SEM and SEO: Rocket Science, or Just Plain Science? Part 1

Neither SEO nor PPC search engine marketing are rocket science.

If you don’t read lots SEO and online marketing blogs, you may not know what I’m referring to. Ordinarily, I’d consider a debate about the comparative complexity of search engine optimization (SEO) and paid search engine marketing (SEM) as unworthy of discussion. Yet many in the industry believe this is an issue worthy of debate. How all this relates to to paid search will become clearer below.

To recap the roots of the controversy, my business partner of over 10 years, David Pasternack, touched a nerve recently when he wrote an article for his DMNews column, Troubled Times for SEO Firms, in which he stated, “SEO isn’t rocket science.”

Apparently, a segment of the SEO blogosphere hopes to continue positioning SEO as just that, perhaps to justify high fees. The debate has sucked in many notable search engine marketing pundits, some claiming PPC search is far from rocket science. (They assume Dave was trivializing SEO in order to make PPC search seem more important or valuable). Even Danny Sullivan chimed in (in this case, I disagree with his assessment), saying SEO Is Rocket Science.

Just because the understanding of what constitute best practices in SEO isn’t widely appreciated (particularly among newer Web masters or Web marketers), this doesn’t constitute sufficient evidence for SEO being rocket science.

I don’t know how to cook Chinese food, draft an irrevocable trust, interpret an ultrasound image, or design a building. Most people don’t possess these skills. None of these activities are rocket science, yet professionals earn livings, sometimes very good livings, doing all the above. Both paid search and organic SEO contain elements of skill that may qualify them as science. There’s a cause and effect relationship to both SEO and paid search, and following a set of rules will result in somewhat predictable changes in outcome. Of course, the predictability of changes in site visibility may vary dramatically when engaging in SEO and PPC search.

A Marketing Sherpa report found “SEO industry year over year growth came to almost a complete halt in 2006. Total revenue growth was a teeny tiny 6.7 percent.” As a founder of a firm that got its start in SEO, David Pasternack postulates the fundamental principles of SEO, “are publicly known, and at root are very simple.” This statement, combined with the “rocket science” analogy, has generated a ton of digital ink.

Instead of taking Sherpa’s data and Dave’s warning as a wake-up call, industry pundits, bloggers, and columnists seem to have lashed out, many taking sides on whether PPC or SEO are better positioned to capture outsourced marketer business, or whether budgets should be weighted more towards SEO or PPC. Some went so far as to publicly state that as a SEMPO member, I (and I guess everyone on my team) have exhibited “total disregard of the SEMPO membership,” which of course is made up not only of SEM agencies, but also in–house search marketers, making this argument a bit bizarre.

SEO is not an arcane skill which should be purely outsourced. Many industries do incredibly well when they are:

  1. Not rocket science.
  2. Both outsourced and managed in-house, sometimes within the same organization.

There’s a ton of precedent. In-house legal counsel work in tandem with big law firms, in-house accountants and CFOs manage external CPAs, creative and marketing staff are supplemented by ad agencies and media buying firms, and in-house PR teams rely on external PR agencies to deliver quality services.

SEO and SEM may evolve to the same place, but not if the industry is arrogant. What caused this shift in sentiment? Could it be some SEOs sold marketers a bill of goods? Perhaps the SEO firm made promises it shouldn’t have, and even thought they might be able to deliver. Media coverage of black–hat SEOs whose clients are banned by the engines certainly can’t have helped matters in the eyes of the marketers who write the checks.

At a recent SEMPO meeting, David Pasternack was accused of not supporting the industry. Neither he nor I are interested in drinking industry Kool-Aid. Search is comprised of search engine marketers, both in-house or outsourced. Dave was clearly making a point based on data and his experience as an SEO practitioner. In fact, we’ve made some SEO firms hundreds of thousands of dollars in referrals when clients wanted more than an SEO audit.

Some sites don’t get the rankings they deserve based on the quality of their content and their reputations. Their marketers should absolutely either learn SEO or hire a professional. Courses and training are widely available.

Search engines have two very strong goals: to make paid listings more relevant so they can better monetize their traffic; and to keep organic listings as relevant as possible to retain their valuable user bases. This means search engine anti-spam teams are working hard to make sure only ethical SEO has a material impact in the long term.

Paid search isn’t immune from the exasperation of marketers who were oversold. Recent survey data are also sending a wake-up call to PPC search marketers. In addition to preliminary data from SEMPO’s annual survey that confirms the Sherpa study, SEMPO is finding all search agencies need to demonstrate value to clients. A bit less vitriolic stone-throwing and a bit more introspection and self-awareness might be a better way to start off the new year.

In Part 2, I’ll delve into additional survey and external data regarding marketers’ views toward both types of search marketing, and the science of both SEO and paid placement search.

Related reading

Screenshot shows a Google search for outdoor grills, the shopping ads shows images with “in store” showing the product is available nearby.