The SEO Skills Maturity Matrix
Charting a course for SEO careers (both agency & in-house)
Welcome back to the SEO MBA! Over the last few weeks I’ve been busy talking to agencies about enrolling teams in the new Art of Client Management course. If you manage a team and are interested in group discounts or private training sessions click here.
It isn’t always clear how to advance in your SEO career. But there’s a consistent theme: if you want to reach senior SEO roles then you need to balance your focus between hard skills and soft skills.
Hard skills are mostly about specific SEO knowledge - direct understanding and application of how SEO works. Down this path leads technical mastery, and high level individual contributor roles.
But without soft skills - things like communication, management and leadership skills - you won’t reach the most senior roles.
Staying on the individual contributor path is fine - if it’s a deliberate choice. But the highest paying SEO roles I’ve ever seen have been management and leadership roles…
That’s why I’ve created this SEO skills matrix, to try and provide a pathway and career development plan for SEO industry professionals.
Note: SEO is a very broad discipline. This skills matrix is designed to be a useful tool but will likely require modification and adaptation to your specific situation.
Working at an agency I’d say that the maximum salary you can get riding on hard skills only is about $100k.
Here’s rough visualization:
Maybe there are specific technical specialist roles at very large agencies that allow you to go beyond $100k, but they’re rare. And here’s something I know to be true: your value at an agency is dependent on how much value you provide clients and if you’re not managing clients or managing teams you’re going to hit a salary ceiling.
Agency SEO Skills Matrix
Here’s the spreadsheet that outlines the various skills you need:
Notice how all of the hard skills (green in the spreadsheet) beyond level 3 basically stop contributing to your salary and promotion chances.
It’s not that these skills aren’t useful - but rather they become less valuable (from the agencies perspective). The most valuable skills become managing bigger clients, managing teams and ultimately driving growth directly for the agency by bringing in clients.
It’s those level 4 and level 5 soft skills that really start to elevate your career in an agency. They allow you to directly manage, retain and source larger client projects.
Note how once you reach director / VP level at an agency very little of the green skills are relevant day to day. Of course a grounding in SEO skills is important and it certainly might help you manage and lead teams (and have those teams respect you) but it’s not your day to day.
You day to day is spent broadly speaking in three things:
If you want to level up your client management and consulting skills around level 2-4 then the SEO MBA course The Art of Client Management will help.
If you want to level up your consulting and leadership skills from 4-5 then the course on Executive Presence will help.
Salaries in-house tend to be higher (in the US). And in particular, you can earn more purely off hard skills in-house. I think with the right situation (i.e. supportive and forgiving leadership) you could perhaps earn $150k-$175k being an advanced technical SEO with a bare minimum of soft skills. But these roles are the exception and you’ll have an easier time leveling up your career building some soft skills.
And if you want to get up to $250k+ (yes, those roles exist) then it’s crucial to develop your soft skills.
In-House Skills Matrix
Here’s the skills matrix for in-house:
Technical skills are important - but most in-house teams are not struggling because they are facing complex advanced SEO issues. Rather they’re struggling because they don’t have buy-in and budget to properly execute their SEO roadmap.
It’s the ability to navigate the organization, get things done and convince stakeholders to give you budget and resources that allow you to build out a team, set up processes and assemble the right tooling for you to be effective.
If you’re looking to develop those important level 4 and level 5 soft skills, then consider the SEO MBA course on Executive Presence.
This skills matrix is still a work in progress, but hopefully it’s useful. Either for charting your own career path or for managing the development of your team. Feel free to adapt, evolve or otherwise repurpose the matrix to suit your needs.
Thanks to everyone who reviewed a draft, especially to Kristy Morrison, Martijn Hoving and Will Critchlow. And thanks to Clay-Parker Jones for the Undercurrent matrix and Postlight for their Leveling framework.