The Next Frontier for Search Marketing Standards

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I believe it is time to introduce an additional topic into the standards dialogue that to date has been largely ignored. Currently there is no recognized standard for assessing the skills and knowledge level of the search marketing professional. This not only increases the difficulty for employers to accurately identify the talent level of the professional workforce, but also impacts the ability of our industry to achieve its forecasted growth.

In the next several years, literally thousands of new search marketing jobs will be created as part of the industry’s growth, and this will consequently drive an influx of new talent into the workforce.

In this environment, a company’s ability to accurately and quantitatively assess and compare the skill level of potential, as well as existing workers, changes from a best practice to a mission-critical requirement. Skills assessments are effective as a tool for screening new employees as well as evaluating where to set training and development priorities for existing employees.

The basic criteria for search marketing skills assessment include:

  1. a goal to validate a candidate’s knowledge, as opposed to measuring his or her tactical approach;
  2. frequent and regular content updates to adjust to changes in the search marketing environment;
  3. using a quantitative, and therefore comparative, measurement to assess an individual’s skills.
  4. providing different assessments for each search marketing discipline, i.e. SEO, SEM, analytics, etc.

Today, many employers are forced to spend significant time and effort developing custom tests, evaluations, and other methods to validate and evaluate a future or current employee’s search marketing skill and knowledge level. This however is counter-productive for most companies unless it is specifically tied to their core competencies.

Why? Even if a company develops a very thorough assessment, it is unlikely the company has the internal resources to keep it current, accurate, or relevant over time. Not only does this fail to meet the company’s original intent, but it also is unfair and potentially punitive to the search marketing professional who is being assessed.

If you want to envision what the content of these assessments might resemble, I believe there is already a solid prototype available today with the SEOMoz SEOQuiz.

As an employer, if you had two candidates with similar resumes but knew that candidate A received a 91% on the SEOQuiz and Candidate B achieved a 68%, would it make a difference in your hiring decision? You bet it would! A skills assessment would work in the very same way.

This concept is not at all unique to search marketing. Every professional industry has developed tools for skills assessment so hiring organizations can accurately assess the professional workforce. For example, in healthcare, hospitals routinely test nurses on their subject-matter knowledge prior to hire (this testing is above and beyond what is required to obtain a nursing license). One company, NurseTesting, has built a battery of skills assessments and is widely recognized as the “industry standard” and is used in hospitals across the country. In IT, the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) certification has become the standard for Windows administration and is an example of a series of tests that I view as not just a formal certification but also a skills assessment tool.

A common thread is that the standard for skills assessments is rarely dictated by a centralized organization, but instead determined by the market. I would expect the same to occur in the search marketing community. If tomorrow three different tools for assessing the skill level of search marketers became available, the best one over time would become the de facto standard. It provides an exceptional opportunity for an aspiring entrepreneur, existing company, or a third party organization to take the lead to make this concept into a reality.

Integrating this idea into the standards discussion is important to supporting the increased growth and job creation that is going to occur in the search marketing industry over the next several years. Developing a skills assessment standard provides benefits to both the company that is trying to locate and retain talent and the search marketing professional who is focused on growing his or her career.

I’d love to hear your feedback and comments. Feel free to email me at

Ken Clark is the Executive Vice President of Onward Search, the Leading Provider of Search Marketing Jobs.

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  • When you begin standardizing skill level in one of today’s most dynamic professions, by the time there is any agreement the standards will be outmoded.

    You’re interested in placing the highest # of people looking for a SEM job into available positions (you’re a recruiter), of course you want to homogenize the landscape and be able to qualify vast numbers of people with the least possible thought/analysis. Much less front end analysis.

    SEMPO is trying to do this.

  • Hi Jeff, thanks for taking the time to comment. At my company we receive regular feedback from both employers and candidates that skills assessments would be of benefit. Employers are looking for a tool that complements their hiring process by helping them accurately identify the skill level of an applicant, and they are also trying to identify the areas they should invest in career development and training for their existing employees. For the “job seekers”, many see it of benefit to themselves personally as it would generate a neutral and accurate assessment of their skills and knowledge without any bias. The end result is not to homogenize the workforce, but provide both parties with a value-add in the recruiting, hiring, and retention of employees. Managing the frequency and updating of the content is critical, however I believe it can be done effectively.

  • Great Post Ken. But I think its a bit of a pipe dream. If anything when we hire where I work at Beanstalk Search Engine Positioning (google SEO Services) we actually prefer people that are less proficient at SEO/SEM because they tend to have less SEO bad habits.

    I find that personality is key in this industry, I spend a lot of time on the phone to leads and they’ve told me that my personality and passion for the job shines through. I’ve even signed people after they’ve hung up on other rude knowledgeable SEOs.

    Get someone with great people skills then train them with enough knowledge to excel at their job ethically and impress the clients, and thats more a recipe for success then hiring someone who knows his stuff and will be less trainable. And I do recognize that when hiring an inhouse marketing position its quite the opposite, but personality is still the key. Cheers.

  • Ken,
    Very relevant post considering the lack of standardization in the SEM environment itself. This scenario is so different from a GE Healthcare Job application \ Google Server \ Microsfoft Vista OS position – where you can at lease have some sort of guidelines for recruitment.
    One of the safest bet in my opinion would be a 2 step process- a] Basic \ foundational knowledge of SEO \ SEM for shortlisting

    b] Then provide a budget for PPC \ SEM campaign OR Devise a SEO strategy in a particular industry segment – This is an open net test – Candidate can access the internet for any tools \ reporting \ processes.

    This will give me some idea about the on-job potential of candidates.