“As search marketers, we are the insiders. We are supposed to know and understand search in all of its dimensions. We are moving into uncharted territory. It is not territory that I am excited to explore, but I will go there nonetheless,” writes Amanda Watlington of SearchForProfit.com.
Despite her status as an expert on blogs, RSS and search marketing, Watlington is still trying to put a finger on what may be coming down the pike for search this year. Her pondering may sound a bit gloomy – because in many ways, things have never been better for search.
According to GroupM, search will make up about 65 to 70 percent of the measured online advertising in 2008. That’s up from 50 percent in 2005. Also consider that search budgets within brands have become bigger; search marketing professionals now easily have three to five years’ experience handling search initiatives; and most excursions on the Web start at a search engine.
Yet there are really no guidelines on what search-related skills a search team must have in order to propel a company forward – not written down in the company manual anyway. “Knowing” search and running a search team for your company are entirely two different things. Knowing how to budget for search and staying abreast of search innovations is something few teach.
A recent survey by the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO) stated that in-house search managers are now handling budgets on average of $200,000. However, up to 40 percent of those managers are shepherding that money with three years or less of professional search experience. About 26 percent have five years of experience or more.
Keeping Up With Search
The uncharted territory is the constantly changing nature of the search game. Many search veterans will say that learning search is an ever-changing discipline, fraught with a learning curve that never straightens out. They say that to hire a search manager or search team means upper management must look beyond the experience they have on paper and judge a pro by their passion and innate intelligence.
It’s paying off for some. SEMPO says that about 49 percent of SEM professionals earn $50,000 or less. About 43 percent earn between $50,000 and $100,000 per year. Only about 4 percent of those with five to seven years of experience make more than $200,000 per year. “It’s a respectable career path. I know I wasn’t making 70 or 100 thousand dollars a year when I was three years out of college,” Rob Crigler, co-chair of SEMPO’s in-house committee told SearchEngineWatch.com.
“I equate it to sports – the people who don’t sleep and work really hard get ahead. As a numbers-based job, they attract the hard workers,” says Wil Reynolds of Philadelphia- based SEER Interactive, a search engine optimization company. He says that the tools – software and Web-based analytics and helpers in choosing keywords – are all pretty good now. The ones who rise to the top are the ones with a kind of “street smarts.”
There are some recent attempts to educate the search-interested. Google recently launched a program called Google Online Marketing Challenge, which partners with marketing college professors to teach Google’s popular Ad- Words. Students take a $200 budget and apply it to a PPC campaign for a client. Students then manage the AdWords campaigns including coming up with a pre-campaign plan, manage the ongoing campaign and evaluate post-campaign numbers. The students select keywords, write ads and keep tabs on their clicks. Google then judges the work on up to 30 different criteria and offers an actual prize – a week at Google’s headquarters.
SEMPO also offers distance learning courses in search marketing. Students are introduced to the “foundations” of search marketing; advanced how-tos on SEO; and PPC training. The courses are offered online and can include interaction with “SEM professionals” and grading by SEMPO volunteers. SEER also offers some SEO online video tutorials on its site covering keywords, competitive tools, link building and best practices.
SEM expert Todd Malicoat at stuntdubl.com helps organize an SEO class and an online marketing training class using online courses, podcasts and some PowerPoint. However, he points out that there is really no regulation within the industry and that anyone can build a website and say, “I do search,” and have it be technically true. He notes that the search community has an active base, and learning from these people would be different from the trial-and-error training someone may get when they do it alone.
Reynolds says this kind of education is out there for people to use, “so tenure isn’t important.” What people should really have, he says, is marketing acumen. “If you want to be second place, you go to search training,” he says. “The same materials are available anywhere. But the people who rise are the people that take the basic info and go to the top.”
Matt Spiegel, CEO and founder of Resolution Media, an SEO and PPC consulting firm, says that those with higher educations in marketing have received “little exposure to this new marketing world. The vast majority of recent graduates in advertising and marketing have had little course work specific to online advertising – much less search.” He says to not assume institutions of higher learning will adapt quickly. “Instead, we need to look within the industry for help.”
Rand Fishkin, CEO of Seattle-based SEOmoz, a search marketing consulting company, says that three years’ experience is “quite a bit and is good given the industry.” He says that if he were to interview a search pro for a job, he’d simply ask the candidate to explain how Google works. “How does Google do its rankings and what makes a difference; and how did you pick up these things?” The analogy he draws is with medicine: A doctor should be able to tell you how the nervous system works off the top of her head.
Spiegel says there is a talent shortage. He says to work for his company you do not need a shopping list of skills. “You have to invest in people in this business,” he says. If you are new to the industry, he adds, and learning from the ground up – you get about 18 months to learn nuts and bolts. “When we hire, if they come from another agency, I expect that within 90 days they will be up and running – that you will know enough about search to manage a client list but you may have to learn keyword placement, etc.” He says he has hired one-person shop owners. He looks for attitude as well as skills and a need to “thrive on uncertainty and realize they are at the beginning of an industry.”
Evolving Search Skills
Among the skills that SEER Interactive’s Reynolds looks for is the ability to problem-solve. “Do you like to solve puzzles; things that stimulate and test the mind?” he says. “I would follow that skill with a lack of fear. There are tools are out there to do short-term tests. But are you not afraid to fail? I continue to see more come into the space, but that doesn’t mean they are all going to be good. Anyone with a Net connection and phone can be a search firm tomorrow. That glut can lead to substandard talent.”
Since search seems to be one of those areas that is changing and improving all the time, a search pro needs to stay locked in step with the new. Mike Grehan, CEO of Searchvisible, experts at organic and paid search headquartered in the U.K., has said that it’s getting harder to keep good organic search results on the first page. “What used to work in the good old SEO days won’t cut it in the future.” He notes that while search engines themselves are innovating all the time, search engine optimization is not – meta tags, alt tags, some social media and header tags are still the rage but are seeing their results wear thin.
Constant adaptation is a valuable watchword held by Danielle Leitch, executive vice president of client strategy at MoreVisibility, a search, design and interactive marketing company. She has said that she sees “adaptation of the industry as a whole shifting from just acronyms – SEO, CPC, SEM – to ‘interactive marketing.’ As a result, I believe agencies will become more full service than they had been – which could lead to mergers or partnerships in that area too.”
As the changing landscape continues to shift, SEOmoz’s Fishkin actually sees a constant in search professionals’ qualifications. “To me, the most desirable are those people who started a site in 1998 and have learned from doing. I am always impressed with those guys. They are rare guys.” The other breed of search marketers are those who may have a background working at another agency doing search or with a portfolio of sites they have launched. They may have been a junior marketer on this or that team and they did a search campaign and now they say, “I’m lost.” Now, companies have to spend six to 12 months training this person. He adds that MBAs may spend too much time projecting and doing nothing. “In search, we have to do.” In the end, you can only lose revenue for a few weeks and still correct it and change, he says.
Spiegel says too many companies may hire one person to head up search and leave it at that. “If I were running a company and had to hire one person, I wouldn’t want to put all my eggs in one person. I would hire an agency,” he says.
Searching for Education
Fishkin has put together a primer for those looking for search pros. He states that recruiting might be the hardest part of the work. While portals on the Web offer loads of candidates, the passionate ones are usually found in the Web places where the “young, Web-savvy and tech-obsessed” hang out. In addition to their skill set, you and your company will want to ask how long you will need this pro for; what are the primary priorities for them; and do you want this person or team to grow with the company?
When building the team or fitting the search person into the structure of your company, you need to measure the scale of your search efforts – is your company large enough that you will need more than one person or team? Measure what kind of ROI you want for each segment if you choose to break up the search division into many platforms. And as you carve up search areas and responsibilities, you will still need a person to oversee the divisions.
For training, he recommends letting team members build their own BlogSpot or Yahoo360 sites and experiment with trying to rank them. He likes to give them two to four weeks to “read, learn and get involved.”
SEER’s Reynolds uses himself as an example of the kind of search pro he’d admire. “I loved the game,” he says, “so that’s why I know it well. In the beginning, I loved computers and marketing but also had the cajones to knock on doors.” He says when he got started in search it was a constantly changing and highly competitive field with no rules written. Still is. “Three-year tenure is about all you need – now I have eight.”
MoreVisibility’s Leitch has stated that in the coming year the focus should be on colleges and universities injecting “real world” classes into their business classes. “Those that we will hire in the future need to have solid fundamentals in interactive marketing and search ” regardless of your role in a company or field of interest.”