Insights

SEO Imposter Syndrome – A Digital Epidemic

6 minute read

Luka Stephenson

A deep dive into a digital phenomenon. What makes Imposter Syndrome so prevalent in the SEO industry? And how to stop yourself and your team from falling head first into the self-doubt abyss.

Every SEO I have ever met has some level of imposter syndrome (and I’ve met A LOT OF ‘EM).

At first glance, this is likely due to the fact that there are so many moving goal posts in the world of SEO and until more recently, so much of what we do is based on testing to see what works; which if unsuccessful can lead to feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy. But when I dug down deep into my own neurosis, I realised that there is so much more nuance to each person’s view of themselves within this ever-evolving, multi-billion-pound industry. My version of this was when I first started out in SEO and was convinced that I would never be as successful as a graduate as they have been taught a specific framework which allows them to research and annotate more efficiently than I could, but over time, I realised that not only was this a skill that I too could learn, but that I also possessed skills that graduates may be less adept at – such as ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking, which allows me to see my job role in a more creative and enjoyable light.

I also struggled with my confidence and conviction which one of my previous mentors pointed out to me. Although he is one of the more shy people I’ve met, when it came to SEO, this guy would turn into Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson when talking about anything search related – smart and charming in equal measure (which is my two word breakdown of confidence). I always remember him saying to me ‘what you are saying is right – be more succinct’. As a result of this I went through at least 2 years of writing emails in the morning, checking them at lunch and sending them after 3pm so I could have the full day’s perspective to make sure they were articulating exactly what I wanted to say in the most efficient way. Now I simply write, re-read and send! Needless to say, this was a laborious but necessary learning curve for me as my confidence and knowledge grew.

I read an article in Search Engine Land not long ago that provided the statistic that ‘over 90% of people working in the Digital Industry have experienced some form of imposter syndrome’ and I wasn’t shocked. About 6 years ago I joined an amazing online network called Women In Tech SEO (the slack group) and as I hit a particularly memorable period of burnout I decided to put it to the group – ‘how many of you suffer or have suffered with imposter syndrome?’

The response (unsurprisingly) was a resounding YES, which not only made me feel seen, understood and part of a community, but is probably also the reason I didn’t end up changing my career and persevered through said wobble, coming out a much more confident and more importantly, competent SEO.

What was even more interesting was that of the responses I received, many of these women were Senior SEO’s, who had been doing their jobs for upwards of a decade.

But it’s not just women who suffer – these lucky ladies were simply my first unofficial focus group.

I decided to reach out to a couple of colleagues, both of which at the time just so happened to be male. One was a Senior SEO and the other was mid-weight at the time like me. At this point, I figured I had nothing to lose and I had a friendship with both of them so figured if they both thought I was a hopelessly unprofessional fraud, they’d be less likely to shame me for it so harshly. The first one I opened up to was ‘mid-weight’. He, like me, responded instantly by saying that he too had days where he would stare at an enormous set of data in front of him and his internal monologue would just be repeating ‘what is the data telling me?’ (IYKYK) and the answer to that internal question would often be *tumble weed* … *deafening silence* … * flatline noise*

Then I approached Senior – his response was more specific. He immediately validated my feelings by saying ‘oh God yeah – the strategy deck I’ve been writing for (insert multi-million-pound E-com website here) feels like 90% waffle and I haven’t slept right for a week worrying about what their response will be and who will read it.’ I saw the finished product. None of it was waffle and the client loved it!

I think that’s the difficulty with Imposter Syndrome – your brain is telling you that you are rubbish at what you do and unless you have someone telling you otherwise, it’s easy to fall into a trap of giving credence to said thoughts. For this reason, I was quick to tell Senior SEO how great I thought their strategy was and I know they appreciated it.

These open and vulnerable responses made me feel so relieved and I felt like I had built myself a little group therapy community that I could potentially share with on my off days.

In light of all this, I wanted to share my best tip’s for not only surviving but thriving in an industry that’s unofficial strapline is ‘it depends’;

  • Read. A lot. My way of keeping up with all the constant changes happening was to create an RSS feed that I’ve added all the best and most relevant news sources to.
  • Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Do training on areas you know you may not be so strong at and if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again! Whenever I attend any training or SEO conferences, I always attend the ones that I know will challenge me the most – 9 times out of 10 I’m pleasantly surprised. 1 time out of 10 my brain says, ‘not today’.
  • Curate a positive inner monologue. SEO can be hard and complex – remind yourself as often as you need that things take time, and you’ll never succeed without having the ability to exercise patience!
  • Speak up! If you are having a wobble and find yourself doubting decisions you’ve made, talk to your peers and sound it out! Talking has always helped me and most of the time you’ll find that they are having similar worries about different problems. If you don’t feel that you can open up to your peers – consider finding a new job, support is key to thriving in this role.
  • Peer review. Let your peers sense check your work ALWAYS and be willing to do the same if asked. Give constructive feedback and consider that everyone’s learning experiences and abilities are different. Be kind.
  • Avoid burnout. This one goes out to all my agency SEO’s juggling a thousand balls! Communicate with your higher-up’s if you are feeling overwhelmed, if your workload is getting the better of you or if you are simply struggling to grasp a complex SEO methodology. This is what managers exist for! Spill. The. Beans.
  • Complement your peers. I know I get a total buzz when someone complements my work or a particular milestone they know I’ve worked hard to get to. It fires me up to keep pushing on! Make sure you return the favour and celebrate your peers accomplishments with them – it’ll make them happy and all the while strengthen your team (the ultimate Brucey bonus).
  • Learn to switch off. Some days my brain feels like a pinball machine. What with all the learning, data analysis, client handling, strategizing, monitoring and investigating that comes with such a nuanced career, consider the things that help you to move from the SEO world back into the real world. *NB Kids help… maybe a little too well.

I hope this has been an enlightening read and please feel free to add your comments/thoughts/experiences – I’d love to hear ‘em!

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