SEO: A Career with a Future

It’s not unusual for those working in respected fields to be asked questions by those just entering (or re-entering) the job market. Naturally, the newcomers want to know about the future prospects of those fields. Search engine optimizers face those questions regularly. So what will the field look like five or ten years from now? Is it a good career choice?

This question pops up with some regularity on SEO forums. It has been discussed more than once on our own SEO Chat forums. Before we address whether it’s a good occupation to pursue, there is a great deal to consider. Is search engine optimization an actual career or more of a skill set? With what skills should a good SEO be armed? How much money can be made in the field? What does a good SEO need to do to get ahead?

The field itself has not been around very long. Starting in the mid-1990s, it fell to webmasters to optimize web sites so that they showed up high in the search engine results pages. A landmark of sorts was reached in 1996 when the first email spam touting SEO services started hitting electronic inboxes. Usenet references to SEO did not appear until 1997.

Nowadays, a search on the phrase “search engine optimization” in Google (without quotes) yields well over 43 million matches. The acronym SEO delivers 118 million matches. There are forums, blogs, articles, companies, independent contractors, and many web sites devoted to the pursuit of SEO to make money one way or another. With all that action, one would suppose that it is a promising field.

It is — but there are certain caveats. And even those who frequent SEO forums are not in agreement as to whether it is a good occupation to pursue, what properly constitutes SEO, and what the field will look like in five or ten years. Some are convinced it either won’t be around as a separate field, or simply won’t be recognizable. In this article, I’ll try to tease out the various viewpoints and give you something to consider as you advise others seeking to learn more about SEO as a career. Perhaps it will give you a new perspective on your own field.

Basically, search engine optimization means making adjustments to a web site so that it scores high on the search engine results pages for particular key words and key phrases. This calls for making a variety of changes to the pages of a web site; some of these will be visible to those who view the site, and others won’t. But that’s only the beginning.

Since Google’s algorithm counts links to a web site from other sites as “votes” for that site, one of the jobs of an SEO is to build back links. There are a number of ways to do this, from buying links to soliciting reciprocal links; the rise of blogging, web 2.0, social search/bookmarking sites offer other ways of building back links. One tried-and-true method involves building “linkbait” – content that is so useful and compelling that visitors to your site naturally want to link to it and tell others.

The idea of linkbait brings up another point. Search engine optimization can embrace a number of skills. Creating good linkbait, for example, may require excellent writing skills, some programming skills (if your linkbait is interactive, like a mortgage calculator), and an intuitive knowledge of what visitors to your (or your client’s) web site would find useful. A good command of HTML and related skills for building web sites will also come in handy for any SEO.

Indeed, for those who argue that search engine optimization is simply a skill set, this is just the beginning. To quote one contributor to an SEO forum, “SEO is a skillset. Analytics is a skillset. Web Authoring/Publishing is a skillset. Paid Search Marketing is a skillset. Coding is a skillset. Web Design is a skillset (and an art). Business Analysis is a skillset. You need ALL of these to be successful in Internet/Search Marketing. I think Search Marketing has a bright future, but if you don’t have a multidisciplined approach, you are hosed.”

Are we going too far, though, by lumping SEO in with search marketing? Aren’t search engine optimization and search engine marketing two different things? Not according to some of the contributors to the SEO Chat forums. One of them argued very simply that “SEO is a subcategory of Search Engine Marketing (SEM). SEM is a subcategory of Internet Marketing. Internet Marketing is a subcategory of (you guessed it) Marketing.” As a field, marketing isn’t going away any time soon, which implies that SEO is a good career choice. But it presents anyone entering the field with some special challenges.

The first two letters in SEO stand for “search engine,” and SEO is dependent on the search engines. Search engines evolve. Techniques of increasing traffic and raising your site’s position in the SERPs that were once considered legitimate can now get you penalized. Factors that search engines once considered important are now all but ignored, such as meta tags. So good SEOs must evolve right along with the search engines. That being the case, anyone doing SEO must spend a lot of time keeping up in the field.

One contributor to the SEO Chat forum suggests spending a lot of time in SEO forums, asking a lot of questions, then coming back several times a day and doing it all over again. He suggests this as a daily ritual. He goes on to tell newcomers to “Tick the box that says to notify you when one of your posts is answered, subscribe to your most important threads and actually read them,” and set up Google alerts for important SEO terms such as “Matt Cutts” and “SES Conference” for openers. “Learn about blogs, technorati, Diggs. Become a member of 6-10 forums and make it a daily ritual” to visit them. “Pick your most respected members out and either chase them or get notification when they post and read their stuff.”

Also, the focus of SEO is starting to change. While it is still important to score high in the SERPs, SEOs today should be able to attract traffic to a web site using a variety of methods. And it’s not just about the traffic anymore, either. Many clients are more concerned with ROI; because of this, they’ll not only want to measure traffic, but conversions. It’s more challenging to raise conversions than traffic.

Some who have been in the field for a long time see even bigger changes coming. EGOL, a veteran SEO and well-respected moderator on SEO Chat, notes that search volume is going down for a lot of the terms in his fields. He believes this is because sites such as WebMD and Wikipedia are becoming one-stop shops where visitors can find an enormous amount of information right at their fingertips. This reduces the need for web surfers to use search engines. “If you think that search will always drive the traffic on the web you might be wrong,” he explains. “However, the thing that will remain – at least for the short term – is the need to develop and improve websites. So if you think you can make a life-long living by tweaking title tags and hunting links, I think that you have a bad model.”

According to a report from Piper Jaffrey Investment Research titled “The User Revolution: The New Advertising Ecosystem and the Rise of the Internet as a Mass Medium,” search engine marketing is on the rise. The research company expects total search spend to rise from $15.6 billion in 2006 to $44.5 billion in 2011. That’s nearly triple the money in only five years. Writing about the 425-page report, Dave Pasternak observed that Piper’s growth estimate “is more than four times larger than earlier estimates published by other research organizations.”

The report points to four drivers of SEM growth. Interestingly, at least one of those drivers is potentially at odds with EGOL’s observations, for Piper sees increased use of search engines. Indeed, the report notes that more people use search engines to navigate to web sites – nearly twice as many as those who use bookmarks. The numbers even edge out those who type the URL directly into the address bar.

Another reason Piper sees the field expanding is that direct marketers are increasingly adopting search and SEM. These marketers used to rely almost exclusively on offline marketing methods. They’re beginning to “get it” that SEO and SEM is important. How well they actually understand what it can do for them is another question.

Large brand advertisers are also beginning to get SEM, which is a third factor Piper points to as driving SEM growth. The fourth one is growth in the use of local and vertical search properties. This growth means that SEMs can aim their advertising at specific targets – audiences that are truly interested in their messages. General search engines such as Google are working to make geo- and demographic targeting easier too. This added complexity means that SEOs and SEMs in the future will need to rely on automated tools even more than they do now.

You can be certain that the SEO field won’t look the same in five years as it does now. Opportunities in the field will change (more companies are doing SEO in-house rather than working with SEO agencies), and even the kinds of things that are defined as SEO will almost certainly change. Looking further out – say 20 years – we may not even be using anything we’d recognize as a search engine anymore. As long as you are prepared for change, however, and treat learning about your field as a continuous process, you may find a career in SEO to be very rewarding.

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