Are SEMs & Paid Search Marketers Becoming A Commodity?

gold commodity

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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?

Third-Party Tools

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:

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

bing and google

Are these companies a threat?

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:

  1. Navigating SEM technology, including the ad platform itself, as well as third-party solutions
  2. 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
  3. 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.

Related Topics: Channel: SEM | Paid Search Column | SEM Industry: General


About The Author: is founder and CEO of 3Q Digital (formerly PPC Associates), a position he has held since the Company's inception in 2008. Prior to 3Q Digital, he held senior marketing roles at several Internet companies, including (2000-2001), FindLaw (2001-2004), Adteractive (2004-2006), and Mercantila (2007-2008). David currently serves on advisory boards for several companies, including Marin Software, MediaBoost, Mediacause, and a stealth travel start-up.

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  • SEOGuy

    SEMs who are strategic, creative, know the industry well and are passionate have a bright future ahead.

    On the PPC side, automation can’t replace brains. Sure, automation helps optimize a strategists job–but not replace it. For those brands/agencies that think it will–good luck! We’ll see you on the other side of the finish line.

    SEOs who REALLY know their stuff are much more the exception than the rule. Google regularly modify their algorithms and products, so talented SEOs who keep up and stay ahead will continue to be in high-demand–regardless of seniority.

  • Pat Grady

    Outstanding article, I love the style here, facts, not a defensive or paranoid stance! My team talks about this subject often. Most recently when reading about the DC Inventory Aware posting. :-)

    “I believe that Google generally prefers to eliminate middlemen”
    If I owned an auction based platform that sold anything, I’d be interested in making it as easy as possible for more qualified bidders to save time using it – it serves all interested parties in the auction (except consultants to the bidders). So I don’t view G as having a stance towards middlemen, more so, I see their perspective as “the need for a middleman might be a sign of our auction system being too complex, we should fix that”. That said, every effort I’ve seen, to make it “more simple”, has made it “more complex”. Trying to reduce something so critical to any biz, optimizing your results, is very unlikely to be automated, ever. Automation may become prevalent, but there will always be those who want to do better than automation affords.

  • victorpan

    Commodity? The words, certainly. I’ve been seeing SEO, PPC, and Social Media on resumes like the Powerpoint and Excel of software skills.

    Actual skill levels? Nope. There’s a learning curve, and when there’s a curve, there’s market price differentiation.

  • Arshad Amin

    Well everyone is commodity for another in one way or another. ;p jokes apart it seems true!

  • Kevin Lee

    Many of these arguments are why I evolved Didit from a pure SEM shop to a one stop digital shop, and then took it one further by investing in a traditional agency so we could do regular media buying and PR. SEM data is at the heart of a digital (and even a traditional) marketing plan, because the success of any other form of marketing manifests itself first within search.

  • Nicholas Protonotarios

    A one stop digital agency is the best way of doing things, cohesive marketing and understanding user intent something automation and 3rd party tools can only manipulate through historical data.

  • David Rodnitzky

    I think that is partially correct Pat, but I also think that Google likes the control!

  • David Rodnitzky

    Thanks for the comment Kevin. I had no idea that you did traditional – everything old is new again!

  • brian mathers

    I would have to disagree here. I attend also the SES Conferences and when look around what I see are a few thousand people who are in my mind skilled mechanics. Whether I attend the London or NYC conference what I don’t see much of is – business owners, the very people who need what we have to offer. I have a great relationship with a top SEO tool provider who rolled out a new software in 2011 and at the time our thoughts were, this will really help the small medium sized business owner to get to grips with SEO.

    It turned out that the resource put in place were swamped with calls – not with queries about the tool features, but actually how to do SEO, with questions like where will I find my TITLE TAG? Where do you go to change the TITLE TAG, and a whole raft of questions like this.

    Business owners are still not educated enough to know what makes a website fly and achieve reasonable results. The difficulty they have is choosing someone with good skills. There is always the possibility in life you will take your top of the range BMW to a BMW garage but that mechanic might just not solve the problem. The same can happen within the SEO industry. The only difference is that the business owner has not got much of a ‘specification brief’ to go on, that says the SEO Person you have chosen is a high performance skill specialist.

    So, personally, I think for a while yet there is still enough work around the globe for good dedicated SEO/SEM people who achieve results for the business owner who of course still needs to get better educated towards what makes a website achieve getting traffic to then gain conversion. We still have many business owners, who, when they call you for SEO services, the reason for their call is – “I need to be No1 on the search engines” – this is what we need to address?

    I would like to see more conferences and seminars that pull the business owners into a room and let them hear from quality skilled SEO/SEM people just what it takes to ‘tune up’ their website if they are to achieve what I call ‘OnlineXcellence’.

  • Kevin Lee

    Indeed. The Inceptor acquisition worked out so well, we started thinking about the biz-dev and cross sell process and how a broader offering would more often be an asset.

  • George Michie

    A fine post, David. I see a growing perception of commoditization as an ever increasing cadre of people have “years of experience” in paid search. However genuine expertise remains rare and valuable. Doing paid search badly for years may look great on a resume but is worse than no experience. I suspect we are pretty far from actual commoditization, though in many instances perception is reality. As Kevin points out there are plenty of incentives for diversifying income streams, meeting client needs being the most obvious. In my view, there is room in any industry for excellence; there may be a point in time when mediocrity won’t pass muster in paid search, but unfortunately we haven’t gotten there yet.

  • David Rodnitzky

    I agree Tim. AdWords is basically its own language these days. As PLAs improve, however, will there come a time when many advertisers can just “set it and forget it” and let Google make smart decisions for them? Seems far-fetched right now, but it is worth pondering.

  • David Rodnitzky

    Great comment George. Benchmarking performance is very tough and most people don’t understand the difference between internal benchmarking (did I improve over last year?) and external benchmarking (am I performing at a best-of-class level).

    As such, there are a lot of companies who think all SEM experts are the same because they’ve never really compared their mediocre performance with performance they might get from experts.

    A rising tide raises all boats, and that is certainly the case at the moment in SEM. And as long as the tide keeps rising, everyone will look pretty good!

  • Janice S. Roberts

    as Sara answered I’m dazzled that anyone can earn $4247 in 4 weeks on the internet. did you look at this web link w­w­w.K­E­P­2.c­o­m

  • cisshanu

    Search engine marketing expert with systematic work brings the website on rank with proper promotion.


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