SEM and SEO: Rocket Science or Just Plain Science? Part2

In the continuing debate among proponents of SEO (define) and PPC (define) search, I’ve gone on record as saying neither paid search campaign management, campaign strategy, nor SEO are rocket-science-level disciplines.

I’ll allow that many SEM (define) jobs require knowledge and training. Both SEO and PPC can be done well or poorly, just like advertising, PR, or legal work. Search professionals can (and do) exist within many types of organizations and agency environments or as freelancers or in-house consultants at publishers, retailers, and online marketing organizations.

Members of my executive team and others I’ve spoken with in the industry have stated (perhaps not publicly) that the shortage of highly trained and highly experienced search professionals has resulted in a temporary phenomenon whereby employees, agencies, and contractors are all paid more than they would be were supply and demand more in balance. This may be true. But those at the top of their profession are always well paid regardless of the profession.

In part one of this series, I focused on why there seems to be a vocal portion of the SEM industry that prefers to view SEO as rocket science and not take heed when surveys and anecdotal evidence indicate many marketers’ perception is that SEO and SEM agencies and contractors underdeliver on value and overcharge.

The PPC services provided by SEM agencies also have an image problem. Radar Research analyzed preliminary data from SEMPO’s annual survey and found the following:

Two-thirds of advertiser respondents said they plan to manage 90 percent or all their 2007 paid placement spending in-house. Only 26 percent of advertisers plan to outsource over half of their paid-placement expenditures in 2007. However, this is double the percentage reported by last year’s respondents (13 percent).

Nearly two-thirds of advertiser respondents said they plan to manage all their 2007 organic SEO spending in-house. Only 10 percent of advertisers plan to outsource the majority of organic SEO spending this year.

I’ll reiterate that as a relatively new form of marketing and advertising, SEO and PPC search are seen as highly complex, perhaps even rocket science, by some marketers. Some search marketing agencies sell on this basis, attempting to reinforce the belief. It’s far better for all agencies to heed the wakeup call and sell — with clarity — exactly what they can deliver and explain why it makes sense for an overloaded search marketer to outsource.

A Look At Reality

Both SEO and PPC search can become complex, if not actually approach a rocket-science level. With SEO, retrofitting a poorly architected site to make it spider-friendly can be quite challenging. Once the retrofit is complete, a task encompassing copy review and HTML review (including all tags, URL formation issues, and linking structure plus anchors), ongoing SEO has much more to do with deciding where to prioritize content creation and whether to actively pursue link building.

Alternatively, one could simply focus on producing great content and take whatever links occur naturally (the way Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page intended in the original PageRank system). Being better at deciding what content to create or knowing how to leverage the press, the blogosphere, or other sites to generate links assures good SEO strategists and firms of continued work. Clients, however, are growing savvier. They may increasingly micromanage their SEO agencies or freelancers to ensure tactics remain whitehat.

Every SEO professional will likely agree the biggest bang for the buck occurs in cases where hours are invested in optimizing underperforming sites that actually have a ton of preexisting links and a decent PageRank. In such cases, a few changes result in the largest marginal improvement in the site’s visibility and traffic. After those basics are achieved, incremental improvements are ever harder to acquire.

PPC search campaign management is similar. I love getting my hands on a campaign for which many of the most powerful strategies have been either ignored or poorly executed. The immediate gains are obvious.

On the PPC search side, the engines constantly struggle to make their systems easy to use to tap the largest possible pool of marketers. They all run auctions. The more marketers participating in them, the more money for the engines. The coverage level (searches for which there’s an advertiser) also rises as the pool of advertisers increases. The engines encourage use of exact match to improve the user experience, which also drives CTR (define) and coverage.

One thing that differs between PPC and SEO search is there’s an inherent complexity on the PPC side that’s growing as the engines move beyond keyword targeting. Keyword, geography, and dayparts have been around for awhile, and these alone can make a campaign complex. Joining them are demographics, syndication networks, target types (search, contextual, or behavioral), and likely more to come. So for larger PPC marketers, technology and API (define)-driven systems are becoming more important. Professionals and agencies that know which technology to use and how best to apply it to campaigns will thrive. Others may find themselves struggling.

Education and best practices are important for the entire industry: PPC, SEO, and other media buying. In a future columns, I’ll cover some of the great new ways you can keep yourself educated.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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