Searching for Jobs in a Down Economy: Search Industry Offers Hope

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Depending on the media outlet, the United States is either currently in, or on the brink of, an economic recession. With the US unemployment rate rising from 4.8% in February to 5.1% in March 2008, and the number of unemployed people reaching 7.8 million in February (US Department of Labor), the state of the job market looks bleak indeed. U.S. News & World Report is even featuring a Recession Watch section on its Money & Business page listing the latest articles on the state of the US economy and job market. Indeed, it is difficult to turn to any media source these days without being presented with some sort of commentary on the US economy.

There is, however, a bright spot amongst the doom and gloom. The tone in the interactive arena, particularly the search marketing industry, is different from that of the economy as a whole. In October 2007, the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO) surveyed over 600 individuals who qualified themselves as in-house search engine marketers (SEMs) – people who are specifically responsible for search engine marketing, either organic or pay per click (PPC) or both, at a company or brand.

The survey revealed that those relatively new to the industry are well compensated. Exactly 19% of in-house SEMs with up to three years of experience in the search industry make between $30,001 and $40,000 annually. A further 25% report an annual salary of between $40,001 and $60,000.

Similar results were unearthed in the SEMPO Agency Salary survey, which is a survey of over 500 SEMs working at interactive or traditional agencies involved in search engine marketing. The SEMPO Agency survey, conducted in March 2008, determined that a notable 37% of those with up to one year of experience are making between $30,001 and $40,000 annually, and 34% are making between $40,001 and $50,000 per year.

Not surprisingly, as both in-house and agency SEMs gain more experience, their salaries grow to reflect their tenure. Just over 25% of in-house SEMs with 7-9 years of experience told SEMPO they were making between $80,001 and $90,000 annually. Over 13% of those SEMs working in the agency world and boasting 7-9 years of experience reported compensation of between $70,001 and $80,000 annually.

It is important to note the relative newness of the search industry. Only 5.3% of the SEMPO Agency Salary survey respondents, and 4.7% of in-house SEMs, could actually claim having 7-9 years of experience in search. The market is still a young one relative to its more traditional counterparts.

Another aspect of SEM jobs relating to the age of the market is the structure of titles and salary ranges. The SEMPO In-House Salary survey determined that of the 4% of respondents who claim a title of Vice President (VP), just over 20% reported annual salaries of $100,000 to $120,000. Of the 10% of respondents who hold the title of Director, 24% said their annual salaries are between $100,001 and $120,000.

A notable 26% of in-house SEMs told SEMPO they held a Manager title, while 39% claimed a range of titles, from Entry-Level Analyst to VP. The remaining 35% entered “other” titles that varied from finance-related to project management and site administrator. Results such as these are expected as companies experiment with the type of skill set they require from search marketers and consequently the salary and benefits they offer. As the market matures, titles are more likely to align with salaries and consistencies should develop across companies actively engaged in search marketing.

Job titles, roles, responsibilities, and salaries and benefits will evolve as the search market grows over the coming years. According to the 2007 State of the Market survey from SEMPO and Radar Research, search engine marketing was a $12.2 billion industry in North America last year, and will grow to $25.2 billion in 2011.

Unlike some other industries, the search arena needs people to sustain these rates of growth. As a recent series of columns by Gerry Bavaro of Didit point out (on MediaPost.com’s Search Insider), people will always be an integral part of the search marketing equation. Marketing – be it focused on search or another specific discipline – is still about strategy, analysis, and planning. While software can support people through this process, it is unlikely to replace the necessary human component entirely. Therefore, as the market matures, we should expect to see the workforce evolve accordingly.

But as Bavaro also notes, the ideal candidate in the search market understands the basics of business and can translate a client’s or brand’s key differentiators into strategic decisions. So while search marketing does not call for heavy lifting, it does call for basic business sense; this means that candidates with experience in a number of different industries can and should consider careers in search.

Respondents to the SEMPO Agency Salary survey indicated that job-related training was important to them – over one-fourth told SEMPO that if their agency couldn’t offer them their desired salary, a budget or reimbursement for job-related training may offset the gap. In an industry growing as quickly as the search market, training is essential to career advancement and advancement of the industry as a whole. The response to the SEMPO Agency Salary survey indicates that agency employees already acknowledge the value of job-related training.

Another key finding of SEMPO’s 2007 State of the Market survey was that search engine marketing appears to be poaching from offline marketing programs. Almost one-third (32%) of advertisers in North America surveyed reported shifting budget away from print magazines and putting it towards search. What’s more, 17% said the same of direct mail campaigns. In fact, 22% of advertisers said they were shifting budget away from website development, indicating that search is affecting even online efforts.

As traditional advertising agencies continue to purchase interactive marketing shops, and interactive shops continue to hone their search marketing offerings, the market offers significant opportunity for those people looking either to strengthen their current career or to embark on an entirely new one. Indeed, search remains a bright hope in career options even if the economy continues to falter.

About the Author

Cerelle Centeno is an independent consultant working for SEMPO, a global nonprofit organization focused on industry growth through relationships, awareness, education, industry promotion, research, and the creation of a better understanding of search and its role in marketing.

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