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June 11, 2008

Google Is My B*&%$! (hint: rhymes with "Witch")

Ask any consumer start-up what their biggest obstacle to growth is and it's likely you'll get a consistent but surprising answer:  I simply can't find enough SEM/SEO talent.  It's not a shortage of programmers that are hindering start-up growth (much of the coding talent is being provided by offshore developers anyway), but rather the talent pool hasn't adjusted quickly enough to support the new Search Economy.

Nearly all consumer businesses are banking on search as the major source of customer acquisition - both Search Engine Marketing (SEM), where their company is featured as a paid advertisement on a search results page, and Search Engine Optimization (SEO), where their company comes up "naturally" or "organically" in the search results.  Marketing and advertising dollars that were once funneled into television, radio, print and even online banners are rapidly flowing into search as the most effective, low-cost tool for customer acquisition.

The search economy has exploded at such a stunning rate, that it's worth stepping back to really appreciate it.  The leading recipient of these funds, Google, will receive revenue over the course of 2008 in the range of $16 billion, the bulk of which is paid search.  That's an entire nation's economy built around optimizing search results in the last 4-5 years!  And the category (in which Google owns a 70% share) is growing at 30-40% per year, even in the midst of cut backs (see the association's data at www.sempo.org) - in fact, researchers seem to keep raising their estimates every year of the size and importance of SEM.

Yet, the SEM figures vastly under-report the true importance and impact of the Search Economy.  No one gets paid when a company achieves customer acquisition through SEO, but companies are spending untold resources trying to optimize their websites for natural search results.  Imagine how valuable it is for a financial services firm to appear as the first result when you type in "mortgage refinance" into Google and you can see why talented SEO wizards are worth the investment.

The problem is that the speed with which SEM and SEO have exploded on the Web has resulted in a massive talent gap.  For those that can figure out the black art of search, the rewards are lucrative.  One entrepreneur proudly declared to me, "Google is my b#&%$!" (hint:  rhymes with "witch") when describing why his business has achieved competitive advantage and profitable growth in its niche.

I recently joined the MITX (Massachusetts Innovation and Technology Exchange) board of directors and was chatting with fellow board member Don McLagan about what the region needs to do to entice young, talented college students to obtain good jobs and stick around.  The Boston Globe's Scott Kirsner is focused on this topic as well, recently writing about it in his weekly column.

I have one word for our industry:  search.  Our region's companies desparately need search talent.  And it is a talent that can be easily trained in almost a vocational fashion.  Let's create a 10-week program on SEM/SEO and have some of the local stars lend their top talent to teach it, leveraging what SEMPO has already done.  Every city has large advertising councils and Internet trade associations, but the Search Economy is wildly neglected relative to its size and importance.  If Massachusetts (and other regions?) can train young graduates in the black art of the Search Economy, then a major constraint to start-up growth will be removed.  A workforce that knows how to tame Google (absent the profanity) should be everyone's goal.

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I agree that good SEO talent is hard to find. Another option for most companies is to buy some good marketing and SEO software and training, and take a "normal marketer" and make them a decent SEO/SEM person. I think most people over-estimate the amount of brainpower and expertise it takes to do basic SEO. With some tools and training, most reasonably smart people can be pretty good.

I think your idea about an SEO training class is a good one. If you are serious about doing this, we (at HubSpot) would love to work with you on it and can help support it in a few ways.

What I find odd is that we have Tripadvisor in our backyard, which is best in class at SEO and SEM. Why don't we see more talent in our entrepreneurial companies coming from Tripadvisor? It's puzzling to me.

There are also a number of SEO consulting firms in the area, though they have to train SEO talent for their business and have little incentive to farm talent for other companies.

I agree that you can train smart people to do basic SEO pretty quickly, though I'd say SEM (paid search) takes more effort in training. Good talent will remain hard to find in the short run because you have to invest a lot of time into learning a skill that for most marketers is one of many marketing initiatives competing for their limited attention.

Plus, no one is going to "make Google their B*&%$!" with basic SEO.

I think there is definitely a dearth of SEO talent in the Boston area.

A lot of this, I think, is driven by a lack of appreciation for the strategic value of getting organic rankings. Too many VC-backed startups get on the PPC "morphine drip" (hey, we can just buy our Google traffic!).

The problem with PPC is that you're at the whims of an increasingly efficient market and it's hard to arbitrage opportunities. You're also at the mercy of the least savvy buyer (who can enter the market at any time and drive up the cost per click).

Great comments.

Dharmesh: I couldn't agree more with respect to your comment about PPC morhpine - too many companies are getting $0.50 back for every $1.00 of SEM spent. As the old joke goes, you can't make that up in volume.

Rob: local companies like Monster, TripAdvisor, Shoebuy, CourseAdvisor, SimpleTuition and many others (yes, Mike and Dharmesh - Hubspot, too!) are great leaders in the space. We definitely need everyone to collaborate more here.

Let's look at it from a different perspective.

Google "guidelines" are notoriously vague. The white hat/black hat line is difficult to see at best.

One can easily evaluate the expertise of a graphic artist or a webmaster. It is difficult to evaluate just how good someone is at SEO and SEM.

I've "accidentally" gotten first page placement for adult searches, for example, as a side effect of aggressive optimization of a non-adult website.

Of course, that wasn't really an accident, but it makes for an amusing proof of expertise.

The other problem is controlling the client's expectations. "We want to be #1 for Mortgage". Well, unless you are mortgage.com, that's just not going to happen.

SEO work is more like public relations. The results are not instant and require very accurate tracking. Clients usually do not have an accurate baseline, which makes our job a lot more difficult.

Then you run into the issues of paying for SEO and SEM services. I bill at over $200/hr for this kind of work because it is tedious and generally difficult and significantly boring.

SEO-aware web copy can produce amazing results. However, most SEO consultants are not copy editors. Writing SEO-aware copy is actually difficult as one has to do all sorts of creative word substitutions.

There are no real metrics how one can evaluate the effectiveness of a SEO consultant. The results of our work may not be evident for quite some time.

SEM, on the other hand, is actually not all that complicated. Here one can generate all kinds of metrics and test various theories. I pay up to $2.50/click on some of my keywords with a very high Click-through ratio (CTR), but they convert exceedingly well for my $200 product.

Geotargeting is my weapon. I simply don't waste ad impressions. :)

Leonid makes a great point about the fact that good SEO can often be a series of very tedious, though not mindless, tasks. That's another explanation of why there isn't a lot of great SEO talent. In order to get good at it, you have to suffer through quite a bit of tedium.

An analogy I've used a lot in the past is fitness, organic SEO is like getting in shape. You have to do tedious exercises over and over again and the results take time to achieve but the long term benefits are huge. Paid search is like performance enhancing drugs, it'll help you get there a lot faster but can do serious damage in the process. The analogy breaks down a little here because if your expectations are reasonable and your skills are honed, you can use paid search indefinitely as a portion of your overall search marketing program.

I make this analogy in spite of the fact that I love paid search. I think it's more fun (though I wouldn't say it's easier) than SEO, but SEO is definitely undervalued by many folks who demand immediate results.

Search Engine Marketing (paid search) is a core fundamental skill for any marketer, regardless of experience level. I have advised recent college grads to get a job with SEM agencies so they can understand the technology, process and metrics required to manage any marketing campaign successfully.

SEM is more "connect the dots" than black art though. If startups are losing money paid search they are either doing something very wrong or their is not enough search volume for their market yet.

For companies who can spend $10k a month or more, I recommend search agencies www.iprospect.com (local), Didit or Icrossing. These firms work backwords from your target Cost Per acquisition and manage campaigns profitably.

For "do it yourselfers" or people spending less: Hubspot, Clickable or Efficient Frontier.

Constant Contact, CSN Stores, BuyerZone and Singlesnet.com are the largest spenders on paid search in Boston.

SEO is like PR...difficult to measure direct effects. Companies need to do it but it is not a magic bullet.

Search "SEO is not rocket science" for some industry perspective.


Jeff,

SEMPO actually offers on-line courses for Search marketing. There are several levels, and someone that has marketing or web experience can really fine tune their skills via these courses. More details at:
http://www.sempoinstitute.com/. Great way to broaden career opportunities.

You need to have a mechanism in place through which you can figure out what people are doing that click over to your site through your lucrative PPC Advertising efforts. When it comes to lucrative PPC Advertising, you might want to engage the services of an expert.

seo is such a tricky business. you have to know what you are doing.

It's so fun to learn new techniques in SEO. That's my favorite hobby as well.
Jacq@Atlanta SEO Training

Very interesting idea! I think that could prove a very worthwhile approach in establishing long term relationships. I think that you would need to prioritise quite heavily towards the people who either link to you all the time or who have large, powerful sites. But these are the perfect people to build a relationship with as they have already shown that they like you by placing the link.

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