Is Search Rocket Science?

I've read all the articles. I've even read the recaps of all the articles. I've patiently held my tongue waiting to see if the issue would resolve itself or just fizzle out altogether. It's done neither. So now I feel compelled to weigh in.

Here's some background for anyone who hasn't been tuning in to the Great Rocket Science Debate of '06/'07. It all began back in October when Dave Pasternack of Did-It penned a column about how SEO was not rocket science and, therefore, SEO firms are in danger of becoming obsolete.

Pasternack pointed to Marketing Sherpa data that showed diminishing revenue growth for SEO firms, and made the assertion that marketers who follow Google's Webmaster guidelines can achieve strong organic search rankings on their own. He added that SEO is a "fix-it-at-once task" rather than an "ongoing responsibility." so it doesn't make sense for marketers to engage outside SEO firms. Lastly, he suggested that marketers should be wary of SEO firms due to the consequences of black-hat techniques.



SEO radicals, er, advocates everywhere responded swiftly and harshly, attacking not only Pasternack's POV but his name itself. Rebuttals ran the gamut from questioning the validity of the Marketing Sherpa data to pointing out that if SEO were so easy, then why weren't more marketers succeeding with their SEO efforts? Pasternack responded by comparing the practice of SEO to baking a cake -- and that's when things started to get ugly.

Pasternack also dragged the practice of PPC search management into the mudslinging. Stopping short of calling it rocket science, Pasternack made the claim that PPC is not in jeopardy of being brought in-house by marketers because it is a platform driven by technology, and publicly available third-party tools are "woefully inadequate" (a conclusion I agree with,  but a rationale that I dispute -- nonetheless, I'll hold off on countering that for another column).

To be clear, I think the rocket science issue has been blown way out of proportion, and some of the personal comments made against Pasternack are completely out of line. That said, when it comes to search, any debate is good if it gets people talking about our discipline, its virtues, and its future. Pasternack seems to agree, as evidenced by the way he's promoting his now famous catchphrase.  

So, is search rocket science? Yes and No. But does it really matter?

At the end of the day, I think Pasternack's oversimplification of SEO is inaccurate, yet the POV of the many experts that claim SEO is akin to wizardry is also off-base. The reality lies somewhere in the middle of these extremes. As for PPC -- here, too, there's no magic voodoo involved, but it's also not as easy as baking a cake.

Paid and organic search management are complex, iterative processes that involve a lot of art and a lot of science. There are aspects of each that can be quickly learned and executed by folks with little-to-no search, media, or technology experience - for example, creating title tags. And there are aspects of each that should only be managed by seasoned industry veterans -- for example, dealing with CMS environments.

The truth is that whether or not PPC and SEO -- or components of each -- should be considered rocket science is not the point. The reason this debate has gotten so heated is because of the implication that search being rocket science ultimately has on the outsourced agency model. Pasternack's prevailing opinion -- and the defensiveness of SEO firms -- suggests that if search is not rocket science, then marketers will bring it in-house.

Here too, I think things are being exaggerated. Marketing and technology services firms have thrived for years serving a number of different categories and disciplines -- many of which no one would ever utter in the same breath as rocket science (event marketing, anyone?)

Pasternack's point is well-received -- just because a competency isn't widely held doesn't make it rocket science. But the counterpoint remains -- just because a competency isn't rocket science doesn't mean there's no value in hiring an outside expert to deliver it.

Anyone can pick up a book and learn HTML or grab a video camera and shoot some footage, but no one's predicting the demise of  Web development firms and creative agencies -- especially after seeing those lousy consumer-generated Super Bowl commercials.

As for search, there are many distinct advantages to outsourcing SEO and PPC management. I'll tackle this topic in a future column but, for now, I'll just list some of the benefits that have already been pointed out -- experience, resources, infrastructure, analytics, innovation, and scale. Not to mention, search marketing is so much more than SEO and PPC.

The bottom line is that there is no right answer for all marketers. Some are better off handling search in-house, while others are better off hiring an experienced firm to manage the processes. Rather than focus on whether or not marketers could do it themselves, we should be focused on whether or not they should do it themselves. Within this framework, marketers, agencies and consultants alike can properly evaluate unique situations, assess needs and resources, and execute fully "baked" solutions.

Now pucker up and kiss the chef!


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