Search Marketing Professionals Shortage & What Your Company Needs to Know

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Despite the uncertainty in our near-term economic environment, the market drivers for continued growth in the search marketing industry remain strong. However, a major challenge for the search marketing industry is being able to operationally adapt and manage growth as we face a national shortage of qualified professionals.

This talent shortage will likely continue for the next several years and directly impacts the decisions you make regarding your company’s search marketing strategy. In the following, I answer several common questions that you may have around what is causing the shortage and what it means for you.

While I recognize that sourcing search marketing professionals can be difficult, is there really a “national shortage”?

Yes. The search marketing industry today exhibits the two characteristics that drive any labor-constrained market: 1) a demand for qualified professionals increasing at hyper-growth rates; and 2) the supply of professionals not growing fast enough to fill the demand.

  • As has been extensively covered, the search marketing industry is projected to double, or even triple, over the next five years.
  • The SEMPO 2007 State of the Industry survey projects SEM expenditures to double from $12.2 billion in 2007 to $25.2 billion in 2011
  • Forrester’s 2007 Interactive Marketing Forecast projects search marketing to triple in size over the next five years.


In isolation, industry growth is not necessarily enough to drive a long-term labor shortage. However, when coupled with a lack of educational feeder programs to grow new search marketing talent, we have a problem. Even with the growing number of certification and training programs from organizations such as the SEMPO Institute, DMA, Bruce Clay, and others, search marketing remains a reasonably unknown career option outside the industry.

A recent college graduate may not even consider search marketing as a potential profession simply because he or she is not aware of it. Additionally, the industry is young enough that we do not yet have an extended infrastructure of training and education outlets similar to what exists for other more-established professions, such as IT or nursing. The result is there are not enough new entrants to the profession to meet the demand.

While it will be some time before we see organizations such as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics providing quantifiable metrics on our industry, there are public data points that illustrate the growth in demand and other signs of the shortage.

Indeed.com shows job postings for “search marketing” increasing by approximately 175% from February 2005 to February 2008. This compares to flat to declining growth for “marketing” job postings over the same period. In Marketing Sherpa’s 2008 Search Marketing Benchmark Guide, 64% of companies said finding an SEO specialist was more difficult than finding other skilled employees. In the same study, companies with a significant SEM spend (over $25,000 / month) ranked hiring skilled SEO staff on par with other technical or implementation-based SEO challenges. I am sure many of you can also complement these statistics with personal anecdotes and experiences related to hiring and retaining talent.

If the shortage is so acute, how can companies attract talent?

It is very clear that the shortage has created a candidate-driven marketplace. Consequently, the job seeker has a lot of choices and leverage, which has led to an escalation in salaries and above average turnover. That said, your typical search marketer shares the same desires as job seekers who are employed in other markets. He or she wants a competitive compensation and benefits plan, a clear career path, effective leadership, and healthy work environments. These are constants that hold true for any company focused on employee retention.

However, there are additional factors that companies and hiring managers must evaluate when recruiting search marketers. Given the rapid growth of our industry and the resulting increase in job opportunities, search marketers are fairly mobile and consistently echo several common themes around their “ideal position”. They want to work on projects that provide them with opportunities to quickly grow their search marketing knowledge and skill-sets; they do not want to engage in mundane or repetitive SEO work; and given the industry has some degree of “celebrity” around the leading practitioners, they are looking for jobs that provide them with opportunities to demonstrate their proficiency in search marketing strategy and techniques. When their current jobs don’t meet these criteria, they often start looking for other opportunities.

I also believe that providing additional benefits such as training or trade show reimbursements is one way to not only make your company “stickier” but over time will become a benefit that is expected as part of the employment package.

If the overall package that your company is presenting to your potential hires resembles some of the characteristics above, you are probably in good shape. If not, I’d encourage you to evaluate where you can enhance your offering to ensure you stay competitive.

In light of the shortage, how do I manage my search marketing staffing strategy?

Obviously the labor shortage makes finding and retaining “in-house” search marketing talent more difficult. You may have had experiences working with a client, or agency, where the mutual expectations of the project were not fully met because project deliverables were only partially implemented as a result of resource constraints.

If we look at other labor-constrained markets, businesses typically develop staffing strategies that leverage both internal and outsourced options to most cost effectively manage their labor.

The search marketing industry is no different. I recommend that you sit down with your management team and formally develop a “search marketing staffing strategy”. This however is more than deciding if your overall philosophy is “in-house” versus “agency”. Instead, it involves evaluating what combination of permanent staff, contract or project-based workers, and agencies is required to best execute your strategy in the most cost-effective manner for your business.

The key questions to ask yourself and your team are:

  1. What are the core competencies around your search marketing strategy that must be managed by internal or permanent staff
  2. Do you have cyclical versus steady demand for your search marketing projects
  3. What aspect of your search marketing tasks do you view as “commoditized” or easily outsourced?

Once you discuss the above, you will be able to confidently identify the positions that your company truly needs to fill as permanent, or full-time hires. Consequently, you may discover that instead of trying to staff that hard-to-find full-time SEO specialist, you can engage one on a project basis; or instead of spending the next 90 days trying to hire a permanent PPC Manager, you should outsource that to an agency to do the work.

How do we address the shortage?

Particularly in light of the forecasted growth, the primary mechanism to increase the talent pool in our industry is increasing the public awareness of search marketing as a career, and promoting education and training opportunities. We need to drive these programs at community colleges, undergraduate-level institutions, and other training outlets.

We are beginning to see some signs that the initial groundwork for these programs is being developed, but we likely have two to three more years before these “feeder” programs start catching-up with the demand in the marketplace. In the interim, I would reiterate that the best way to work through the shortage is to regularly review how you are marketing your company to the job seeker as well as how you are implementing a search marketing staffing strategy based on your company’s needs.

I’d love to hear from you if you would like to share any additional suggestions or comments on how your company has managed through the national shortage of search marketing professionals. Please feel free to email me at kvclark@onwardsearch.com.

Ken Clark is the Executive Vice President and Co-Founder of Onward Search : a Search Marketing Staffing Solutions Company

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