you and turn your business into your own digital marketing agency.

You also have a lot of freedom to take on the projects you find most interesting and compelling or to avoid the projects you don’t think are a good fit for you.

If you like a challenge and you’re a self-starter, you might consider self-employment.

When you’re self-employed you can work as a consultant, contractor or freelancer. All three are similar in many ways.

As a self-employed SEO specialist, you might consider setting up your business entity as an LLC or a corporation both to protect your assets and to convey a professional image.

Working as a self-employed digital marketing professional means that initially as you build your client base and your business, you may take on smaller or lower-paying jobs. Then, as you develop a reputation, a portfolio and a track record, you can start charging more and taking on bigger projects. You create your own career path.

Conclusion

SEO is an excellent career field, and depending on the path you take there are opportunities to be creative and innovative and move up the ladder. Once you achieve seniority status as perhaps the director of SEO, you’re going to be an integral part of the organization you work for. You’ll be relied upon creatively and also from a leadership standpoint.

If you aren’t sure, explore the career field more to learn whether or not it could be right for you.

Also, keep in mind that learning SEO can position you to take on other roles within the digital marketing field.

About Dani Owens

Dani Owens, the owner of Pigzilla, has been in the digital marketing field since 2011. Her resources have been mentioned and shared by local SEO experts such as Eric Ward, Darren Shaw, Phil Rozek, Marie Haynes, David Mihm and Local U. From small, independent Mom-and-Pop shops, to enterprises with thousands of locations, Dani Owens has years of experience strategizing and implementing reliable local SEO tactics that lead to increased organic traffic and conversions.