Gotcha questions are dumb.
I feel like I could just drop the mic right there, but perhaps some context is needed.
The whole point of gotcha questions is to see if someone is as smart as you. They aren’t about assessing knowledge or judgment, but more about if you can trap them into looking dumb.
Gotcha questions usually come in two forms:
- Questions that require someone to know some pointless bit of trivia.
- Questions that are designed to trap someone into agreeing with something that isn’t true by virtue of not contesting the basis of the question to begin with.
In the end, most gotcha questions have little value or purpose other than to make the interviewer feel better about how smart they are.
These may work with your frenemies, but they don’t really have any place in a job interview.
I recently wrote a series of posts outlining over a hundred SEO job interview questions pertaining to the candidate’s knowledge, experience, and digital marketing strategies. In all those questions, there isn’t a single gotcha question to be found, and with good reason. And for that reason, I’ll refer you to my opening statement in this post.
But that’s not the only reason.
There’s no need for gotcha questions. None.
You can learn a lot more from the candidate by asking them thoughtful, meaningful questions that require them to dive deep into their thought processes.
Below I have outlined some of the most typical SEO gotcha questions, and explain why they shouldn’t be asked.
SEO Gotcha Questions That Should Never Be Asked Again
1. Who is [insert any big industry name here]?
Danny Sullivan and Rand Fishkin are arguably the two most well-known names in our industry. But what about Bruce Clay? Loren Baker? Matt Cutts? Avinash Kaushik? Neil Patel? Wil Reynolds? I could go on, but surely I’ve already impressed you enough with my name dropping!
Look, most SEOs connected in the industry will know all (or a handful) of these names, but what’s the point? To demonstrate that the candidate knows who someone is? And if they do, that doesn’t mean much. It tells you nothing about them other than they can drop a name.
A better question would be to ask who the SEO follows as part of their education. Let them tell you not just who, but why they follow someone in particular. That is a much better gauge of the candidate.
2. Who was the Panda update named after?
(No offense to the Google engineer it was named after. I’m sure your mom is proud!)
3. What are the names of the most recent/important Google updates?
Again with the name dropping. Look, I’ve been in this industry since 1998, and I can barely keep up with all the Google algorithm update names. And even when I do, I often get them confused with each other.
Maybe I’m just getting old.
But are the names that important? Or is it more important to understand what the algorithm updates mean?
4. What are the character limits of meta tags?
There really isn’t any such thing as meta tag character limits. They can be as long as you want them to be.
However, search engines will only display a certain portion of them in the search results before they cut them off. And those limits aren’t even based on a certain number of characters but on pixels.
Some title tags will truncate after 45 characters, others will be truncated after 75. Some tests have proven that over 100 characters will display (lots of l’s and i’s!).
So, sure, the candidate can provide a best practice range, but asking for character limits is a question based on a false premise.
5. What does [insert SEO acronym here] mean?
OMG! There are far too many digital marketing acronyms to keep up with. I find myself Googling half of them!
Again, there is so little value in a question that asks a candidate to explain what an acronym means. How about instead you ask them to explain the value of whatever it is you’re looking for?
If you ask the candidate a question that includes an acronym, don’t worry if they ask you to clarify what that particular acronym means.
Focus on the big picture, not the small stuff.
How much can NSEO impact CPC in GIS, and can you achieve a better ROI by focusing on SMO rather than TBPR of the URL?
6. Who founded Google and when?
Two guys who now have a lot more money than me!
Look, this is fun trivia, but does knowledge of Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s names help an SEO do their job any better?
7. What does PageRank stand for?
I’m sure a lot of SEOs might think that PageRank stands for the score given to a page based on its link profile. Even though that’s wrong, its a much better answer than what it really stands for, the ranking algorithm developed by Larry Page!
A more valuable question to ask is “What does PageRank do?” Now we’re getting to the meat of things!
8. According to [insert industry name here], what is the right way to [insert strategy here]?
A good SEO shouldn’t be building their SEO strategies on what Expert X thinks. Instead, they should be building strategy not only on what Experts A–Z say but on their own experience and results as well.
Don’t ask about what other experts think, ask the candidate what they think.
9. What is the ideal keyword density for a perfectly optimized web page?
Since there’s no such thing as the ideal keyword density, this is another question based entirely on a false premise. There are many other ways to talk about on-page and keyword optimization strategies without resorting to such trickery.
10. What is more important, content or links?
This question might be allowable so long as your intent isn’t to catch them into giving a false answer. The truth is, no one really knows what’s more important, so the answer that the candidate will give is only their opinion. And therefore it can’t be wrong.
But if your purpose is to pounce on them when they give an answer, you’re doing interviews wrong!
11. How do you optimize the meta keyword tag?
While the keyword meta tag is useless for search engines, some in-site searches use this tag to help pull up content for their own search results. In those situations, optimization of the keyword meta tag can be valuable.
But if that’s not the spirit of how the question is being asked, skip ahead to the next question.
You’re free to ask them how much value the meta tag has, but don’t try to trap them into giving an answer to the question as asked above.
12. How do you use meta descriptions to improve rankings?
Meta descriptions don’t improve rankings. So as with the question above, the question as asked here is a non-starter.
Instead, focus on why they optimize meta description tags, what value they add, and what a good meta description might look like.
13. We’ve been hit with a penalty for [insert algorithm name here] and now I have [insert unrelated SEO problem here]. How would you help?
Again, this is a question with a deliberately false premise. You’re trying to trap the candidate into providing a solution for a problem unrelated to the penalty outlined.
The candidate is likely to assume that you are being intellectually honest with your question. Instead of rummaging through the corridors of their mind to verify you have your algorithm name matched with the correct problem, they might jump right into the solution to the real problem.
And isn’t that what you want, a candidate who looks for solutions rather than making sure you have the right name attached to the problem?
Don’t Ask Dumb Gotcha Questions When Hiring an SEO
Gotcha questions are nothing more than surface questions. They might help you weed out bad candidates, but honestly, bad candidates shouldn’t have even gotten to the interview stage to begin with.
If you have to resort to gotcha questions, you’re wasting your and the candidate’s time. Not only that, but you’re in danger of showing your own ignorance at best, and at worst, you’re demonstrating you don’t know enough about SEO to ask the questions that matter.
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Author: Stoney G deGeyter
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