Just last week the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization (SEMPO) released a new study that shows search marketing in North America has blossomed into a $5.75 billion industry. In fact, growth rates are such that search marketing is expected to top the $10 billion mark before the end of the decade. At the same time, there's no denying the ever growing reality that the search marketing world has managed to shoot itself in the foot.

From the earliest days of the industry, search marketers have rallied behind the idea that companies needed to hire them in order to increase a web site's rankings in the search engines. The idea was that higher rankings equaled more traffic and more traffic equaled more sales. Online businesses large and small, disappointed to discover that traffic wasn't exactly lining up at the doors of their newly opened web sites, slowly began to see value in the "voodoo" that search marketers promised to work on their sites. As such, an industry was born.

The problem was that as more businesses became educated about the need for search engine marketing, the idea that search engine marketing was all about rankings continued to spread. This set the entire industry up for a level of expectation that simply cannot be sustained. While top five or even top ten rankings could be achieved by skilled SEMs for almost any keyword phrase, the day is coming when the industry will grow to levels that make phrases so competitive that even the most skilled search marketers will have difficulty attaining top rankings.

In fact, the last year has seen the exodus of many hard-hitting search marketers from some of the more competitive arenas as they find that the effort required to maintain rankings isn't always worth the pay-off of those rankings.

Imagine, for a moment, that other marketing industries had set themselves up with similar expectations. That email marketers were considered unsuccessful if you didn't make the top ten list in terms of visitors to your site, that public relations professionals were a failure if you weren't one of the top ten stories of the year, that television commercials were a failure unless they resulted in more store visits than all but ten other companies in their industry. Starting to sound a little silly?

Of course it does! Marketing is about finding new and innovative ways to present a product so that it drives purchases. It's as simple as that. Commercial marketers work to capture an audiences' attention in a way that keeps a company top of mind when the need arises for their product. Direct mail advertisers seek to capture a potential customer's interest with a compelling enough offer to create a sale or at least an inquiry. In the world of traditional marketing, results are measured by ROI, not by some arbitrary "top ten" achievement.

This is where the search marketing industry finds itself facing a challenge. They need to educate businesses to help them toss out the old "top ten rankings" philosophy in exchange for the more realistic and sustainable "positive return on investment" philosophy. Otherwise, the entire industry runs the risk of imploding sometime in the next several years.

This isn't a new idea, many within the industry have been championing it for quite some time. Nonetheless, it still falls far behind "I want top rankings" as the reason companies want to hire search marketing firms. In fact, the biggest challenge many search marketers face these days is not talking clients into hiring them, but explaining that the true value of search marketing lies in customer acquisition, not ranking and traffic acquisition.

Concepts like the power of the keyword long tail are helping businesses realize that some of the best customers often come from phrases that they never even dreamed of optimizing for. The time is coming where the inability to gain top ten rankings for a keyword phrase won't be associated with a lack of search marketing skill. Search marketers and the companies that hire them will start focusing on the number of customers that a campaign produces. Ranking reports will be but a distant memory.

That's why the industry as a whole needs to start working on their presentation of search marketing. We need to go into client meetings talking about overall strategies that will help drive quality traffic from links on both search engine results and on other web sites. We need to talk about achieving a positive return on investment. We need to talk about the skill required to create sites that are both search engine friendly and customer friendly. We need to stop talking about rankings.

The companies that are already embracing these changes are finding it much easier to sell and to sustain accounts with happy clients. The companies that are still focusing on rankings are going to find their customer bases slowly shifting over to those living by the new SEM philosophy. The industry did shoot itself in the collective foot by setting up expectations based on rankings, but a positive ROI can act as a powerful remedy to help get things moving again.

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January 13, 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.

Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > How the Search Marketing Industry Shot Itself in the Foot