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Where Do You Go From Here? 7 Career Paths For The Search Engine Marketer


For an industry that’s only been viable for about 15 years, search engine marketing has provided a strong career option for many of us — most of whom (like myself) have literally fallen into the field.

I remember working for one of the first large search agencies in 2006 and asking my colleagues their backgrounds. Surprisingly, very few of us had marketing degrees. My peers majored in things like English, philosophy, journalism, communications, engineering, law, and even in film (me).

One of my brothers-in-law is an architect. The other is a doctor. Careers like those have fairly clear paths from start to finish, but in a nascent industry such as search marketing, there has yet to even be a retirement class to follow.

For those of you reading this today: What’s your path in this industry? How do you plan to grow your career?

Following are seven potential paths for your search marketing career.

Staying A Practitioner

Hey, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” right? I know plenty of fantastic, motivated folks who really love doing what they’re doing. Search engine marketing — whether paid or organic optimization — keeps them highly engaged and continues to challenge their creativity daily, so there’s no real reason to think beyond being a search marketer.

They may move up in their organization, switch companies, or even move between the agency and advertiser roles throughout their career, but that’s just really a change in scenery, not in job description. The satisfaction they get from being practitioners seems to fit their personalities very well, and these people tend to be some of the most contented folks in our industry.

Going Into Management

Eventually, if you get good enough at something, someone will want you to start managing a team that is doing that. For some, this represents an awesome new challenge and a chance to potentially earn more money, while others may avoid this path when imagining the headaches and sleepless nights that come from greater responsibility and ownership than their current roles.

Are you someone who is frustrated with your organization’s current processes and wants to be the one calling the shots and holding people accountable? If so, management might be for you.

Frankly, some people are simply born leaders and will naturally gravitate towards management positions. They are already the ones volunteering for new initiatives and training their peers even without the management title. Look around your office, and you’ll probably be able to identify the future leaders of this industry.

The downside here — and I can speak from personal experience — is that the more you get sucked into managing people, the less time you spend as a search marketer. Some days, I truly wish that all I had to worry about were CPCs and CTRs instead of HR training, dealing with budgets and sitting in executive planning sessions. However, I wasn’t fully satisfied with being a practitioner, so it made sense for me to take on more business-focused roles in my career.

I am lucky now to have a role where I can both manage a team and stay very close to the daily discipline of search marketing.

Moving Into New Channels

Search marketing is a key component to both digital marketing and the umbrella of simply “marketing,” so SEMers are constantly working with the practitioners in other channels — especially with online display and social.

In fact, integrated marketing initiatives are exploding around the industry right now, so search marketers who may have been used to working in silos are now rubbing shoulders with their cross-channel counterparts more than ever before. This increased exposure may lead some search marketers to explore these other channels as potential new career paths.

Matt Ballek, founder of YouTube consultancy VidiSEO, was able to merge his day job as a search marketer and his side passion for video production.

SEM career paths are like keyword lists — you can go as granular as you like. I started as an SEO/PPC specialist, so when Google bought YouTube, I started to apply a number of SEO tactics to some videos I made with a friend. I ended up ranking on the first page for ‘superbowl recipes’ a week before the Super Bowl and got thousands of views for my silly video. It was around that time that I created a blog, VidiSEO, to share my process for ranking videos on Google and YouTube. Six years later, I’ve grown VidiSEO from a blog into a full time job.

Matt Ballek, VidiSEO

I took my career from being solely an SEM practitioner to a full-service digital marketer engaged in mobile, online video, affiliate marketing, Web analytics and more.

Maybe I’m a bit biased here, but I felt like my experience with search engine marketing absolutely translated well to these other channels. Skills such as a focus on highly granular optimization, an A/B testing mindset and Excel expertise helped me tremendously.

Certainly, my paid search background was crucial to my success with biddable media, such as paid social and programmatic display. In many ways, the same muscles are needed. Those were very easy transitions for me and should be for any paid search expert who moves to similar auction-based advertising channels.

Finding Industry Niche Roles

As a $70 billion industry, search engine marketing has a ton of opportunity for folks who aren’t actually doing search engine marketing. A ton of niche jobs are available in this industry.

For example, the fine editors here at Search Engine Land all have jobs due to search engine marketing. There are search association jobs, industry analysts at financial and research firms, search conference companies, recruiters and human resource careers and SEM training/certification programs that all would benefit from having (or are even required to have) experienced search engine marketers filling these roles.

There are so many interesting jobs now in our industry. One practitioner, Chris Anderson, found an opportunity to grow his career as a freelance paid search writer for Boost Media, where marketers can tap into their network of experts to source, test and optimize ad creative across search, social, image and mobile.

I came across Boost Media while working as a Search Engine Quality Specialist … I worked on improving the user experience for some of the world’s largest search engines. I had some extra time and thought that my background writing and working with search engines would be a natural fit for creating high quality ad copy, so I applied for a Boost Writer position. From the start, my experience with Boost has been overwhelmingly positive and has led to continuous opportunities.

Along with staying active as a Boost Writer for almost three years now, I have contracted with several companies where I not only write ad copy, but also manage entire campaigns for businesses of all sizes.  The diversity of my career background and the support and experience Boost has given me has allowed me to hone and build a career freelancing as a paid search expert.  It’s an exciting industry and I am thrilled to be a part of it!

Chris Anderson, Boost Media

Starting Your Own Company

For many people — not just search marketers — owning a business is the ultimate dream.

Sometimes, necessity is the mother of invention. For Rich Stokes, CEO of AdGooroo, a Kantar Media Company, starting his own technology company came from his need to gain more visibility into competitive information. There were no tools on the market to fill this gap, so he began exploring his own solutions. This need took his career off in a totally new direction.

I got involved in search engine marketing back in 2003 while running an online consumer testing lab for anti-spyware tools. I invented the technology which eventually became AdGooroo to understand how my competitors were driving traffic using Google AdWords. It worked so well that in the course of a year, I became the largest independent affiliate in the anti-spyware industry. Larger industry players began approaching us in 2007, and we finally ended up selling to Kantar Media in 2012. Since then, my role has expanded and although I am still involved in product development, today I spend most of my time on forging new business partnerships in Europe, Asia and South America.

Rich Stokes, AdGooroo

For Ajay Pattani, Founder & CEO of SEM agency Perfect Search Media, not only did SEM inspire him to start his own agency, but the skills he built as a practitioner have helped him as a business owner.

Getting into search in 2005 and being part of a growing agency, then applying these competencies later on as an in-house marketer was extremely valuable to me. Looking back, I’m grateful for the transition from account management to agency management. The lessons learned from analyzing search metrics have been applied to many aspects of our agency, from recruiting to new business, and have made it easier to handle the challenges of entrepreneurship. Although I’m not in the day-to-day on accounts, the foundations of segmentation, testing, data aggregation and optimization remain in the search world today and beyond.

Ajay Pattani, Perfect Search Media

Joining The Vendor Or Engine Side

For vendors and engines who cater to search engine marketers, there is tremendous value to having those practitioners join their teams to help them sell and service end clients. However, it’s not crucial to have been a search marketer to be successful at these companies — I know many sales people who have never logged into AdWords who have strong talk tracks and a solid understanding of the SEM industry.

Adriana Zambrano is currently an Agency Relationship Director at Marin Software, but she spent years working as an agency SEM practitioner on high-profile accounts. Having spent five years using the platform every day, she knew that her background would be valuable in helping to service Marin’s agency clients. For her, the vendor side represented an opportunity to utilize her skill set in a new, challenging way.

I wanted to evolve my career from using the technology to layering in my experience in agency life. Joining tech allowed me to move my career from a user to an influencer. Since I was a user of Marin for so many years, I had a thorough understanding of the platform, and my own experience was enough for me to feel I would be very successful helping others utilize the tool. It’s been very rewarding to share my knowledge with my clients, as I was recently in their shoes and know how challenging this stuff can be.

Adriana Zambrano, Marin Software

Leaving The Industry

For some of you reading this column, advancing your career path will mean leaving search to find something else to do. Maybe this is simply a good job for you now as you figure out what you really want to be doing, and one day your other interests take you into new directions far away from anything related to marketing.

One of the best search marketers I’ve ever known just quit one day to travel the world. Last I heard, he’s super happy doing graphic arts and design for the music industry.

I rarely meet people in this industry who really hate the discipline of search engine marketing, but they may hate some facet of the career such as the long hours, lack of a linear career path, or the fact that it’s not aligned with their need to be in a job that is dedicated to giving back to society. Whatever takes you away, I truly hope you will find the happiness and job satisfaction that you couldn’t find with SEM.

Last Bit Of Advice: Your Career Is In Your Hands

One of the negatives of being in a nascent career like SEM is that there aren’t the same clear lines of career paths that other, more established industries have to offer.

However, the flip side of that is that the roads are open for you to find your way. Whether you migrate to new channels, start your own search-related business, or come up with something new that hasn’t even been thought of yet, you are the master of your destiny.

Even if you’re really new to this industry, it’s never too early to start to plan your career path. My advice is this: Like picking your initial major in college your freshman year, you can always change your path — but having a path now will provide you an end goal to work toward in order to set yourself up for more success later.

Good luck out there!

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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