Closing the "SEM knowledge gap"

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Search marketing has gone mainstream. Once a tiny niche at the far corner of the marketing conversation, search is well on its way toward being correctly perceived by the mainstream business establishment as the cornerstone of any modern multichannel marketing campaign.

This transformation didn't happen overnight and still has a long way to go. Most industry coverage tends to focus on the shifting spending patterns of big spenders such as Procter & Gamble and Unilever. But there are millions of businesses in the United States that not only don't have a search marketing strategy in place, but don't even have Web sites.

Such long tail marketers have long attracted the attention of the engines. Last September, Google announced a partnership with Intuit to bundle AdWords functionality into Intuit's Quickbooks 2007. Microsoft, which last year centralized its search ad services into an umbrella organization called "Microsoft Digital Advertising Services," plans to expand its distribution through Office Live, and it's only a matter of time before pieces of MSN's adCenter turn up in Microsoft's Office productivity suite.

While it's great that more marketers will soon be able to participate in the search marketplace, it's also plain that unsophisticated newcomers will find as much pain as pleasure in their decision to use these self-service ad platforms.

The basic problem is that these platforms make the process of designing search campaigns deceptively easy: just buy a couple of dozen keywords, set your max bid price, hit "Start Campaign" and your next stop will be in Positive ROI land. Hah!

As we all know, it's not that easy. Today's competitive environment requires that all but the most rudimentary PPC campaigns be precisely targeted, monitored in real time and subject to mid-flight adjustment.

Mastering the self-service ad consoles is a necessary, but insufficient requirement for success, and developing the capability to conduct successful search marketing campaign often means additional investments, either in in-house teams, third-party automation platforms, or dedicated SEM agencies to which these tasks are outsourced. None of this may be rocket science, but it's certainly more difficult than it appears at first blush.

While the engines will do an adequate job in terms of informing prospective marketers about the real hazards of the marketplace, it's unfair to expect them to stress any issues that might scare prospects away. After all, the SEM's business model is to sell clicks, not conversions.

The task of educating future search marketers, therefore, falls to the industry itself, and lately the industry has responded with several high-profile initiatives, including SEM education programs sponsored by the DMA (Direct Marketing Association) and SEMPO (Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization).

As you likely know, I am an advocate of demystifying SEM. While many people clearly disagree with my assertion that "SEO is not rocket science," if one regards SEO as a legitimate branch of "science," one must insist that it abide by the primary requirements of any science, which is that such science's developments must be shared widely, in order to allow this science to develop and enhance the public good. This means sharing information, as far, freely, and widely as possible, and the DMA and SEMPO will be doing so.

Frankly, I would like this process to go much further. There is no reason that basic SEM techniques, both organic and paid, should not be taught in high schools, vocational schools, and at the college level. This is a perfect opportunity for distance-learning techniques to be employed to augment traditional industry information channels such as conferences and seminars.

While such new channels can never substitute for such conferences (especially in terms of providing networking opportunities), they provide a way to teach about SEM without forcing people to travel thousands of miles and spend thousands of dollars.

Spreading the word about SEM serves another critical purpose: the need to bring a new generation of practitioners into the field. Finding qualified people, training them and getting them up to speed is one of the biggest challenges this industry faces right now.

Unless we in the U.S.A. are able to create a qualified pool of indigenous SEM practitioners, this work will likely be outsourced outside our borders in the years ahead. If, however, we can do our utmost to develop such indigenous expertise, and close the "SEM knowledge gap," the U.S.-based component of SEM will have a strong future ahead.

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