How I Got A Full-Time Job At An SEO Agency Without Any Formal Training Or Experience

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My first ever “real” job in my life was at an SEO agency.

When I was hired, I felt I didn’t deserve it. I believed they made a mistake. I had no formal experience or training whatsoever. I had never held a real “SEO job” anywhere, and even my results working on my own sites weren’t that great either.

But still, I was hired.

I remember the day of my interview so clearly.

It was a pretty big agency who worked with a lot of big clients. I felt I had no business being in there.

I was 100% certain that other candidates had much more experience than me. My confidence was at zero. I convinced myself that they were just giving me a shot only because I was so passionate about SEO in my cover letter.

We sat down. We talked. They asked questions.

It was all a blur to be honest. But it was going well. Better than I expected.

They were super nice and welcoming. They could tell I was nervous.

I explained to them about how I was freelancing as an SEO consultant (That was only 70% true. I only had like 2 clients who paid me $300/month. Not exactly enough to call myself a “consultant.”).

I told them of the horror stories I experienced dealing with them, and how I swore to myself I’ll never freelance again. I explained how they had no idea how Google worked, they were paying me so little, but expected the world in results.

They laughed and told me they knew exactly what I meant.

Nice!

In the middle of the conversation, they asked to see my blogs. I had mentioned them in my cover letter.

At the time, they weren’t anything special, just making me a few hundred dollars each month. I wasn’t very proud of them. I felt I could do a lot better than, and was embarrassed to reveal them.

They were quiet for like 10 minutes, as they clicked around, and analyzed the site. I awkwardly sat there, across from them, not knowing what to do or where to look while I waited.

Then, they asked me the question that gave me a boost of confidence. They noticed I got a link from a big university in Canada, and asked how I managed to do it.

I told him about the outreach strategy I used. They were listening to me carefully, and it looked like they were impressed.

I felt a lot more comfortable after that. And a few questions later, I was dismissed. They didn’t show any hint of whether they would hire me or not.

I went home feeling pretty good about the interview, but almost 100% certain that I wouldn’t get the job. I was sure there were dozens of other candidates who had much more experience than I had – people who’ve worked at agencies and received formal SEO training.

I chalked up the interview as a good learning experience, and something I could use to apply to other SEO jobs at smaller agencies.

But that same night, I received a phone call. I GOT THE JOB!

It’s funny how clearly I can remember this. I remember what I was wearing, where I was standing, what my boss said to me, and all the emotions that went through my head as he explained everything to me.

It was one of the happiest moments in my life.

Why was an SEO job so important to me?

Up until that point, I had spent years trying to make a living through online marketing.

That was my dream – to work in digital marketing full-time. However, my own sites weren’t making nearly enough money for me to live off of. It was frustrating to say the least.

When I landed a salaried job as an SEO specialist, it kind of made that dream come true. I say “kind of” because my true dream was to work for myself.

But it was still a big turning point for me. I would be able to spend everyday doing something I actually loved.

I’ve worked at several different jobs in my life. None of them lasted long. This was the first time I was proud to tell people what I do. It was the only time I was excited for my first day of work.

Why I was hired

A few weeks into the job, I asked my boss why they hired me. It was still bugging me. I was sure they had a ton of strong candidates.

So why me?

Here’s what they told me. And I’ll never forget these words, and I’ve already passed on this information several times to people who have emailed me asking for advice on getting an SEO job.

Here it is:

The reason they hired me was because I was the only applicant who had practical experience building and growing and managing my own sites.

The other candidates may have had more “agency experience” than I had, but that didn’t mean they were qualified. It just meant they were technically skilled, but didn’t have deeper knowledge of search engines and how everything works.

I, on the other hand, knew how to build and grow WordPress sites from scratch. I knew how to optimize on-site SEO for an entire site from scratch. I knew how to do keyword research on my own, and I knew how to build content that would rank. I knew how to do outreach effectively.

I had no experience with spreadsheets or using more sophisticated software to organize/track the outreach process, but that’s not a very important part.

This was an amazing thing to hear. It made me feel awesome. It made me feel like I truly deserved this job, something I hadn’t felt once even after I accepted the position.

The benefits of working at an SEO agency

The majority of people who follow RankXL have the exact same dream that I had when I was hired at an agency.

They want to build their own profitable content businesses and work for themselves.

That’s the ultimate goal.

But if you’re in a similar position that I was in, working at a job can be extremely beneficial for you in several different ways.

Here are some of the ways an agency job can help.

#1. You learn what really makes sites rank

An SEO agency can’t survive if they can’t rank their clients’ sites. Sure, creating amazing content helps. But what really makes sites rank is link building. And when you work at an SEO agency, you learn the most effective link building strategies that are working best.

#2. The fastest education

You’re not going to waste time testing different things to see what works. They already know what works. They’ve done the testing long before you became an employee.

Instead of throwing a bunch of different things on a wall and seeing what sticks, you’re going to be guided along a proven process that they depend on to keep their business alive.

That’s invaluable (practical) training you’re receiving WHILE being paid!

#3. You’re forced to take action

Unfortunately, the majority of people are readers, not doers. I was the same way (and kind of still am). You can read all the strategy you want, but once you’re in the trenches you’ll be lost without any actual hands-on experience.

It’s tough to find the motivation and confidence to put something you just read about into action. But when you’re working at an agency, you’re not allowed to just consume strategy. It’s your job to execute them.

And if you’re doing it every single day, it becomes second nature and you develop a really good mindset for all this stuff. That makes it 100x easier to slap up a new site of your own and get building using exactly what you learnt from work.

#4. Use all the newest software

When you’re not making much money on the side, it’s tough to swallow the costs of marketing tools. Most will run you $100/month on their own.

When you’re working at an SEO agency, you have access to every and any tool you want. For me, I was free to try out whatever tool I wanted. There was no need for a long discussion about whether we should get it.

We just bought it. If it worked, we kept it. That’s awesome and it allows you to fully grasp a working knowledge of what tools are best, and which ones you should invest in for yourself outside of work.

#5. Get to know people who actually know what you’re talking about

My friends or family had no idea what I do, even when I tried explaining it to them dozens of times.

Working at the agency gave me the chance to truly dive into deep conversations about marketing and SEO strategies. This is something I could never find before.

The cons of working at an SEO agency

It may sound like a ton of fun to work at an agency from what you’ve read so far. But let me tell you some of the bad things I’ve experienced as well.

#1. You will hate client work forever

This is the biggest one. And it’s 100% the reason I turn down client work every single day, even when offered a decent amount of money.

Client work is the worst. Yes, there are some people who enjoy it. Personally, I hate it.

SEO is fun when I’m working on my own projects. It’s fun to grow a site from scratch and try to build it as big as I can. It gets my heart racing to see a blog grow to a million uniques in a month for the first time.

It’s not really the same feeling when it’s all happening on a site you don’t own.

#2. It can get tedious

A lot of the work is systematic, and it can get repetitive and boring. Unless your agency has really efficient processes in place, 99% of the time you’re going to be doing work that you feel isn’t worth your time.

#3. Day jobs suck

I guess this isn’t specific to an SEO agency job, but I absolutely hate working for other people. This has always been true, and I have always felt that way in my life ever since I was a teenager.

Some people don’t mind jobs. They prefer the security of a steady paycheque.

Not me. And this hatred of day jobs grew so strongly when I was at that agency. I hated coming in to work everyday like a robot.

30 minutes late? Need to text my boss and apologize.

Want to take some time off because I’m feeling burned out? Need to awkwardly ask for permission.

That kind of stuff really bugs me a lot. Again, this won’t be true for everybody. It’s just the way I feel about jobs.

The upside of this all is that it really drove me to work harder on my side projects and grow them big enough where I could quit.

One last tip for people who want to look for an SEO job

For your first job, make sure you’re an apprentice and not the lead.

What do I mean by that?

I mean get a position at an agency where you’ll be working under somebody with a lot of experience.

This is the best way to learn, and it’s the biggest reason for why I was able to successfully grow my own projects so quickly.

I often get emails from readers of the blog that they’ve been offered a job to do SEO in-house for some random company.

Usually, these are companies that hire individuals who will work for cheap and do SEO exclusively for them full time because it’s cheaper than hiring an agency for $10K per month.

Unless you’re an expert at SEO and growing traffic, and already have experience growing multiple blogs to 100,000+ uniques per month, (and will be paid at least $5K/month) do not accept these jobs.

You will learn nothing, and you will be required to do everything yourself.

Plus, these companies usually know nothing about SEO. You’ll be given a tiny budget, and unrealistic goals/deadlines.

The point of getting your first job at an SEO agency is to learn and grow. Whether it be to advance in the agency world, or to make a living while growing your own business.

So make your decision on where to work based on which company will provide you with the best education.

31 Comments

  • Reply
    Obed Kissiedu Aboah
    August 9, 2018 at 2:18 pm

    Right on point Chris – Very inspiring & Motivating

    • Reply
      Chris Lee
      August 9, 2018 at 3:01 pm

      Glad you enjoyed it Obed.

  • Reply
    Paul
    August 9, 2018 at 2:50 pm

    Great article thanks Chris, an interesting and revealing insight into the real SEO world!

    • Reply
      Chris Lee
      August 9, 2018 at 3:01 pm

      Thanks, Paul 🙂

  • Reply
    dusty
    August 9, 2018 at 4:17 pm

    Great article Chris! In order to find an SEO apprenticeship opportunity, how do you go about searching for them and which job search engines are the best?

    • Reply
      Chris Lee
      August 10, 2018 at 3:01 pm

      Thanks Dusty! Back in the day, I used Craigslist and Indeed. If I were searching now, I would look at AngelList and also looking through each of the SEO agency websites in my local area to see if they have a job listing page. If they don’t, you can always send them an email introducing yourself, and ask them to let you know if there are any openings.

  • Reply
    Nadya from livingoffcloud
    August 9, 2018 at 6:24 pm

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Chris! Very interesting
    I have a question. While working at the agency, did u continue working on your sites? If so, the agency did not mind or there was some special agreement (for example, no competition with the clients)?

    • Reply
      Chris Lee
      August 9, 2018 at 8:04 pm

      Thanks Nadya.

      Yeah I did. I don’t think they minded at all. It never really came up whether I can build projects of my own or not.

      But they did say I couldn’t freelance as an SEO anymore. Later agreed on a commission based model where if I referred clients, I would receive a part of the monthly payments.

      • Reply
        Nadya from livingoffcloud
        August 9, 2018 at 9:36 pm

        I see
        That’s nice
        In software development where I am from, it’s usually written in the contract that the employee cannot work on the similar to day job stuff on the side (for money). Also the clause often extends for 1 year after the employee leaves

  • Reply
    Collins Eze
    August 9, 2018 at 7:09 pm

    I just wish I no what I want to do with my life like I see people here. I love SEO, I love web programming, I want to build a blog(finding a niche I truly love has been something else) all the blogs I have started failed completely. I don’t even know where my problem is coming from. I know blogging, digital marketing and now I am learning web programming. Just so confused

    • Reply
      Chris Lee
      August 9, 2018 at 8:05 pm

      Sounds like you’re getting there! Everyone fails until they succeed, so don’t give up.

  • Reply
    David James
    August 9, 2018 at 7:49 pm

    Always enjoy reading your posts Chris, thanks for sharing.

    • Reply
      Chris Lee
      August 9, 2018 at 8:02 pm

      Thanks David 🙂

  • Reply
    Taka
    August 9, 2018 at 9:50 pm

    I really love how you described the story here, Chris. I could picture you sitting with an interviewer. As much as you hate working for clients, now you have tons of experience you can draw from and nothing can replace that. Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply
      Chris Lee
      August 10, 2018 at 1:45 am

      Haha yeah thanks for that Taka 🙂

  • Reply
    Maruf Hasan
    August 10, 2018 at 1:40 am

    Hi Chris,

    I was just reading your content and it seems to me that almost 60% have matched with your experience. I am working as a digital marketer and facing the same experience which you have faced in your job life.

    My professional job gives me a fixed salary which helps me from the uncertainty of income. Because on freelancing career there is no limitation of income. Sometimes it could be high or sometimes it could be low. That’s why I prefer a corporate job.

    Now I am in my office and check your email. Wow, hope that it will make my day great. I am highly inspired and motivated by this content.

    Thank you.

    • Reply
      Chris Lee
      August 10, 2018 at 1:46 am

      Super glad to hear that! Good luck Maruf 🙂

  • Reply
    DJ Rony
    August 10, 2018 at 5:13 pm

    A very interesting point of view. If you need a job, you must do it. If you have money to survive, then work for your own project. The math is simple for me.

    • Reply
      Chris Lee
      December 14, 2018 at 2:26 pm

      Haha, yes! Thanks DJ 🙂

  • Reply
    Bhuboy
    August 11, 2018 at 2:03 am

    Thanks for this post Cris, it is very timely for me. I am planning to resign from my work here abroad on December, and considering working online instead and spend time with my family while I am working on my sites to a full time income. SEO and online marketing are the niches I am looking into applying for.

    • Reply
      Chris Lee
      August 12, 2018 at 3:32 pm

      Awesome! Glad to hear that Bhuboy!

  • Reply
    Michel Maling
    August 24, 2018 at 9:49 am

    Wow that was an interesting read. Yes you are right. There is nothing quite like building your own site from scratch to teach you all about what does and doesn’t work as far as SEO goes.

    Glad you are working on your own terms now.

    • Reply
      Chris Lee
      September 11, 2018 at 5:52 pm

      Thanks Michel!

  • Reply
    emma
    August 25, 2018 at 2:31 am

    Hi Chris, do you have plan to make a post related to Google recent algo update?

    • Reply
      Chris Lee
      September 11, 2018 at 5:52 pm

      Hi Emma, there have been tons of articles published about it, a lot of them much better than I could have written, so won’t be covering it.

  • Reply
    Rashon
    September 6, 2018 at 4:57 pm

    Was the company amazed by you? Your experience I mean.

    Was hard answering why you wanted to work for someone else now? (to answer the interviewer)

    • Reply
      Chris Lee
      September 11, 2018 at 5:37 pm

      Company was happy with my performance 🙂 Actually received a nice raise and promotion just a couple of months into the job.

      Wasn’t hard to answer why I wanted to work for someone else. I was freelancing at the time, and my own sites weren’t making nearly enough for me to do it full time.

  • Reply
    Suman Gaudel
    October 17, 2018 at 2:18 pm

    Great article Chris. Really inspiring one for me as new blogger and SEO wanna be. Thank you from this regular follower.

    • Reply
      Chris Lee
      October 18, 2018 at 8:09 pm

      Thanks for checking it out Suman 🙂

  • Reply
    CiprianS
    October 27, 2018 at 4:25 pm

    I read this.. And I remember my first proieict.. Funny Moment
    P. s You do a very good job!

    • Reply
      Chris Lee
      October 27, 2018 at 11:55 pm

      Haha, thanks 🙂

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