Should You Hire an In-House SEM Employee?

Should You Hire a Search Marketing Employee?

Should You Hire a Search Marketing Employee? (photo courtesy of BusinessInsider.com/negativity-has-no-place-at-your-startup-2010-6

My previous post discussed considerations in contracting with an SEM consultant, and concluded that you should (1) ask how the firm trains new and old employees and (2) interview the people who will actually work on your account. Here I address criteria for hiring in-house.

My 2003 article “SEM: In-House vs. Outsourced” published at SEMPO.org (Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization) is still well worth reading. It’s executive summary states:

“SEM (Search Engine Marketing), which consists of the distinct activities of SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and paid placement, requires exceptional linguistic and technical aptitude, at least six months of experience, and ongoing research and training. Therefore, a manager who would like to have SEM expertise in-house should expect to allocate at least $50,000 (in the US) towards employee salary and training. Good programmers rarely make good search engine marketers, because of the highly linguistic nature of the work, so that a manager should be cautious about using existing web programmers for SEM. Marketing personnel may have the linguistic and product knowledge, but they need to have substantial technical knowledge of web programming relating to search engines. Even in SEM firms, it is rare that one person possesses sufficient mastery of the various fields of knowledge that impinge on SEM, and people who do have this mastery are likely to cost more than $50,000 per year.”

I then discuss the core aptitudes required of an SEM employee, in order of importance: linguistic aptitude, research skills, brains and education, technical aptitudes and experience, SEM experience. The only change to that priority I would make now is to move SEM experience up one notch.

I also discuss the kinds of business situations that warrant hiring.

Consider the problem of needing less SEO work after year one and the lack of synergies when using just one SEM employee. In theory, if any one facet of search marketing will cost more than, say, $80,000 in labor per year, you’re better off hiring in-house. However, the various parts of search marketing these days work best when synced together with several synchronized people each commanding distinct disciplines within search marketing. Such a team can deliver far more synergies than a single employee. Also, many SEO tasks require a majority of the labor in the first year, at least on a single web site that doesn’t undergo major changes each year, which means that an in-house expert would eventually run out of cost-effective jobs.

The tendency is to not hire soon enough because most businesses aren’t qualified to project the ROI of search marketing, and many firms have been burned by unscrupulous or incompetent SEM firms in the past. I advise paying an SEM firm well to assess the ROI of hiring in-house vs. contracting an SEM consultancy. If you don’t pay the firm well for this work, you may end up with a proposal disguised as an objective study which concludes that, what do you know, you should engage that SEM firm.

Why are Search Marketing Firms like Hospitals?

Who is the search marketing "Professional" cutting into your website

Have you met the search marketing employee cutting into your website?

The hospital’s website rocks, but who the heck will be holding the scalpel over your anesthetized body? Likewise, a search marketing firm can sport a fantastic website, employ great sales people, be led by a luminary (who used to do the actual work), but success for your website depends entirely on the person or people actually doing the work for you.

In search marketing, there’s no upper limit to the expression of genius. An SEO or PPC Einstein would blow away the best of us every day. Like law or medicine, the professionals working directly on your case make all the difference. But in law or medicine, usually the goal is either accomplished or not: a surgeon doesn’t remove 80% of a tumor, and you’re either in jail or you’re not. In search marketing, each step in the sequence of work – a sequence which itself is a product of many brilliant choices about tools and processes – the search marketing pro (or his pre-conscious mind) will make key decisions almost every minute.

For example, in SEO, selecting key phrases to lace into your website is helped by software that ranks hundreds or thousands of synonymous phrases, and the final choice of phrases depends on an intuitive grasp of how much your inbound linkscape and subsequent PageRank will enable you to win for the shorter, more competitive and searched phrases vs. long-tail phrases for which page one positions are more likely. When writing the selected phrases into your text, the choice of repetition and close variants should factor, quickly and intuitively, the amount of conceptually related words and phrases already in that page’s copywriting. In theory, one could make such choices using more software and statistics, but that could take hours for every word choice. The SEO Einstein’s preconscious genius would make most of those choices with lightning speed and staggering acumen.

In PPC, rigorous and standardized optimization procedures that any bright employee could follow would accomplish a lot of success for you. However, the PPC Einstein would rapidly intuit the optimum blend of ad copy, landing page content, bid amount, and exact, phrase, or broad match with negative keywords – all prior to testing, so that from day one of the campaign weekly optimization is several months ahead of your competition.

Of course employee training, experience, and permission to research on company time are as vital as innate aptitude. A good search marketing firm will have procedures for efficiently transmitting to both new and seasoned employees the knowledge and wisdom in the firm’s and SEM industry’s leading minds. Still, some employees will never achieve that grace in search marketing which emerges from a rare blend of linguistic and statistical perspicacity.

So what does this all mean for your prioritization of web marketing investments? More than I can say in one blog post, but the salient advice for the marketing manager seeking a search marketing firm is to

  1. Ask how the firm trains new and old employees;
  2. Interview the people who will actually work on your account.

If you are considering hiring an in-house search marketer, stay tuned for my blog post next week.

What SEO tools Should You Use?

SEO Tools and Tool Sets

SEO Tools and Tool Sets

If you decide to do SEO in-house, what tools should you use? Companies create SEO tools for link bait, leads, and cash flow if the tool is for sale. Those incentives have spawned literally thousands of SEO tools and scores of tool suits, both free and paid. How can you know which to use?

Unfortunately, it takes a lot of time and expertise to (1) quickly assess whether a tool is worth further assessment, and (2) evaluate the accuracy and usefulness of each candidate. For example, spend a few hours looking at free SEO browser ad-ons, and you may find the impressive WOOrank.com tool. I use it regularly for quick snapshots of a site’s SEO health. However, it can wrongly report SEO deficits. You would discover such errors only by doing careful confirmation tests or by running an SEO technical audit by cherry-picking the best of many tools and by manual testing where possible. (I know, we’re in chicken-egg land, for I’ve posited a-priori knowledge of where to cherry pick SEO tools). For another example, WordTracker for SEO keyword research is very useful, but what are its biases and weaknesses, and which of its options should you choose and why, and when do you need to use other tools to supplement data coming from its weaker points?

The fact is that there is no single, simple choice of tool for any part of the SEO process. The best SEO firms constantly evaluate tools, in part by running different ones in parallel, and in part by doing more manual tests to spot check tools that, in the past, seemed to work fine. This takes time and expertise, which is one reason that SEO firms can add value despite higher hourly rates than employees. Of course you can train an employee to get sufficient expertise to evaluate tools, and then pay the employee (or yourself) to take the time to constantly test the tools, but the ongoing need for such tools on the one or two websites you own probably won’t justify the investment in R&D and training.

This case of the micro-economics of selecting and using SEO tools connects to a broader economic trend in search marketing: as the need rises to do SEO completely and correctly to get results, and as the complexity of SEO increases, ever larger small businesses are excluded from effective SEO – and ever more unscrupulous SEO firms swoop in to offer services for prices that will not and do not support adequacy. True, new local search marketing channels are delaying this trend for small businesses serving local markets, but this only slows the trend. There are huge economies of scale in SEO, and I wonder whether this trend reflects a root cause of the world’s growing income inequality.

Bottom line: spend at least 15 hours each for evaluating SEO tools for each of SEO technical auditing, keyword research, and SEO results reporting.