We all reach certain stages in life where we take stock and assess where we are heading, why we are heading there, and what we actually want to achieve from life. One such moment occurred to me in the early stages of 2011, whilst working as a teaching assistant in a high school in my hometown, Worthing.
I had been on a career path that had meandered since I left college with a national diploma in Theatre & Performing Arts, working in retail, property lettings, care work, and teaching.
I was 24, parent to a one-year-old boy, and I was on an inadequate salary — I wanted to get myself on a career path that wasn’t going to take seven years to qualify me for the first rung of a semi-decent pay ladder. I was looking to make my career in a growing industry to earn a better wage and provide a better life for my boy.
After dismissing advice from external sources to “go into car sales”, I began researching different industries with entry-level jobs and landed on digital marketing, specifically looking at SEO.
At that time (2011), the most digital experience I had was creating and editing videos for school sports days, occasionally checking emails, and wasting time on MySpace (yes, I’m old enough to have been a very active user of that social platform) — SEO was absolutely alien to me. I began talking to the head of IT at the school I worked in to see what they knew. It wasn’t much, but I continued researching and even attempted to write some HTML code using W3 schools (I got about as far as making a title, a H1, and a little text link). “Piece of cake!” I thought to myself, and abruptly began researching SEO companies near me.
Lo and behold, I found a really snazzy looking agency literally on my doorstep. It had bean bag lounging areas, a pool table, xbox consoles, a gym, and some awesome wall art. I definitely wanted some of that. Working at a funky, vibrant company, with some awesome looking benefits? Yes, please!
Here’s what I did.
I took the rather bold decision to feign being unwell and left the school one dreary afternoon. I went home, put on my best 3-piece suit, grabbed a decent looking leather satchel, put a solitary CV in it, and walked down to the agency’s front door.
Upon being invited into reception, I asked to see the recruitment manager (I’d researched his name on their website beforehand so asked for him directly). Unexpectedly, I was ushered into a private meeting room with the recruitment manager who said, “so what can you do for us?” — turns out he was thinking I was from a recruitment agency and would help with recruitment drives.
“I’d like a job in SEO please”, I said eagerly and with all the confidence of a man who has performed on stage since an early age. I sang a hilariously funny rendition of “Mary Mary quite contrary” at a holiday camp when I was 5 and had to be dragged off stage by some red coats because I wouldn’t stop repeatedly singing the final line of the song.
Stunned, the recruitment manager told me to hang on a second whilst he got someone. I half-expected a security guard to frog-march me out of the office, but instead, I watched as one of the agency’s founders came into the room. Then, he grilled me for around an hour about why I wanted to be in SEO, what I knew about it. I was also given a multiple-choice questionnaire about digital marketing and SEO — one of the questions was “who is the founder of Moz” – genuinely thought Rand Fishkin was a made up name, so selected “Matt Cutts” instead.
An unexpected journey
Quite how it happened, I don’t fully know, but apparently my bold tactic paid off, and I was being offered a four week internship, where I would learn SEO by shadowing the SEO team. Fortunately, this would happen during the school summer holidays, so I had the chance to actually do the internship without it interfering with the job I was contracted to do.
The four weeks went by in an absolute blur where I learned what the heck SEO was and some of the tactics and processes that went into an SEO professional’s day-to-day life. There was a lot to take in, and some days I went home with my head spinning. I set up my own (rubbish) blog on WordPress to try and put into practice what I had learned, and at the end of the four weeks was told that I would be given a call when a job opening came up.
A month later, I was invited to come back for an interview, during which I messed up pretty much everything I answered because I had managed to draw a mental blank for every single question asked of me. Hugely embarrassed, I left the interview and waited for the inevitable call to say, “thanks for coming in, but unfortunately, we’re going to pursue other options”. Instead, I was called by the MD to firstly ask, “what happened in the interview?” to which I again apologised and said that I had drawn a complete blank through nerves. Then, to my surprise, he said, “well, by the skin of your teeth, you’ve convinced me, and I’d like to offer you a job as a junior in the company.”
Cue the cheesy 80’s celebratory scene of me running in to tell my family the good news, then walking around in a haze whilst “I am the one and only” by Chesney Hawkes played in my head.
I spent the next five years within the agency, working my way up the ranks, so to speak. I spent time not only in an SEO role but worked with the CRO team, analytics team, and development teams. I became a manager in the Inbound Marketing team and even spent an 18-month internal “sabbatical” as business development manager after the founders of the company asked me to do an interim role because I have a fairly out-going personality (drama diploma paying for itself here).
At another critical “taking stock” juncture, I decided that I was ready to move on from my first agency and delve into some in-house SEO work for a major insurance company, motivated by money and nothing else. I can summarise the experience in 6 words; Mistake. Idiot. Red Tape. Exasperation. Quitting.
So I found myself between a self-inflicted rock and a hard place. Leaving a really decent company where I was well-respected and where I liked everyone who I worked with, to the literal opposite just for a pay rise, and where I had basically given my notice and left on the same day because I was on the verge of having a breakdown by having to work there.
In this extreme stress, I found myself deciding to find some of my own clients and work as a freelance SEO consultant. I put in some calls, and after a week or so, was in touch with someone who was looking for SEO help for their company. Thus began my two-year stint as an SEO freelancer. I had business cards made up and everything. It was glorious. Work on whatever projects I wanted to, do some hot-desking in other agencies, do some contracted in-house work for a set period, get paid some decent dollar, and be able to do the school run and spend more time with my family. As Del-boy would say, “Lovely Jubbly Innit!”
But then things came crashing down. Hard.
My marriage came to an abrupt and painful end. Within the space of 6 weeks, I found myself homeless, financially ruined, and without the comfort of being able to see my son every day.
I had choices to make because I was unable to keep freelancing due to not having enough tax records to prove my income (which is what you need in order to buy or even rent a house).
I spent the next couple of months in a proper mess. Fortunately, I managed to keep my wits about me enough to get a job (to essentially give me proof of income so I could get a flat), but it was an arduous commute and ultimately not what I wanted to be doing. I slogged it out though, and eventually I was presented an opportunity by a recruitment agency to work from home as the in-house SEO manager for a global events company. This was in August of 2019. 7 months later, I was made redundant as Covid began its sustained and flipping soul-destroying mark on the whole world, effectively shutting down face to face events overnight.
I was then forced to do some searching for freelance gigs, and thankfully a friend helped me out and I got something to tide me over for a couple of months.
A new start
Jump to June 2020, and I received an email from a recruiter by the name of James Congdon (many people in the SEO industry will probably have been placed in their jobs thanks to his amazing work), informing me of an opportunity within an up and coming London-based eCommerce SEO agency, NOVOS, who were looking for an SEO Strategist to join their team.
I had a couple of video-based interviews (because Covid), and was welcomed into the NOVOS team.
It has been onward and upward since I joined NOVOS. I was promoted to the role of SEO manager within 6 months of joining the company and now lead a talented team of strategists remotely creating SEO strategies for brands such as Bloom & Wild, T.M. Lewin, O’Neills etc. It is not just me, the agency has also witnessed spectacular growth – despite being a startup, NOVOS has worked with over 100 global eCom brands, won 6 international awards, expanded its team by 50% and has reached £1 million in annual revenue.
We work hard and we have adapted to life in a mid-covid world exceptionally well, with all of our team working remotely, and now starting to begin working in-person at our brand new digs in central London.
I’m also particularly pleased that I have joined a company where I have been able to try my hand at playing Dungeons and Dragons for the first time (having wanted to do it for ages after watching Stranger Things). I have fun, and every day I’m excited to get up and make the 10 step journey to my home office even more exciting is the prospect of finally meeting some of my colleagues in person for the first time!
Over to you
If you’re like I was, and you’re taking stock of your career path, or you’re thinking “how can I get started in digital marketing or SEO?” then here’s my top four pieces of advice:
1. Start reading/watching – honestly it’s the single most important thing you can do to understand the industry, and there are so many great places to get information from. Check out Moz’s Beginner’s guide to SEO, read Search Engine Journal, SE Roundtable, watch YouTube videos. We live in a time where so much information is freely available, go out and consume it.
2. Get practical – build yourself a free WordPress blog and start with SEO and content creation basics. You’re not going to need to know how to code to be an SEO; that’s what our brothers and sisters in the developer world are there for. What you will need to know is what elements of a web page does Google look at when determining how to contextualise, and index any piece of content on the webisphere. Having a bit of practical experience, even if self-taught, is going to put you leagues ahead of any candidate who only has theoretical knowledge. Also, make sure you install Google Analytics on your blog and start digging around the GA reports so you get accustomed to this (75 to 90% of what I do is data analysis, so be prepared to crunch some numbers and look for patterns).
3. Play – use some free-to-use tools (or paid tools that give a free trial) to get some experience of researching and using data to inform the “why” behind SEO tactics. SEMrush, Sistrix, Ahrefs, Moz, Google Search Console, Screaming Frog, Xenu, Redirect Path, Answer the Public, Keyword Surfer, Tag Manager, the list is endless and there are plenty of well-written listicles showing you the best free tools out there.
4. Believe in yourself – no one is going to hand you anything in life. Life is a series of peaks and troughs, and some days you’re going to question what the heck you’re doing, or you’ll feel like giving up.
Rise up, get determined, get learning, and go knock on some doors. The worst that will happen is you’ll hear the word “no” a fair few times. It will not be an easy road, believe me, but my journey started when I literally knocked on a door and asked someone for a job, even though I didn’t know about SEO. Ten years later, I’m working as an SEO manager in one of the best digital agencies in the UK. I’m always learning, and that journey won’t ever end.
Start your journey, one step and one door at a time. You never know where you’ll end up.