Are SEMs & Paid Search Marketers Becoming A Commodity?
The amount you make at your job is heavily dependent on two factors: value and scarcity. By value, I mean how much you are contributing (usually financially, but not always) to a company. By scarcity, I am referring to how many people can or will do your exact job.
Investment bankers make a lot of money because they make companies a lot of money, but also because they have skills (strong quantitative ability, business acumen, negotiating expertise, etc.) that cannot easily be replicated by the average Joe on the street.
Maximum security prison guards generally have more replicable skills, but there are few people willing to apply for their jobs; thus, they are paid a lot because of scarcity.
Search engine marketers get paid nicely, and I’d argue it’s because of a combination of value and scarcity. There are two trends, however, that could cut into both of these money-making factors: automated technology and industry maturity (which means more qualified candidates). Is it possible that we will see salaries of SEMs plummet in the coming years as a result? Let’s explore.
Argument #1: The Scarcity Of SEMs Is Declining As The Industry Matures
I’m old enough to recall early Search Engine Strategies conferences where almost no one understood or cared about SEM. Back in these early days, SEO was 98% of the focus at conferences and on blogs — I could count the number of SEM experts on one hand.
Today, there are thousands of SEM pros — we have our own technology, blogs, agencies, a Twitter chat (#ppcchat) and a conference. Heck, there are even online schools that will give you a Masters in SEM!
So, finding someone with SEM experience to fill a vacancy is really not that hard these days. At more junior levels of SEM (say, two years of experience or less), the market has become somewhat commoditized. Salaries are homogeneous (at least by region) and a junior SEM expert who tries to hold his company ransom for a huge bump in salary will probably be shown the door.
At higher levels, however, there’s a much different dynamic.
As with any knowledge worker industry, the experts quickly separate themselves from the rest of the pack. I’ve always said that superstar SEMs need to excel at three college majors: psychology (to understand user intent), creative writing (to write great ad text and landing page), and statistics (to crunch the numbers).
Finding such people is always challenging. Indeed, it’s very hard to find a Director of SEM — these superstars will typically ask for a VP role or start their own agency instead of “settling” for a director position. Moreover, now that SEM has moved from nice-to-have to must-have for many businesses, the demand for top-tier SEM talent has only increased.
Given all that, it seems unlikely that senior SEMs will need to worry about commoditization in the near future.
Argument #2: Technology Is Reducing The Need for SEM Experts
I see two distinct technology trends impacting the SEM industry: the rise of third-party tools and the automation of AdWords (and Bing Ads). Will these two trends diminish the importance of SEMs?
Let’s start with third-party tools. In addition to campaign management software like Marin Software, Kenshoo, and SearchForce, the last few years have also seen the rise of niche technologies. For example:
- BoostCTR offers crowd-sourced ad text optimization
- AdChemy and DataPop offer automated PLA and creative optimization
- Optimizely, Unbounce, and Ion Interactive simplify landing page optimization
- SpyFu, SEMRush, and AdGooroo enhance keyword research
- Wordstream provides a suite of tools to audit and improve your accounts
Add all this up, and you’ve got a pretty complete set of tools – auditing, keywords, ad text, bidding, landing pages. What else do you need?
Rather than displacing SEMs, however, the rise of tool providers has actually increased the need for our services, simply because part of our role today is to be a selector and master of technology.
All of the technologies listed above can work wonders for your SEM campaigns, but only if you have a talented SEM steering them in the right direction. For example, I believe that a generic bid algorithm will always produce generic (read: suboptimal) results; you need an expert making regular tweaks and adjustments to get great results.
All of these tools require significant upfront training and ongoing “continuing education.” You also need an expert to negotiate the right rates, choose the right tools, and figure out how to make them all work together (if you’ve ever tried to pass keyword tracking through a marketing automation tool, into SalesForce, through attribution software and then back to your campaign management tool, you’ll understand what I mean here).
Overall, I’d argue that while third-party tools do simplify some aspects of SEM, they require an expert to run them. Their true value lies in the fact that, rather than replacing SEM experts, these tools enable them to instead focus their time on smart optimizations. No commoditization here.
Google AdWords Automation
So, what about Google? Google has made a few big changes recently that suggest the AdWords platform is moving closer and closer to a “set it and forget it” model (and Bing appears to be following Google’s lead in this respect). A few key examples:
- The rise of PLAs and dynamic search extensions that replace keyword selection with feed-based or algorithm-based results. Just upload your feed of products and let it choose the keywords for you!
- Everyone’s favorite feature – enhanced campaigns – which saves SEMs from the laborious task of bidding by mobile device, tablet, carrier, operating system, and wireless signal – and pushes us toward a device-agnostic world. Just set your bids, and we’ll figure out which device you should be showing on!
- The increased focus on DoubleClick Bid Manager – into which Google has thrown significant engineering and marketing resources in an attempt to displace third-party campaign management tools. Just let our campaign management system run your campaigns for you!
One industry expert I talked to called these trends “Google’s Trojan Horse to wrest control away from SEMs.” Of everything I’ve discussed above (industry maturation, third-party tools, and Google automation), I’d say Google automation could be the trend that represents the greatest threat to SEMs.
I believe that Google generally prefers to eliminate middlemen, and that they do this by building marketing technology that is “good enough” to displace a third-party paid solution. For example:
- Google Analytics (free) is “good enough” for most people not to pay for Omniture/Adobe
- Google Tag Manager (free) is “good enough” for most people not to use TagMan or Tealium
- DoubleClick Bid Manager (below market rate pricing) may someday be “good enough” for many people to not use a third-party campaign management tool
- And, someday, PLAs (perhaps extended to other channels beyond e-commerce), enhanced campaigns, and Google’s built-in AdWords conversion optimizers might be “good enough” for some companies to decide that they don’t really need SEM agencies or in-house experts
Perhaps this is dystopian paranoia, though history provides many examples of expert industries being severely disrupted and in some cases eliminated by technology (use a travel agent lately?).
The Secret To Avoiding Commoditization
So, does this mean we should all quit our jobs and take up a new profession? (I hear anything with “big data” in its title is hot these days.) What I’d actually suggest is that SEMs need to embrace automation and pivot accordingly. Specifically, I think the non-commoditized SEM of the future will be someone who is an expert at three things:
- Navigating SEM technology, including the ad platform itself, as well as third-party solutions
- Understanding the interaction of SEM and all other channels, both online (social, display, earned media) and offline (in-store, out-of-home, call centers), including media mix recommendations and attribution
- Understanding the entire conversion funnel, from creative to landing page to offer to sale
Put another way, the SEM of the future isn’t really an SEM at all, but rather a well-rounded online marketing expert with a deep understanding of SEM technologies, integrated marketing campaigns, and conversion optimization.
Brave New World Of SEM
In this future world, Google’s technology automation reduces the time SEMs have to spend on mining query reports and leaves them with time to spend thinking about ways to – gulp – diversify their spend into other channels beyond search (for Google, I suppose this could be an example of the law of unintended consequences).
As I’ve noted before, the long tail — be it of keywords or devices — is dying, and SEMs of the future will need to embrace a wide tail approach to not only survive but to prosper.
Thus, the future for SEMs is definitely different, but – at least for those savvy enough to embrace change – not one of commoditization.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.
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