A few weeks ago at the SES NYC conference, I had an interesting conversation with a lawyer that worked for a mid-sized firm. He said that he was learning SEM so that he could work on marketing their firm online and that he really enjoyed it. He also said that he was considering a career change and from what he was seeing, SEM professionals seemed to make almost as much money as lawyers did. I laughed, but didn't think too much about it until this morning when a new ClickZ column looked at SEM salaries in the industry.

The salary ranges didn't surprise me all that much...$30-$50K for entry level optimization specialists on up to $100-$200K salaries for high end management and director positions. For the most part, those are on par with other fields in the tech and marketing industries. The difference is that search marketing, unlike computer programming or traditional marketing, still has plenty of room for people that are self-starters. College degrees and decades of experience aren't really necessary for these positions because neither of those qualifications are really possibilities for the search marketer. That means that the right person can reach the top of the SEM job field far more quickly than they could reach the top of the programming or traditional marketing field.

I was also reminded of the fact that a major insurance company based here in Columbus, Ohio has been looking for a search marketing director for quite some time. The posted salary range isn't bad for the area (around $75K) but the reality is that based on their job description, they wouldn't find anyone that would take the position for that pay. Why? Because someone with as much experience as they require could easy charge $150-$200 an hour as a consultant. When you figure that you only need to bill about 10 hours a week at those rates to match that $75K, you don't need to put too much more thought into why they're having trouble filling the position.

So my question becomes...is the industry spoiled? Is the fact that an experienced SEM scoffs at a salary that's not equal to those paid out by top law firms, or earned by experienced surgeons a sign that something is wrong? Maybe... Recently I find myself being reminded of the models and actors that claim they "won't get out of bed for less than $X" and wondering if we're reaching the same point. I tend to think that we're still in a "supply verses demand" era of the industry and that as more experienced search marketers come into the industry, we'll see a leveling of the playing field.

Now it's easy enough to say that SEM professionals are well worth the money they charge, because they make their clients more than they charge them. While that may be true, I'd again warn that we will eventually come to a more level playing field. It's "easy" enough to earn top rankings and top conversions in a field where only a small portion of the players are trying to compete. The day is coming however when search engine marketing will be as much a part of the average company's game plan as direct mail, print advertising and public relations.

Once those days hit, it's going to take a lot more effort and perhaps a little less billing for companies to be able to turn a profit on their campaigns. That may mean that we'll see salaries start to level out and that those of us in the industry might have to get a little more used to living like the average skilled consultant rather than like a dot-com millionaire.

The whole point of a gold rush is that the first few folks tend to get really rich and the rest tend to work themselves to the bones for average pay. I wonder if our industry isn't approaching that same reality.

Until then, for a skilled self-starter that's willing to learn and relocate, I sure am seeing an awful lot of unfilled job postings.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

March 15, 2006

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

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