Why SEMs Feel Overworked

Never mind white hat and black hat SEO! According to a recent survey by iProspect, search engine marketers are wearing too many hats – an average of five, in fact. No wonder you’ve been feeling so tired lately!

Okay, that might seem pretty funny, and it certainly isn’t news to most of us. But iProspect found some serious implications from this information. I certainly don’t agree with all of them, but they’re worth thinking about, so I’m going to take you through it step by step.

iProspect partnered with Jupiter Research a couple of months ago to do a formal survey of search marketers. You can read the study here (http://www.iprospect.com/premiumPDFs/
WhitePaper_2006_SearchEngineMarketerJobFunction.pdf
). They included in their definition of “search engine marketing” anyone who does natural search engine optimization and/or paid search advertising. They qualified 276 respondents to participate in the survey, so while it wasn’t a big sample, it could be considered representative of the field.

I’ll give you what iProspect considered to be the key findings first. As I mentioned in the intro, they found that search engine marketers, on average, performed five job functions in addition to search engine marketing. The two most frequently cited additional functions were website design and email marketing. The majority of search engine marketers did not seem to be heavily involved with other (offline) marketing media that could be used to drive traffic to websites. And more than a quarter of search engine marketers also performed IT functions.

What does this mean? Well, according to iProspect, it means that the SEM industry is not as mature as many of us like to believe. To some extent, that’s true; as far as I know, you can’t get a college degree in search engine marketing as you can in business administration or regular marketing. But to be good at search engine marketing, you need to combine skills from more than one discipline, which is something I think iProspect only partially appreciates.

Let’s take a look at the fourth key point that iProspect cited, namely that 26 percent of search engine marketers also performed IT functions. In fact, by percentage, more SEMs handled IT functions than direct mail (22 percent), radio advertising (9 percent), TV advertising (7 percent), analyst relations (7 percent), outdoor advertising (4 percent), or investor relations (2 percent). That probably reflects the fact that search engine optimization has historically been the responsibility of the webmaster.

iProspect finds this somewhat disturbing, however. To quote from the report, “The fact that search engine marketing at some organizations is being managed as a technology tactic and not a marketing strategy is disconcerting, and seems to make as much sense as having the person managing your wide area network also write your press releases.” I think iProspect is stretching a point here, even if they do concede that two to three years ago this would not have been surprising.

Search engine optimization is still far more of a technical skill than iProspect seems willing to admit. At the very least, an SEO/SEM benefits from that kind of mindset when he or she approaches the task at hand. Yes, you have to think like your customers, but you also have to think like a search engine spider. That means you also need some understanding of search engine algorithms.

I’m not saying you actually need to know how to code a search engine (though some people might say that it helps!). It’s clear that you can benefit from understanding what’s possible. To that end, a technical background is not a bad thing for an SE0/SEM to have. At the very least, it helps to understand something about how the media works.

I find it interesting that iProspect didn’t have as much of a problem with the fact that a high percentage of search engine marketers (58 percent) also performed website design as part of their current job. “It demonstrates that organizations are recognizing the need for these two functions to be closely aligned.” I would have liked to have seen iProspect break down the choice “IT functions” even further; I think the company would have found that many of the IT functions search engine marketers perform include tasks that help support the company’s website.

iProspect took the fact that so many search engine marketers performed so many other duties as indicating that many companies choose to “home grow” their talent. The company thinks that this might be due to “the lack of experienced search engine marketers available in the marketplace,” and took it as a symptom of search engine marketing not yet being a mature field.  But there are other possibilities that did not seem to consider.

Chris Sherman of Search Engine Watch read iProspect’s report, and this particular stance inspired him to reflect on his days as a management consultant, before he became a search analyst. “A key focus, even more than a decade ago, was to encourage multi-functional teamwork and operations,” he observed. “Putting people into functional silos often led to organizational sclerosis; allowing them to be versatile in their work made the organization more nimble and responsive to competitive challenges and change…Search marketing is a complex activity, with constant change. Perhaps allowing people to wear multiple hats keeps their knowledge and skills fresher.”

Certainly in a competitive landscape, companies can use every advantage they can get. And many firms are pretty tightly stretched as it is; they can’t afford to spend the money on someone dedicated specifically to search engine marketing, even if they wanted to. Given that, it makes sense that you’d try to grow your own talent from the closest disciplines. For search engine marketing and SEO, this still means website design and IT. Marketing becomes a skill that gets “picked up” on the job.

This might help explain why, relatively speaking, so few search engine marketers were involved in offline media that could drive traffic to websites. That’s traditional marketing, and historically, SEOs and SEMs don’t come from that background, they acquire it. If the percentages are low, is it because it takes a while to learn offline marketing, or is it because fewer people who do offline marketing are interested in getting into SEO/SEM? Or could we be seeing a trend of companies relying so much more on SEO/SEM that they have all but forsaken other forms of advertising?

As I mentioned, iProspect thought it was good that search engine marketing and website design were often managed by the same person. In fact, the company thought it was “an advantage that cannot be understated when it come to gaining cooperation in the implementation of search engine optimization (SEO) best practices in particular.” Indeed, the more cooperation a search engine marketer could get on website design issues, “the better chance a website has of achieving high visibility within the natural search results of the major search engines.”

Since iProspect so clearly understands the need for cooperation and the benefits of working together in that area, it makes it all the more puzzling that the company seems to believe in major separation when it comes to IT and search engine marketing. “It is iProspect’s position that search engine marketing should be performed by marketers and not technologists…there are far too many traditional marketing best practices known and understood by most marketers and that are also utilized within search engine marketing, to entrust an organization’s search engine marketing initiatives to technologists who know little about traditional marketing.”

This begs the question of whether it is more important for a search engine marketer to have a good grasp of the technical aspects or the marketing aspects of their duties, and which one is harder to learn. Either way, the idea that it is somehow a bad thing for a search engine marketer to wear lots of hats is questionable at best. As Chris Sherman points out, “Search marketing isn’t like manufacturing, where assigning people to narrow, specific tasks makes sense and often improves productivity and efficiency.”

It also ignores the realities of today’s market. Many small companies really can’t afford to have a separate individual in charge of marketing, let alone SEO/SEM. In that case, it naturally falls to someone who is already handling IT and/or being a webmaster to handle other things that are related to the company’s website. For the companies who can afford to have a separate marketing person, or department, many are still adjusting to this relatively new medium. That will change as time goes on, but for now, SEOs and SEMs coming from a technical background may, on the whole, prove to be a positive rather than a negative thing. 

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