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Making Career Choices in SEO – RankUp with Jen Penaluna

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SEO is booming, and growth goes hand in hand with job opportunities. The last 12 months or so have already seen SEO professionals across the industry changing companies and changing roles at a furious pace, but there’s no sign of the recruitment drive slowing down.

You might find yourself facing a career choice soon. When it comes, what will you be thinking about? What progression opportunities does your current workplace offer, and what might be available elsewhere? What do the different job roles in SEO mean from company to company?

We had the pleasure of speaking to Jen Penalua about these questions and more. Jen is a senior SEO strategist at Evoluted, and was one of the people to take the plunge and move to a new company in the pandemic. This interview was a fantastic opportunity to get Jen’s insights into her own decision making process, and to have the opportunity to discuss how different SEO careers can look from company to company.

As always, you can listen to the interview right here on this page or on any podcast player of your choice. Or, if you want to see a few key points, keep reading for highlights of the interview. You can also follow all of us on the podcast on Twitter, at @penaluna_jen, @seoliviamae and @BenJGarry.

Introducing Jen

Ben: Finding out about your career path has more of a direct link to our topic than usual! Would you be able to give us an overview of how you got to where you are in SEO today?

Jen: I started out in the industry four and a half years ago, as an SEO strategist – which we can come onto later. I’m not convinced that was the right title for what I did, as it was more of a content lead role. I didn’t even know what SEO stood for at that point!

I then moved into an SEO account manager role, which was more focused on getting in new business from inbound leads. It also involved more account management for existing clients, rather than doing the actual hands-on SEO.

Then, I moved to an SEO manager role, which didn’t feel like a natural progression, to move from sales-side, but I missed the hands-on work and I wanted to do it again. I was also really enjoying working with the other SEO team members.

That was probably the biggest shift in my career so far, and then I moved to Evoluted in May this year as a senior strategist.

What is an SEO strategist?

Ben: What does it mean to be a senior SEO strategist? What does it involve day to day?

Jen: To me, a strategist means that you are strategising! So you lead what’s going to happen in the next 6-12 or however many months – you set it and you execute it.

Back when I started SEO, I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t tell clients what needed to be done, because I didn’t know at that point. It was probably too fancy a title at the time. But I’d like to think it fits better now.

As a senior strategist, I’m typically responsible for the bigger budget campaigns, or for accounts where I’ll lead together with an SEO executive. In those cases, I’ll lead on the strategy and account management, but help the executive to work on them with me so that they get something out of it as well.

Ben: And Liv, you’ve recently-ish been promoted to SEO strategist at Impression. What does that mean for you?

Liv: It’s interesting that Jen said she’s led on accounts with an executive, because that’s the same transition I went through [as an executive] before being promoted. We have a similar setup at Impression for our larger accounts where, when I was an executive, I would lead certain parts of strategies, like the content side or link acquisition side of things.

In the past few months, I’ve been promoted to SEO strategist and, it’s like what Jen said, it very much involves creating and delivering the strategy, then helping the supporting team to understand the bigger picture and how individual tasks fit into it.

Ben: And I’ll add a final point, as I have a different role to both of you as a senior content specialist. While I’m involved in client strategy, it’s almost exclusively for on-site content writing, optimisation and planning, rather than focusing on all kinds of SEO, though there is certainly overlap with technical, link acquisition etc.

Why might you look to move company to progress your SEO career?

Ben: Jen, can you talk us through your thought process in making your move to Evoluted, and why it was the right move at this time in your career?

Jen: It wasn’t something I was actively looking for. I was just working and realised that I was comfortable every single day, and then I realised that I don’t like being comfortable. I want to progress and move forwards. That didn’t mean job-wise, but skills-wise.

With me managing members of the team, I was spending so much of my time upskilling other members of the team, which was the job and that’s fine, but I realised I didn’t have anyone above me to do the same. I realised that if I had the ultimate say on everything, what if I’m not right all the time? What if I could get a second opinion from someone?

I’d been chatting on and off to Ash, Evoluted’s MD, for a while and I finally said, “Yeah let’s have a chat. Let’s see what’s on offer.” Because I knew that he didn’t have a huge SEO team and it was primarily a development company, but I knew they had hired Dec from SEOWorks and I could see that they were building something there.

Then, during the initial call, they said they were getting Matt Jones, who was previously at Rise at Seven, and I know he specialises in technical SEO. So I thought, yeah, these are the kind of people I want to be working alongside.

They also said that they weren’t big enough for an SEO manager at this point, but it’s something I could grow into and discuss a little later. But we’ve got very clear career paths, as well as perks, benefits and how well the company’s run.

At that time, there was still a lot of uncertainty about going back to the office. I didn’t really like the uncertainty, because I’ve got two dogs now, so I wanted the flexibility. I thought that full remote might be lonely, but now I’m at home probably 90% of the time, and I tend to go in when needed. So that flexibility, to me was a big thing.

Why might you stay at one company to progress?

Ben: Liv, you’ve been at Impression for three and a half years now, and you’ve progressed from a graduate to your current strategist role. What made you feel comfortable staying in one agency that long, rather than looking elsewhere?

Liv: I’ve always enjoyed the fast-paced environment, and I’ve always thought that working in an agency is one the best ways to experience different things over the course of a few years. You work with so many different clients, so many different businesses and so many different types of people that you get exposure to things you might not see in-house.

You get to work on different clients in different industries, and I know that if I’ve worked on a certain task for, say, half a day, and my brain’s getting a big fatigued, I can easily switch over to something else, which for me and the way I like to work, is a massive benefit.

What’s it like starting an SEO career in the post-pandemic world?

Liv: What would you say to people who are starting out their careers in SEO, especially in terms of this post-pandemic world where some of us are working remotely, and some are in the office?

Jen: That’s a great question, because it’s not really the same as starting a job in lockdown. Even though personally I prefer remote-first, when starting out I would look to go somewhere at least with a bit of both, or office-first, because you’ll be able to speak to people who will tell you things and you’ll either listen to them, or even just listen in on them. For me, I learned a lot just listening to people on the phone!

Once people start explaining things to you, and then it clicks, you then start explaining it to clients and then build upon it and explain it in your own way.

So look for office-first or, if a company offers flexible working, check that they have a good setup in place so that you don’t feel isolated – things like company events and even just how they onboard people, like whether you’ll be expected to just crack on, or if there’s a buddy system or a system of onboarding events to work through. Also see how they handle messages and what’s expected of you in terms of communicating with people.

I feel like if there weren’t dedicated channels set up, I would really have struggled starting out remotely, because you can’t just sit at your desk and ask someone a question. You need to be able to get questions across in writing without feeling like you’re pestering somebody.

Generalist and specialist pathways in SEO progression

Ben: What has your experience been of generalist and specialist pathways that might have been available to you in your career so far? What are the differences in the paths you’ve seen?

Jen: My first strategist role was an opportunity to do a bit of everything – some content, find link opportunities, the onsite stuff – but it was also an opportunity for me to find out what I actually enjoyed doing and progress that way. I really like on-site work, and also really liked client communication. I loved explaining what we were doing and why, and getting involved with new enquiries too show people what you can offer, and educating them about what SEO really is.

At that point I went into the more sales-focused account management role, but in doing that, I did miss the on-site and technical work, and the overall SEO strategy. So the next step to SEO manager covered a bit of everything for me, because I could get involved in new business, but also do hands-on SEO and set strategies, which is where the next role at Evoluted has taken me further.

Again, I think I’ve been exposed to so many different things, it’s helped me work out the bits I do like, and I’m still doing those things now.

Liv: At Impression, and I’m sure many other places, we see SEO as three pillars: technical, content and link acquisition. For us, when you’re at the executive level and ready to progress, you can either progress to strategist or specialist.

Like Jen said, a strategist is more of a generalist role where you are responsible for the actual strategy, you speak to the client, you find out their goals and what they’re missing, and where the opportunities are. That’s when you call upon the team’s skill sets or use different specialists to help build the strategy further, or carry out certain tasks.

Or you could actually move into the specialist role – at Impression we have technical specialists and content specialists, like Ben.

For me, when I was starting out I always considered myself stronger on the content and link side of things because of my previous experience in traditional PR. And I felt that, because I have wider marketing experience to call on, I was more interested in being a strategist to put toether the strategy and understand what a client needs.

But I also know that I’m not going to have to do everything from that point. I would be able to work with other people in the team, like specialists, who can bring their own knowledge and look at things I wouldln’t even consider in a strategy.

Ben: And from my perspective, having gone down the specialist route, I had a very different experience choosing my path. I never enjoyed doing anything off-page and, even though I liked technical SEO, I knew I never really had the desire to push myself in that area to the extent that Impression’s other specialists and even some of the generalists have.

I knew that what I really loved, and what I’ve always loved since before I even knew what SEO was, was writing. I just wanted to write stuff on the internet. I enjoyed publishing my articles and editing other people’s work.

As I learned more, I also grew to enjoy going beyond that to set strategies for the future, and optimising existing content pieces to make them perform better.

When I progressed to this level I was actually a strategist for a couple of months, but then Impression gave me the opportunity to become a content specialist. I made the switch because I knew that it was what I wanted to do day in, day out, and that I didn’t need the greater variety that came with the strategist role.

If you’re in a position like me, where you feel drawn to a particular part of SEO, those roles are out there. So don’t feel like you have to be an expert at everything, or that you have to spend time doing things that you don’t enjoy if you know you have a passion for a particular area, like I did.

Join the conversation

To hear all of the content from Jen’s interview, listen to the podcast episode at the top of this page, or find the RankUp SEO Podcast channel on your podcast app of choice.

Ben, Edd and Liv will be back soon with a new episode of the RankUp podcast. In the meantime, you can find us on Twitter at @BenJGarry, @EddJTW, and @seoliviamae.

If you’re interested in being a guest on the show, please reach out to us on Twitter or via email.