Monday, August 27, 2012

What does it take to work in search engine optimization?

A few years ago a web marketing company gave me my first opportunity to enter the world of search engine optimization. When they hired me, they hired someone without much experience in the web- let alone web marketing- as a full-time SEO. While I was grateful, I had to ask why they would hire me. They told me that, at a national search conference, they asked Matt Cutts what kind of person they should look for as their next SEO. Apparently he told them to look for someone who was a good writer and communicator with experience in marketing and with some knowledge of programming.

As long as search engines allow you to search for words, SEOs will need to be writers. Sure, you could always hire someone to write some junk that barely makes sense, and spin it with endless variations that make even less sense and still rank #1 for your term,... Wait, what? Panda and Penguin killed your rankings because of your poor quality content? Well maybe you need to return to your roots as a writer. The recent shift in the web marketing universe from SEO to “content marketing” is only solidifying the need for SEOs to be good writers.

Ultimately, at its core, and SEO is about marketing. It’s no good to rank for a phrase if you can’t close the sale from your own website because you don’t know what makes your products better than your competitors. How will you even know what to rank for if you don’t understand your market enough to know how they might be looking for your services?

Although not a requirement, it helps to have a little programming experience to get the most out of SEO. No, you don’t need to know how to build a NOSQL site in Ruby in order to be an effective search marketer, but you do need to know how to describe an SEO-friendly website to that developer. At the same time (and let’s just be honest here) for many of our clients we are the closest thing they know to a developer. Technically we could farm-out every website change to a developer and still be a good search marketer, but it’s nice to be able to make some of the small tweaks ourselves.

While this might describe most of us who are professional search marketers, the U.S. government has yet to catch up. When listing all possible careers for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics you can’t find “Search Marketer” anywhere.  The best you might be able to do is combine three basic careers to encompass the whole of what it means to be a professional SEO.

Every job in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has an accompanying set of information with it- what are the educational requirements and average salaries, etc. Since there is no such category for us SEOs, we’re going to have to make some estimates to see how we would compare with other careers.

Education Requirements for an SEO


If you were to average the typical educations for professional writers, marketers, and developers you would find that SEOs tend to be a much more educated profession than the national average (in the United States) with around 49% of SEOs having a Bachelor's Degree (or more) education. Although, according to these averages, many SEOs would appear to be highly educated, this is not a requirement by any means.

Wages for an SEO



When you compare wages between the salary ranges of writers, marketers, and programmers, SEOs do very well. While, according to these calculations, the high salaries for marketers tends to drive the salary range for SEOs up, it does make sense that an SEO might make more than a writer or even a developer, since the field of SEO is much more specialized than the others- but I’m biased.

If we take programming out of this equation (so we don’t make all the developers mad by claiming we deserve more pay than they do) this actually drives SEO salaires up: $40.40 hourly or $84,110 annually. (Another way of looking at this is as yet another way developers are holding back SEO success)

It is important to note here that we are talking wages for SEOs, not rates. If the typical SEO makes $38.73 an hour, that means they probably charge a lot more per hour for their services, to cover the overhead costs associated with providing services. Now these are estimates and averages (at best) although they seem consistent with my experience as well as SEOmoz’s recent survey:

David Zimmerman is a professional SEO during the day and a gardener on the weekends. When he’s not pulling weeds out of his garden, you might find him building a website like which has a valuable statistics for every occupation in the United States.

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