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SEM or SEO? No Both for Most Search Teams

At the MediaPost Search Insider Summit, I got the opportunity to join a panel on social media and search with Darrin Shamo of Zappos and panel moderator Bob Heyman of MediaSmith (and co-author of the book Digital Engagement). I’m not going to discuss that panel here and will leave that to another post. But an interesting thing came up during my presentation…

The event is pretty heavily weighted toward SEM and I asked what turned out, to those in attendance, to be a bit of a dopey question. I asked “How many here are interested purely in SEM?” then when only a couple of hands were raised, I was encouraged to think it may be more of an SEO crowd, so I asked “How many are interested purely in SEO?” and saw only another sprinkling of raised hands.

So, based on one of my previous experiences at a major company where the team was half SEM and half SEO, and my current position, which is entirely SEO team with no SEM – I assumed a similar situation would be true of most in-house teams at substantially sized companies.

My assumption was apparently skewed. It seems that most do double-duty on in-house teams. When I asked “What’s the balance here?” a few people said, (a few with emotion) “Both!”

That surprised me, based on what I knew before asking that question. But now I know that, at least among the crowd attending Search Insider Summit, that the oft joined SEM/SEO label applies to most. Well I suppose that was a gaff then, but…

Later in the day, I overheard a conversation on a shuttle bus which makes me wonder if SEO is being best served by in-house SEM/SEO’s. After two strangers from the conference exchanged greetings & pleasantries, the inevitable “What do you do?” came up from one.

The answer, “SEM and I’ve been tasked with learning SEO for our team.” (emphasis mine) Then the response from an ill-informed questioner was short-sighted and probably simplistic thinking from those who THINK they understand SEO – “So you’re learning about meta tags and H1’s?”

I’d like to argue that the two disciplines should be divided and I’d wager that many SEM’s who love what they do will agree. The skill-set is completely different. Both SEM’s and SEO’s deal with keywords, and target search engine results pages, but that is where the similarity ends.

Having recently worked day-to-day with an SEM team in-house and being separated only by a cubicle wall for 18 months. I recall the SEO team only dealing with the SEM team during our bi-weekly online marketing group meetings.

So if someone who loves SEM is “tasked with learning SEO,” (like that overheard conversation I mentioned above) they are not likely to understand or fully invest themselves in truly learning an important aspect of the Search Marketing business. They’ll learn a couple of things and not all aspects of the work. They’ll continue to do a great job of SEM and start doing a poor job of SEO.

I’ll also argue that if that role is reversed and an SEO is “tasked with learning SEM for the team” then they will learn a few things, but not all of the elements of good SEM and not do a complete and thorough job of SEM but will continue to do a good job of SEO.

I recall a couple of job interviews about 5 years ago where in both cases, I was talking with an SEM manager who had convinced their boss that they needed a full-time SEO on staff to handle things they weren’t able to continue doing as the company grew. Rather than evenly split SEM and SEO tasks among two staffers, they were dividing the two. That’s the smart way to go.

I didn’t take either of those jobs, and I’m quite happy about that now. I also walked away from a job that would have required me to significantly sharpen my SEM skills so that I could handle both. I didn’t doubt that I could do it, but love SEO and very likely wouldn’t have done as well with the SEM piece.

So I’d like to ask the question of those SEM/SEO dual purpose people – are you doing both because you love both or are you doing both because you were “tasked to learn” one of those pieces because your company won’t increase the budget enough for a new head on the payroll? Would you rather focus on one or continue doing both?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Kayden Kelly May 13, 2009, 7:27 am

    Only do PPC because I have to and I am passionate about SEO. When I shift between them I feel like I have to completely change my mindset and it is frustrating. While others may not see your point I do; however it is becoming a necessity for teams to understand all aspects of marketing for a balanced approach.

  • Herbal Healthcare May 24, 2009, 11:34 pm

    Hi.. Nice article.
    I am a SEO person and I am also trying to learn SEM as it is need of today’s world. When I go for an Interview they ask for both.