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The Career Path Of The Search Marketer

For those of you who read my columns regularly, you know that I’m fascinated with watching the paid search industry develop. Having been one of the lucky ones who fell into this marketing niche early on, I’ve seen it grow from a little seedling into a giant oak.

In fact, one of the major draws for me to SEM was that it was a gold rush to new territory.

Appealing to my Gen X trailblazer sensibility was the fact that there weren’t a bunch of stodgy gray-hairs telling us how it was supposed to be as many of my peers were discovering in their established career paths. No hard rules. No classes offered. My textbooks were the blogs; my classrooms were lightly attended search conferences; my homework was trial and error on Overture and the newly launched AdWords. I was a keyboard cowboy.

Feel free to slap me if I ever start a sentence with: “In my day…”

Now, over a decade later, this SEM is a thriving segment of the advertising ecosystem. With $18 billion in the US this year, set to rise to over $30 billion in 2015, the search marketing industry (with most of the dollars going to paid search) is ripening.

There are hundreds (thousands?) of dedicated search agencies and fully operational in-house teams with recognized delineation of roles. We’re not yet a fully mature industry, but there is a sense that we have plateaued — in a good way.

Advertisers have truly embraced this channel and understand the benefits and how it is priced. Early on, it was a battle for budgets, but I’m happy to say that I haven’t had to defend why paid search has shown up on digital campaign plans for years.

Depending on your experience level with paid search, your day-to-day responsibilities vary. Tasks that were challenging when you were first starting seem effortless now. But new duties are always popping up.

Below, I’d like to offer some advice to each strata of our industry. This may also help folks rather new to search better understand the career path ahead of them and the expectations that come as you take on more important roles.

Note: The years of experience listed are strictly arbitrary and just a loose guide for this post. I’ve met folks with two or three years’ experience who really know their stuff and have certainly run into so-called experts with many years in search who are still fairly clueless to the subtleties of the art.

Search Novice (first year)

Welcome to search! Right now, the most important thing for you to figure out is if you really even want to be in search engine marketing. It’s a growing field and should offer some great job security moving forward, but if you don’t get excited about optimizing accounts, analyzing spreadsheets and dropping CPCs like they’re hot, then this might not be the career for you.

However, if you are enjoying the little exposure you’ve had already to the medium, then it might be worth your time. I didn’t stay solely in search, but the lessons I learned while being 100% focused on SEM have helped me as a full-service digital marketer. Right now, just keep doing the tasks you’re given, keep asking good questions and get that AdWords certification.

Search Apprentice (1-2 years)

Now that you’ve been doing this for a while, it’s time to get deeper. If you haven’t been reading trade blogs such as SearchEngineLand.com daily, then you need to start.

Browse the headlines and read what interests you. Over time, you’ll start to figure out what’s going on and who the players are, and you’ll get a better feel for what this industry is all about.

On the work side, you should now be able to handle small accounts by yourself: pacing, reporting, optimizing, etc. Stewarding accounts shouldn’t be too hard for you even if you’re not always getting the high performance you’re shooting for. You should be building your own set of best practices that you can count on to work when you need them.

Search Marketing Analyst (3-4 years)

At this point, you’ve probably figured out that search, or at least the online advertising world, is for you. Congrats! There are a lot of people out there who haven’t found the right line of work, so you can consider yourself lucky.

Now that you know that you’re in this for the long haul, it’s time to really get serious. You should already be a leader on your team in some aspect, but you can now take the opportunity to step up. Mentor the newer folks and look to your boss for more responsibility.

You’re also going to be relied on to be in more important meetings with either clients or senior folks at your company. If you can’t shine and make your department look good, you’ll get left behind when it comes to promotion discussions.

We’re looking to you to really have mastered paid search by this point and start showing initiative to improve processes and build efficiencies without being prompted. When a new big account comes in the door, it should be a no-brainer for you to handle everything without needing supervision.

Search Marketing Manager (5-6 years)

Congratulations! You’ve obviously proven yourself very capable. Not only are you a bad-ass search analyst, but you also have the intangibles that organizations need to manage and supervise others.

However, just know that being great at search doesn’t always mean you’re great at managing. Hiring/firing, training, cost analysis, vendor review, etc., are all now hitting your desk. You’re going to be doing actual paid search less but rather ensuring your company’s paid search practice is as good as it can be.

You might even now be managing friends that used to be at the same level — it’s not easy going from bud to boss, but that’s the expectation. It’s important for you to make sure everyone under you continues to progress in their knowledge, even if it means forcing them to attend webinars and read the trades.

It’s your job to toe the company line and execute the vision of your director or VP while also being able to amicably offer your counter opinion when you feel something’s not going right.

Search Director/VP (7-10 years)

At this point, you’re probably not doing much day-to-day SEM. In fact, there’s a possibility that you don’t even know your AdWords login or the CPA on your best client. But that’s fine. Your focus should be on the department.

Your role is to help the team by making sure they’re working together like a well-oiled machine and that you are using your resources (people, budgets, time, etc.) in the best way possible. You’re also the main driver of your vendor partnerships, and if at an agency, providing a huge role in new business discussions.

Basically, you are search for your company. The things you think are important will now be what everyone under you thinks is important. They’ll be looking to you for guidance on the direction of the department for the next several years.

It’s absolutely crucial for you to have a deep understanding of not just search but the advertising industry (not just digital anymore.) Your company is counting on you to lead them to the promised land — don’t let them down!

Search Guru (10+ years)

Right now, there aren’t many SEM pros out there with 10+ years’ experience. But soon, there will be. Search really blew up around 2005, so by 2015 we’ll start seeing more and more folks with a decade or more of experience under their belt.

A guru might be a manager, a VP or even owner of their own company, but wherever their role on the team, success is determined by how much they make everyone around them better.

They’ll be patient with the novices and apprentices and help them avoid common errors. They should take analysts under their wing and show them the advanced techniques that only a decade of experience can offer.

It’s important for them to support their managers and provide great advice as these folks transition to from being employees to employers. For directors and VPs, the guru is a tremendously valuable resource for thought leadership and to help keep them informed on the search industry while their focus is being pulled in every direction.

Now that we’re ten years in, the roads have been paved. You should be able to form a fairly clear picture on the road ahead if you stay in this industry. Ten years from now, we’ll have college programs and folks will be getting degrees in either search or keyword marketing or some future combination.

Good luck, have fun and enjoy!

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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