A Career in SEO? Bad Move.
If you find the world of search engine optimization (SEO) interesting and you are considering stepping into it as a career goal for 2008, you should really give it some serious thought beforehand. The profession is maturing now and is full of challenges that you may not find so exciting. After reading this you may wonder why I do SEO for a living. I guess I'm just a sucker for punishment.
First off, there are some powerhouses in the industry that make things look easy. These folks have achieved critical mass in terms of popularity and success and as a result have moved in to another class that, as a new entrant to the market, you shouldn't compare yourself to. Instead, consider the following obstacles that you'll have to deal with.
1. SEO is Moving In House
This is the biggest threat to SEO consultants. As companies wise up to the need for SEO, they are also seriously considering handling all of the tasks in house. When it comes to online publishers and owners of multiple sites this can make sense since there's enough work to keep full-time employees busy. Don't believe me? Check out SEMPO's recent "State of the Search Market 2006" where it's reported that almost two thirds of the companies survey plan to bring SEO in-house. As this trend continues, the big projects that SEO consultants really want are going to he harder to come by. And if you think the solution is to become an in-house optimizer, read on.
2. SEO is a Dead End
Some of you might think that being an in-house SEO is a good way to climb the corporate ladder, think again. The reality is that you're going to have an incredibly hard time going anywhere. The only person I know that is the exception to this is Marshall Simmonds, Chief Search Strategist of the New York Times. Marshall got in the game early enough to stand out from the crowd and was rewarded for it. Unfortunately, you'll quickly find that companies haven't put together a career path for those interested in SEO and moving up means not doing SEO. Part of the problem is that SEO is a blend of technical and marketing skills that don't quite fit in anywhere except in the basement of your company's building.
If you're looking to climb the corporate ladder, there are more direct ways to the top. If you're not interested in moving in to management, you probably at least want some respect, right? You may not get that either.
You'll get none. Ignoring the likes of Danny Sullivan who can command the attention of thousands, optimizers receive little regard to more established web professions (who I might add don't get much regard either). Web developers and web designers think those that do SEO are a bunch of hacks; traditional marketers think SEO is all about stuffing keywords in to copy and titles; and upper management can't wrap their heads around the idea that today's SEO activity may not show results for 3 to 6 months.
This lack of respect for the profession manifests itself in subtle ways. How? Your opinion about anything other than SEO will be ignored as if you have no insight on anything other than title tags; requests for hardware will be mysteriously held up by procurement until a hand-me down becomes available; and you'll probably be tucked away in the bowels of corporate headquarters which is really just another signal that your efforts don't require the kind of work environment conducive to thinking.
4. SEO Could Become Obsolete
The search engines created the SEO market and they can also destroy it. Not that I'm suggesting they would do so on purpose. Rather, as part of their ongoing efforts to improve their services they may change how their algorithms work so that SEO becomes irrelevant or at least so simple it isn't necessary as a separate task. Some people think that personalized search could be the first nail in the coffin.
5. No Barriers to Entry
Ignoring the silliness of whether SEO is rocket science or not, the reality is that anyone can eventually be good at SEO. If you're interested in the area, are analytical, and have familiarity with some of the technical aspects of websites, you can start a career in SEO from the comfort of your couch. Unlike other professions, there isn't a multi-year degree program for SEO offered by a school of repute.
The result of having no barriers to entry are twofold. First, you end up having to compete with many, many people who say they do SEO, but don't really have a good handle on the bigger picture. For example, copywriters oversimplify the process as having the right keyword density; designers figure having a blurb of text below their fancy Flash movies makes them SEO experts; and web developers conclude that since their code is elegantly written, the resulting website will be search engine friendly.
Second, anyone just starting to get into SEO is likely to underbid someone that has been at it for 10 years. So how does the veteran distinguish himself from the newbie? It can be difficult because SEO best practices change and knowledge from 10 years ago may not be perceived to be valuable. So unless you don't care about moving beyond your newbie salary, you better be prepared for a tough fight.
While this post may seem self-serving in that anything to discourage competition can only be good for me, trust me when I say that I'm not worried. I know most newcomers will be gone before I even hear about them. And I also have confidence in my abilities to grow and move beyond SEO should the need arise. So take what I've written to heart and if you choose to press on, don't say I didn't give you fair warning!