While it’s always flattering to be introduced as a “search engine guru” or something to that effect, there’s a dark side to such praise. To the majority of people in the world, search engine marketing is about as understandable as nuclear physics. Even when talking to Internet marketers in non-SEM fields, it’s sometimes difficult to explain the nuances of search engine marketing.

To be clear, I do believe that anyone can learn SEM – it is not rocket science (or nuclear physics). But as I have said many times, SEM is ‘easy to do, hard to do well.’ I’ve personally seen many, many smart people try to launch their own SEM campaigns and fail miserably. So after sinking a few grand into Google’s coffers, they finally hire an SEM expert to optimize their campaigns.

Sometimes, this is the smartest decision in the world. Many campaigns executed by non-experts have fundamental flaws in their organization, bid strategy, and keyword selection. In a matter of hours, I’ve made several companies more than $100,000 a year (a combination of cost savings and additional profit) by applying basic best practices to their campaigns.

But this is where people get a little confused. They hear stories like the one I just described and assume that search marketers have secret powers that are only conferred at midnight ceremonies behind the Google cafeteria. While it is true that I do have some special powers (I am color blind so I can see some colors than normal people cannot), the truth is that a search marketer can only work with the clay he is given.

This means that if your Web site is poorly designed, if your back-end economics are terrible, if you have been blacklisted by Google, or if no one happens to search for your product, there is a little a search marketer can do. I run into potential clients all the time who don’t want to hear the bad news that the ‘problem isn’t your search marketing campaign, it’s your [site/economics/product/etc].’ They want to believe that the magical SEM fairies will descend from the heavens and turn their flailing business into the next Amazon.com.

This belief in the magic of SEM has created an opportunity for less-than-on-the-level search marketers to start making a lot of money selling what my friend Saar calls ‘hope certificates.’ For only two or three thousand dollars (upfront, of course), they’ll promise you miraculous results on Google. Once the deal is signed and the check deposited, they’ll definitely do some work on your campaigns, but the results will inevitably be less than magical. When you complain about this, only then will they explain that your site was not properly optimized/you were outbid/etc. By then, they’ve moved on to the next victim.

This bait and switch tactic has taken place for years in other industries. About five years ago a friend of mine was trying to raise VC money for his start-up. He got a call from a guy who said he knew several VCs interested in his company, and he just needed a few thousand dollars to connect him to these investors. Once the money was in hand, it turns out the investors weren’t that interested, or most likely didn’t even exist.

As the world becomes run by specialists, the average man on the street understands less and less about any specialization in which they aren’t actively involved. Most of us take at face value the advice of a plumber, auto mechanic, or other specialized service provider. The difference between SEM and your local home contractor, however, is that no one expects miracles out of a home contractor. We all know that our 982 square foot condo is not going to be transformed into the Playboy Mansion. The same in not true for our online businesses. Entrepreneurs are almost always optimists who believe they are just a few clicks away from going public. As search marketers, we have an obligation to be honest – upfront – about the likelihood of success of any SEM campaign. SEM is hard work and it is complicated, but we’ve yet to figure out how to turn frogs into princes.

1 Comment

  1. Pradeep May 24th, 2008

    Great Blog!! Having worked David in my previous organization,I know him well. This kind of candor can be only David’s and no one else. You are the Pro Dave…!-Pradeep

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David Rodnitzky
David Rodnitzky is founder and CEO of 3Q Digital (formerly PPC Associates), a position he has held since the Company's inception in 2008. Prior to 3Q Digital, he held senior marketing roles at several Internet companies, including Rentals.com (2000-2001), FindLaw (2001-2004), Adteractive (2004-2006), and Mercantila (2007-2008). David currently serves on advisory boards for several companies, including Marin Software, MediaBoost, Mediacause, and a stealth travel start-up. David is a regular speaker at major digital marketing conferences and has contributed to numerous influential publications, including Venture Capital Journal, CNN Radio, Newsweek, Advertising Age, and NPR's Marketplace. David has a B.A. with honors from the University of Chicago and a J.D. with honors from the University of Iowa. In his spare time, David enjoys salmon fishing, hiking, spending time with his family, and watching the Iowa Hawkeyes, not necessarily in that order.