Are SEM Salaries Too High, Too Low, Or Just Right?

As I've mentioned previously in this column, acquiring and retaining talented people is one of the biggest long-term problems the SEM industry has. In my view, while automation is crucial, so are people, and employees -- whether they work for in-house teams or at agencies -- have to be paid fairly and treated well, or they'll walk across the street to a competitor. So imagine my shocked surprise when I read the following posting on a popular job Web site:

Major company looking for a hard working, talented person. Responsibilities include leveraging social networks, content creation and editing, e-mail marketing, creating online press releases, SEO, Paid Search, plus learning how to set up podcasts and online videos.

That's quite a demanding job with a lot of responsibility requiring a very well-rounded skill set. But guess what the pay for this job was -- $35K? $45K? $60K?

Nope -- more like zero! Incredibly, this listing was for an unpaid intern position (although it did mention that "pay was possible after an evaluation period"). Just as disturbing is that this firm's management clearly doesn't regard SEO and search marketing as mission-critical activities, but as mere line items on a laundry list of marketing tasks. This kind of attitude is a recipe for mediocre, under-performing online campaigns, plus a guarantee of employee burnout (if you've ever had to juggle e-mail marketing, SEO, PPC, and podcasting production tasks, you know exactly what I mean).

Fortunately, there are few companies out there that are as stingy with their SEM staff budget as the company above. The overwhelming majority seem to agree that these people should be fairly paid. According to SEMPO, which published its 2008 SEM Salary Survey in January, two-thirds of survey respondents with 0-3 years of experience reported making less than $40K per year, which is a fair wage (unless you're attempting to live in Manhattan or Silicon Valley). Among staffers with 5-7 years of experience, none made less than $40K per year.

These salaries might not be very competitive in terms of the larger technology industry, but they're high enough to ensure a continuing supply of young professionals into the field, which is essential if we're going to avoid the kind of rampant salary inflation characteristic of the last tech bubble.  Interestingly, in-house SEM teams are handling more money than ever. One third of respondents report managing accounts over $200K per month. This figure was unexpectedly high (SEMPO expected the figure to be only $100K per month).

Far less is known about compensation at SEM agencies, which may skew higher than in-house salaries given that there's more job specialization (many in-house SEM staffs share other non-search marketing assignments, which just doesn't happen at SEM agencies). SEMPO is trying hard to fill this knowledge gap; in late February, it launched its First Search Engine Marketing Agency Salary Survey, which can be filled out online at   The results will be announced at ad:tech San Francisco (April 15-17).

If you're employed at an SEM agency or know someone who is, contributing 12 minutes to SEMPO's salary survey is a worthwhile use of your time. While it sometimes seems that the SEM profession has been here forever, it's really a brand-new field. Getting some good hard data on salary numbers can give you a good sense of whether you're being overpaid, underpaid, or whether your compensation package is just right



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