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Three questions to ask in every SEM interview

Joseph Kerschbaum
Joseph Kerschbaum
SVP, Search & Growth Labs
6 min read
4 August 2014

The folks who study and go into careers in HR perplex me. From my perspective, interviewing and the hiring process in general is hard, grueling, and anxiety-prone work.  It’s even more so when you work in an industry that is emergent, constantly changing, and suffering from a shortage of talent.

This means there are no established educational or career paths that can be used as a “standard” for good candidates. I’ve made great hires who majored in biology and literature and another who changed careers from a previous life as an attorney. My degree is a Bachelor’s in Fine Art.

There is also a lot of sifting through so-called “experts” whose experience consists of parroting things they’ve read in articles.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of paid search people. I’ve made a few hires that I’m really proud of. I’ve also made a few that I’m not so proud of. In the process, I’ve learned a good deal about quickly figuring out who is a viable candidate. My interview style is fairly relaxed, and I typically tune questions to the candidate’s history and the specific needs of my role.

You probably already know the best interview questions are open-ended. I’ve refined three open-ended questions that almost always get me all the information I need on if an SEM candidate has the chops to progress to the next consideration level in the hiring process.

“Tell me about a time you made a big mistake and how you handled it.”

You want to see that the person can first admit a mistake with ease. I had 1 candidate who said, “I’ve never made a mistake.” Yeah, right . You want to hear that they recognized and owned their mistake, escalated it properly, apologized or “made good” on it, and most importantly (and this may require a follow-up nudge), instituted a process to prevent it from happening again. A good answer will demonstrate the ability to recognize, admit, and escalate problems. It will also show problem-solving abilities that can identify holes in process and methodology and create logical, streamlined solutions to prevent them in the future.

Red flags here might be blaming other people. It really may have been your Junior Associate who uploaded the typo, but the more senior person should discuss this in the context of what QA process or training they failed to implement that let this happen.

A problem could have originated from a misunderstanding of the client’s request. Rather than seeing your candidate eye-rolling at the client’s poor communication, you want to hear that the candidate instituted processes, such as creating a written request process to make sure a client with sub-par communication skills can be understood correctly in the future.

“Tell me about a recent test or optimization win you’ve had.”

You are looking for enthusiasm for the success of the candidate’s managed accounts. You want to hear that your candidate has something right at the tip of their tongue. It doesn’t have to be terribly ground-breaking, but you want to see that they care about the account and discovering improvements.

You also want to see an intimate knowledge of the numbers. You don’t need to hear them quote statistics down to tenths of a percent, but you want to hear that they have a general sense of what actually makes a big win and they can quantify that in more specificity than just saying “it was better” – you want to hear things like “we got a 20% lift in conversion rate,” or “our mobile CTR increased around 30% while maintaining the some conversion rate.”

In addition, you’ll want this answer to show a solid understanding of testing methodologies. If they talk about an A/B test that had 5 variations, you may want to investigate their understanding of testing in more depth. That said, remember that methodology and process can be trained. Enthusiasm and dedication cannot.

“Tell me about an AdWords beta or feature that you’d love to get your hands on.”

Whether your candidate is coming from an in-house position or an agency, everybody is limited to using the features that fit with their managed accounts.

You could manage millions in lead gen spend and never have gotten to work with Shopping/PLA campaigns. Perhaps you are itching to test image extensions but don’t have a good fit. You are looking for a knowledge of recent product releases or betas that indicates they keep current with the industry and have an enthusiasm for staying dynamic and learning/testing new features.

The answer here doesn’t even need to be a particularly brand-new feature if it shows that your candidate keeps a holistic pulse on the industry and has an enthusiasm for their discipline beyond the day-to-day accounts they are directly assigned.

If you hear that they’ve never managed an account with conversion tracking enabled, you’ll want to investigate this in more depth. It’s possible that there could be a valid reason for this, but also not terribly likely, and if they’ve been working on accounts that are this constrained, their overall skill set may be behind the curve.

Fit your questions to the level of your job opening

All of these questions can be tuned for any level. For more senior or management-level candidates, you are looking for almost the same answers, but you want to hear them talk about things their team did. You want to hear that they communicate strongly with their employees about account dynamics, client relationships, and successful execution. You want to hear about the nuance of their management style – do they seem to be taking all the credit for something that sounds more like a team effort? Can they effectively manage problems?

All three questions will also give you a good sense of whether your candidate falls more on the quant side (they’ll talk a lot about numbers) or more on the relationship management side (you’ll hear a lot about personalities and relationship dynamics);  you can measure whether their balance fits the needs of the role you are filling.

These three questions have helped me immensely in confidently acquiring good talent. If you (like me) don’t consider the hiring process very fun, hopefully, these questions help make it a little bit easier!

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SVP, Search & Growth Labs

Joseph Kerschbaum