SEM’s Midlife Crisis

I’m fascinated by the role that perspective plays, especially when looking back over the brief but eventful life of search marketing and advertising. We’re safely past the time when people would routinely say things like, “Search marketing is still in its infancy.” But as everyone knows, childhood and adolescence aren’t simple, either.

So while I read and enjoy discussions about social media’s role in an SEM (define) campaign or whether a corporate site should moderate comments in its blog or the privacy flaws in the latest Facebook application, it all seems a bit rehashed, even though these one-off topics are frequently portrayed as revolutionary. Depending on where you sit, search marketing is either expanding rapidly, venturing out to other activities in a rage of decadence, or it’s returning to its former self, part of a multifaceted service industry in which search is just one factor. Either way, it’s not always a comfortable place to be.

Search Marketing’s Generation Gap

When done right, PPC (define) marketing and SEO (define) are so demanding and intricate that very few people can rightly claim comprehensive knowledge of either one, let alone both. For many folks who’ve been doing this for a while, it can be downright inconvenient to consider even more angles, technologies, and approaches to traffic generation.

Plenty of SEO and PPC purists look askance at some newer ideas that worm their way into traditional SEM conversations. Social media and tagging. Consumer-generated content. Link baiting. The funny thing is these ideas aren’t new at all. Before 2000, online marketing was a pie pretty evenly divided into similarly sized slices, of which SEO and SEM were only two. Other slices included grassroots marketing, viral application conceptualizing and development, banner creative, affiliate marketing, and online publicity.

The bursting of the tech bubble in 2000, followed by the September 11 attacks, forced many companies to drastically slash online (and offline) marketing budgets for fear of the unknown. In terms of online spending, few pie slices remained intact. SEO and PPC were two that did, due largely to the marketers’ ability to quantify their success or failure relatively easily.

SEM isn’t expanding into new territories. It’s reclaiming its original position as the parent of many children, and SEO and PPC just need to scoot over a bit to accommodate them.

Cottage Industries of a Cottage Industry

Just as companies often bolster their core staff with a bullpen of contractors for times of heavy workload, a smart SEM shop should learn to support its core products and services with offerings that will enhance the client experience and increase the client’s satisfaction in the long term. Some of these services are new and some are old (and some are old with new names), but their commonality is they all belong in the collective family of online marketing. And if you don’t have the time to familiarize yourself with all these service offerings, you need to hire someone who does.

I used to work in the part of the publishing industry that capitalized on people’s mistrust and misunderstanding of computer technology, so in that way SEO was a natural fit for me. Most people have no better understanding of search engine algorithms than they do of floating-point variables, so the more complicated things are, the happier I am. But I’ve had to work hard to convince myself to warmly accept a newer generation of technologies and services when I’d become very comfortable with the older set.


Everything old is new again, as the cliché goes. Understanding cycles of demand for various products is as important as understanding the products themselves. The smartest people in the world don’t know everything. Instead, they realize what they don’t know, and they either figure out how to learn it or surround themselves with people who already do.

Tried-and-true SEO and PPC aren’t going away, and there’s a good chance your career will be long and fruitful knowing just one or the other, as long as you know it well. But all the other tentacles of search marketing can help you reach out to a niche that may be under-explored, underserved, and much more in line with your natural skill sets and interest. Ignore them at risk your growth.

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