The SEM People Problem

It's no secret that one of the biggest challenges the SEM industry faces is attracting and keeping qualified people. Even Google isn't immune from the fact that its main assets walk out of the door each night, and several widely publicized departures have caused concern among Wall Street analysts in recent weeks.

But the "SEM people problem" isn't limited to high-level search executives. It extends to just about everyone working in this business today, but is almost invisible to those outside our industry because outsiders often believe that technology prowess, not good old-fashioned, human labor, is what drives success or failure in this business.

Nothing could be further from the truth. While technology does matter, and the differing capabilities of campaign management tools influence the ease with which positive results can be achieved, the human factor is a much greater determinant of success. Buying keywords from the search engines might be easy, and self-service tools are readily available and provide anyone with a will to try, a way to make campaigns happen.



However, ensuring that these keyword buys actually perform in the context of a dynamic, hyper-competitive, auction-based marketplace is one of the hardest tasks going. It takes seasoned, experienced people to translate potential into reality, business and marketing goals and objectives into smart strategies and well-executed tactics.

Consequently, SEM agencies must invest a lot in developing such talent. For example, at my own firm, it takes almost a year of intensive training to groom account managers for sophisticated search marketing account and campaign management. In-house teams must make similar investments to ensure that their staffs are up to speed on the latest best practices. Naturally, losing people in which one has invested significantly can be a major blow, but in a free labor market one must accept the risk of this happening and simply bear the pain.

Some believe that managing the "SEM people problem" will ease as industry consolidation accelerates and/or a projected slowdown affects online advertising. The belief is that if and when layoffs at major agencies happen (as happened last week at DoubleClick), employees will be less likely to flirt with a promising startup or entertain thoughts of setting up shop on their own.

Unfortunately, any expansion of the general pool of online advertising job candidates will do little to alleviate this problem, because so few people possess the highly specialized skills required to manage complex search campaigns. Consider as well that as other forms of online media continue to evolve toward a more data-intensive, technology-influenced planning, buying, and optimization process, (essentially "the ways of SEM"), the paradigm of what the right or best skills are will continue to shift and seem even more elusive to agencies.

In the real world, these specialized skills aren't taught at most agencies, by search-engine certification courses, at the university level, or through industry educational programs. This is not to say that there is no educational value at any of these venues; just that it is rare that employees have a chance to be exposed to anything beyond an introductory level. Let's face it, nothing makes for a successful marketing professional other than plain old-fashioned experience with various client and campaign situations and challenges. I know this because we often interview prospective employees who have terrific looking resumes, but have found them unqualified to manage complex search campaigns. To remedy this, they must endure a fairly considerable part of the same rigorous training program we use to train "green" recruits, as well as a good amount of repetition across real client and campaign problems that must be solved successfully.

People -- great people who do great work in SEM -- will continue to be scarce as long as this industry is in existence. While technology grabs the headlines, people are the essential assets that determine the success or failure of any given online marketing initiative. This will continue to be true even as technology evolves, because strategic and creative decisions can never be trusted to machines, and innovation in general is always about new ideas and methods driven by great human thinking.

In Part 2 of this article, I'll talk more about the specific characteristics that well-rounded SEM candidates should have. In Part 3, I'll address the question of what SEM agencies should do (and what they should not do) to attract and retain their best people. Hint: it's not just about the money!

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