Supply and Demand of Literacy in SEM
by Rob Laporte
Visibility Magazine – June 2008
(original article reprinted below)

Excellence in SEM/SEO requires excellence in language and literacy. The current shortage of search marketing talent is based partly on rapid growth in demand, but it also reflects serious cultural and ultimately economic priorities in the US. This problem is and will long remain an opportunity for highly literate employees and prospective employees. Conversely, this shortage of supply will remain a problem for employers for several years. This article elucidates the problem, and proposes both immediate and long-term solutions that will help everyone, except, perhaps, the highest priced SEM firms. The solutions will likely contribute to the prosperity of the countries that embrace them.

The Wages of Ignorance

Ignorance is profitable – other people’s. In keeping with the inexorable law of supply and demand, the current shortage of well-qualified SEM workers results in relatively high prices and profits for suppliers of all forms of SEM (to the extent that many SEM firms price by “what the market will bear,” rather than by fair profit on labor). On the other side of that same coin, this shortage increases businesses’ costs for SEM services and employees, or else incurs opportunity costs due to unavailable or under-qualified (because under-paid) SEM workers. In the global market place, this shortage affects the US economy and blocks one avenue towards maximizing US exports to English speaking countries. While a shortage of qualified labor is to be expected in a rapidly growing profession, the alarming deficits in US adult literacy amplify this shortage and retard the process of increasing the supply.

Spelling Success in SEM

Linguistic aptitudes inform all SEM activities. Keyword research, SEO copywriting, PPC, naming products (or articles, or videos, or whatever populates a web site’s database of offerings), URL writing (and all other CMS-SEO), terse and actionable ROI reports and recommendations – if hands are hovering over a keyboard when working on a web site or its marketing, the linguistic acumen of the mind connected to those hands holds the key to maximum web-based profits.

In a 2003 article about hiring versus outsourcing SEM, I prioritized and elucidated the skills required of SEM employees, and those priorities remain the same today. In order of importance, that list is: (1) linguistic aptitude [“SEM is primarily a linguistic activity, wherein you match the query language of searchers with the language of your advertising and web site through the nexus of search engines. ( . . . ) Linguistic aptitude alone is not enough, but is absolutely required”], (2) research skills, (3) brains and education, (4) technical aptitudes and experience, and (5) SEM experience. In 2003, so few people had solid SEM experience that, in the interest of practical solutions, I placed it last in the list. Today I would place it . . . last on the list, or maybe fourth if one is hiring only for SEO keyword research and copywriting.

Some Examples

One might argue that my background in teaching literature at a university during most of the 1990s and my firm’s employees’ extraordinary language aptitudes prejudice my views, and to an extent I’m guilty as charged, but I hope that the following hypothetical illustrations will indicate just how thoroughly language proclivities pervade SEM labor.

  • A recent business major graduate bids on “art supplies” in a PPC campaign, and does pretty well, but weeks later he learns that a competitor’s English major thought from the outset to exclude “martial art supplies.” That kind of little oversight, multiplied many times, adds up to tens of thousands of dollars of wasted click costs in the PPC campaign. The business major is later found reading his first book in two years, What Color is Your Parachute?
  • A company’s brilliant off-shore web programmer has learned from an SMX search marketing conference how to open large, database-driven web sites’ URLs to search engine spiders and to pull keywords from the database into the meta-tags. But a competitor’s web programmer, who grew up in Cambridge (US or UK) and is an avid reader, has the linguistic propensity to realize that she can pull keywords into sub-headers within all product pages’ body copy, and, in an act of programming poetry, she even writes a paragraph at the bottom of each page in which she programmatically pulls database keywords into sentences without compromising the grammatical correctness of the writing in all of the pages. She was also sure to put the important keyword “color”, not “colour”, in the appropriate HTML titles of her US web site. The Cambridge programmer enjoys a huge holiday bonus because her site gets tons of relevant, organic search engine traffic and sales, and her employer reinvests some profits in other employees as well as vendors in its supply chain.
  • An account manager at an SEO firm writes a superb executive summary in a quarterly ROI report. The client’s CEO reads it (and the well written email it was attached to), is impressed, and, after all, feels comfortable paying the firm to do a lot more SEO copywriting on vital web pages.

If you have seen the in-process Excel spread sheets that emerge from a couple of days of professional keyword research, you know just how vast is the linguistic terrain one must explore to unearth the handful of the most searched yet winnable phrases that are relevant to the client’s market. Viewing only the relatively short, final lists of phrases aimed at one web page per list fails to reveal the strategy by which, for example, the SEO employee selected the best two phrases and the best four single keywords all within one selected phrase. In this area, as in the meticulous yet inspired SEO copywriting, there exists no upper limit of excellence in the expression of disciplined verbal artistry. An SEO Einstein would beat even the best of us every day.

A Few Stats on Supply & Demand

While I suspect that governments are not good educators, I was startled to see where the US ranks globally in enrollment and in education spending as a percentage of GDP, including both governmental and non-governmental spending. According to the Economist’s 2008 Pocket World in Figures, the US is not ranked in the top twenty-five in either category. Curiously, there are no statistics on US literacy reported in that guide, while there are for many other countries. The most recent US government supplied statistics are for 2003, and it’s a good bet that with increasing costs and stagnant wages, never mind a recession, the US is headed downhill in this department.

At best, US literacy rates are average when compared to other developed countries. (See

According to The 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (, the most recent comprehensive study of literacy in US adults, only 13-15% of adults were proficient across three measures of literacy, while roughly 50% were intermediate, and about 35% fell into the basic and below basic ranges. The Education Testing Service (makers of the SAT and other tests) predicts that average levels of literacy in adults will decrease by about 5% by 2030. While education matters, with literacy levels increasing as levels of education increase, literacy levels declined between 1992 and 2003 more for college graduates than for high school educated or below. Literacy levels averaged across three areas had declined by 6% for college graduates between 1992 and 2003.

With high demand for Search Engine Marketing expertise that requires English language acumen, those jobs are fetching high salaries. A quick search of revealed hundreds of postings for jobs related to the search engine marketing industry with starting salaries averaging about $50k, while management level starting salaries ranged from $70-$120k. This reveals a great opportunity for college graduates with high literacy skills.

Demand for SEM workers is likely to stay high while supply of well qualified workers remains low due to declining literacy rates in the US. Ignorance is profitable – for a few.

Solutions for SEM Workers and Employers

A problem as vast and cultural as declining literacy deserves, and no doubt gets, whole books and dissertations. Meanwhile, I broach a few solutions for both SEM workers and employers.

Solutions for SEM workers and trainees: (1) Actually read one of those grammar and style guides that colleges (used to) require – the good ones are not at all boring if one likes language. (2) Read good books. Thomas Jefferson wrote that “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers” –and blogs. (3) If still in college, elect and exert yourself in literature and writing classes. (4) Practice writing — in journals, in considered emails to friends and family, in fiction, in op-ed pieces, in anything. And yes, you definitely get credit for writing good blogs.

Solutions for employers: (1) Hire SEM employees with strong and proven language backgrounds. (2) Ask for several very different kinds of writing samples before hiring. (3) Look for verbally gifted employees to promote to SEM positions. (4) Contribute to employees’ continuing humanities education. (5) Support higher education, through votes, cash, or, failing that, cocktail conversations and pillow talk.