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Who’s an SEM Expert?

I coached high school basketball for a number of years. In the weeks before tryouts I was always approached by some kids who wanted to let me know that they were “really, really good,” and that I should prepare myself to be very impressed. Often a father would be there to confirm that his son was indeed “really, really good.” This exchange invariably guaranteed that the kid was really, really bad.

It isn’t that they were trying to snow me; they truly believed they were exceptionally good players. The thing is, anyone who has actually played a lot of basketball by the age of 14 or 15 has played against people much older, bigger, faster, stronger and better than them and when asked about their game will shrug and say something like: “I handle the ball okay…” or “I can rebound…” The 9th grader who thinks he’s a good player has played all his basketball shooting around in his back yard with his dad and kid brother and will never be a good high school player.

These days the same hairs stand up on the back of my neck when I see all the thousands of self-described SEM experts available for hire as consultants, full-time employees or as agency service providers. Many of them tout their years of experience and various certifications to support their claims to expertise.

However, the more someone talks about their years of experience the more I suspect they don’t know much about SEM. Like shooting baskets in the back yard, you can spend as many years as you want playing “horse”, but you’ll never get to be a player until you get out into the competition and play with the big boys and girls. A good PPC analyst will instead talk about their approach to the complex problems presented by search, how they strike balances between competing objectives, and what problems they’re still working on because they’re really hard.

Unlike other professional service providers (engineers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, architects) there are no widely accepted board certification standards either. The Google Certified Professional training and Yahoo Ambassador training programs give no meaningful guidance on how to manage a program and simply require that people memorize facets of the UI (a waste of time) and learn the “best practices” established by the engines who have no experience with or interest in generating ROI.

Better certification standards may be on the way. The folks at Market Motive have put together an SEM Master Certification program that actually has teeth. They’ve solicited input and training materials from industry leaders, and the certification exam itself will be rigorous. Whether this program will become widely recognized for producing true experts in the field remains to be seen, but I applaud Market Motive for putting real thought and effort into designing the course.

In the great scheme of things, proof lies not in certificates and degrees but in results and capabilities. However, establishing some sort of knowledge base that any paid search professional should have might help retailers with hiring decisions and help raise the standards of service among agencies.

Ideas welcomed!

George

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Comments
7 Responses to “Who’s an SEM Expert?”
  1. I like the sports analogy. My husband was a baseball coach for years and I still get tickled thinking about the time a mom told him how her son was such a great pitcher but we were playing in a coached pitch league. LOL

    I come from a different perspective. I have ads out to hire people who have worked with various keyword strategies (SEO, paid search, etc.). I get tickled at how many “straight out of college” applicants believe they are web designers because they have changed their MySpace layout or they think they are Social Media marketing experts because they can set up a Facebook Profile. ;)

  2. Erin says:

    Actually, I am always wondering this about myself. I surprise myself by what I know, but I don’t feel super confident about my skills–this industry moves very fast. With that in mind, do you have any books about SEO/SEM you would recommend? Or is that too 20th century :)

  3. Shelley, I hear you! We had a candidate who listed HTML as a proficiency on her resume. When pressed for specifics she said: “Well, I know how to surf the web. I’m very comfortable on the internet…”

    However, we’ve had tremendous success taking super sharp, numbers oriented folks and teaching them the paid search game. Our training program is intense, and I’d put our analysts up against all comers in terms of depth of knowledge of search marketing. Obviously they get better with experience, but experience without the knowledge and training is like shooting around with the “old man.”

    Erin, thanks for your comment/question. The books I’ve seen on PPC are pretty basic. I recommend following the good blogs like SearchEngineLand and see if the kinds of stuff ‘we experts’ :-) study and write about is the kind of stuff you’re looking at too. Alan posted a couple of “Best of the RKGBlog” posts recently.

    If you read widely in the blogosphere and can separate the interesting pieces from the garbage, you’re probably doing pretty well! Hopefully you’ll find our stuff interesting :-)

  4. john says:

    Hi George and Happy New Year.

    I work for large Company who created a new SBU of New Media Specialists, basically resellers of Google And Yahoo PPC programs to SMB. My background has always been counsultive sales, promarily selling intangible. However non backgroung w/SEO/SEM. Most of my training is self taught. I have links from SEMPo to SEOMOZ. I must have 90 of them. I have set Google alerts based on ancyonims and terms. My Company provides some cursury training which is reinforcement.

    My inquire is similar to Erin’s. To be honest I do not have faith in my Companies training or even staying current with the changing tides in SEO/SEM. Like all large companies they have a tendency to throw ideas at a wall and hope somethings stick. I am fortunate my manager is from the SEO/SEM enviroment, however the decision makers above are not skilled in SEO due to thier many years focusing on thier core business model, which (yuk) print.

    I took you advice and join market model for 39.00 per month. (my $$ not company). Despite my whining I am in the top ten in the country for sales. We have 200 sales force, some hired from the outside, some promoted withen. I am the latter.Our over all sales force is 5000. I know for a fact the more I know of what is best for the customer I can continue to help and be a trusted advisor, not a vendor. I just need some solid advice on getting information which is RELETIVE to a salesperson of PPC and Web Sites versus the person responsible for his/her company’s SEO.

    I feel this information I can explain to a customer the strenths and weaknesses of PPC and all that comes with it.

    Sorry for the babaling, but I truly care for my customers and have invested on reading your blog today from Medi Post, along w/20 other. Starting to expirence overload.

    In closing I ain’t stupid, I know this is where its at, I just want to stay ahead of the curve. One daughter in college and 2 son I already put through. Thus I am not just out of college.

    Any help you or staff can supply, truly appreciated. By the way resume is always updated!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Happy New Year, John.

    Market Motive is a good place to start. Keep a close eye on other good blogs: ours, SearchEngineLand, ClickZ. I think the 2 keys to success in this space are knowledge and honesty. Knowing what you can and can’t do, and being straight with the companies who buy your services as to your capabilities makes you a trusted resource.

    Absent sophisticated tools, all the knowledge in the world won’t allow you to effectively manage a big ($100K per month) account. However, there are plenty of smaller accounts that need help, and the top SEM agencies simply can’t serve those folks for a reasonable fee.

    If Yellowbook can figure out a way to serve that market cost effectively, more power to them!

  6. Frugalocal says:

    Good points. It really does seem like everyone claims to be a sem guru or expert of some sort. Usually they are promoting their own services which means you have to be a little curious about how much of an expert they really are.
    Thanks for the info!

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