In October of 2000 a start-up company launched a self-service ad program with 350 customers. The company was Google and the program was, of course, AdWords. While practitioners of SEM were then relatively rare, those employed full-time by companies to optimize websites for search engines were almost unheard-of. Some ten years and billions of dollars in AdWords spending later, the profession of in-house SEM is an established one, and poised on the brink of maturity.
What lies ahead for the in-house search marketer in the decade ahead? In a word: more. The proliferation of technology platforms and social networks continue to spawn new search opportunities, at the same time that search providers innovate furiously in order to capture or consolidate market share. The challenge for the in-house SEM will be to stay on top of these changes while continuing to profitably optimize for “traditional” search—and still find time for more mundane activities, like eating and sleeping.
More convergence with marketing units
Savvy in-house search marketers have long understood that the marketing silos typical of bigger firms have resulted in missed search optimization opportunities, and have remedied this by taking a more holistic approach to in-house marketing activities. Indeed, the ability to integrate aspects of public relations, advertising and affiliate marketing into search marketing strategies is one of the benefits of possessing an in-house search marketing program.
This will be an increasingly important principle to pursue as, among other things, the search engines make efforts to improve the prominence and relevance of real-time search results. Many organization’s Facebook updates and tweets, for example, are already becoming fodder for search results, demanding that social media marketing units—where they exist—coordinate strategy with SEM.
More convergence with technology units
Once upon a time, not so long ago, a well-structured site for search had valid HTML, a heading coded as H1, and well-formed title and meta tags. No longer. As more and more websites compete for a growing but still finite amount of search traffic, organizations that are able to integrate search-friendly technologies quickly and cleverly are going to have an important edge.
On one hand, the in-house SEM will continue to see his or her time coordinating the deployment of new and changing technical search requirements with coders and developers. The rate of innovation by the search engines will make this a substantial challenge. XML sitemaps, now in the “best-practice” column on most SEMs’ checklists, demonstrate what a challenge it can be keeping up with search engine changes. Introduced in 2005, their use is widespread but still not ubiquitous. The same is true even of Google News sitemaps (2006), which are arguably more important for Google News-indexed sites, while few sites to date have availed themselves of Google Video sitemaps (2007) despite the obvious potential benefits.
On the other hand, it will be ever more important to interact at a strategic level with developers and designers to build sites that are optimized for things like real-time and mobile search. As search evolves, so must search-friendly information architecture. There is, perhaps, no greater sign that in-house SEM has come of age than the job title “SEO Developer” starting to appear in company directories.
More types of search ads
Aside from the competition born of tacking several zeros to those original 350 AdWords customers, today’s paid search marketer now has to contend with a dizzying array of advertising formats and models. Video ads, mobile search ads, Facebook ads, CPA ads, and product ads—including the whole Bing Cashback model—have all made life more complicated for search engine marketers. Not only do new search types typically involve learning a new interface, but require different optimization strategies and the development of different key performance indicators to measure return on investment. A web-based text ad and an ad focused on local search for mobile devices definitely require different approaches.
The array of advertising options related to search, social networks and semantic technologies will continue to grow in number as technology changes and different sectors, like social media, mature. In the time since I started this article Google released Pay-Per-Call, and had been observed testing AdWords lead generation capture forms. Paid search marketers in the decade ahead will be challenged to learn and integrate new advertising types while controlling their ad spends, and keeping their advertising efforts profitable.
More types of search
As an example of how fast things are moving, just since I started this article Google has launched Near Me Now, which displays nearby restaurants, coffee shops and bars based on a mobile user’s geographic location. Even for those who were actively optimizing for Google’s Local Search for Mobile (introduced September 2009) this represents a change that for which new strategies must be devised. An SEO in 2000 had to optimize for misspellings; with the advent of mobile-based voice search SEO tactics now have to target misspeakings as well.
As devices develop optimization techniques must evolve to address these developments. While that has always been true, the rate of innovation in search has increased dramatically. The types of verticals in “universal search” (now old hat, introduced by Google in May 2007) will also morph and expand, as recently demonstrated by the inclusion of tweets by Google and Bing.
More in-house search stars?
The best-known figures in the search marketing community—names like Greg Boser, Dave Naylor, Jill Whalen, Barry Schwartz and Danny Sullivan—have typically come from the agency and consultancy side of the business. While the industry has not been without prominent in-house leaders, such as Marshall Simmonds of New York Times and About.com fame, in-house search marketers are still minority members of the “SEO rock star” pantheon. As more big brands seriously commit to search marketing expect to see senior in-house SEOs, such as Brent D. Payne (Tribune Company) and Dan Perry (Turner Broadcasting), gain greater industry visibility.
Pity the in-house search marketer working without a team, except in the smallest and most singularly focused of companies. In-house search marketing departments are unlikely to see increases in budgets commensurate with the rate of change in the industry. This will force many in-house search marketers to be more selective in their optimization efforts, and increasingly outsource specialty optimization and paid search tasks. There are exciting, challenging and demanding times ahead: remember to sleep.