How do you define mastery? According to Malcolm Gladwell, it takes 10,000 hours to master anything.  Assuming you work somewhere around 45-50 hours a week, it would take about 4 years to be considered a true master.

While this makes sense for learning something that doesn’t change, like an instrument, does it apply to an ever-evolving field like SEM? In our profession, every product release is followed by new betas, UI changes, new matching options, and just more and more stuff to master. Of course, all mastery requires work beyond the first 10,000 hours in order to stay sharp – that said, is honing skills on the same instrument the same as adapting to the ever-changing world of SEM?  (Can you imagine trying to learn a violin if its rules – key, number of strings, etc. – changed at the same speed as Google?)

This begs a couple of questions: what does SEM experience really mean, and what is it worth?  I often see job posts looking for “SEM Manager with X amount of PPC experience.” Your typical management-level SEM position requires 5+ years of experience. What are these 5 years really worth if you haven’t worked in PPC in 6-12 months? Five years in the field should make you a master, but the amount of change in a single year away from paid search would you less valuable. In this case, I’d say someone with 3 years of immediate experience would be a more attractive candidate.

The nature of SEM allows younger, inexperienced marketers to catch up to their old counterparts faster than in almost any field. The closest comparison would be a game like poker. Paid search and poker are similar in that the actions of the players/marketers influence the dynamic of the game/auctions. SEM is complicated further by the actions of Google. For SEMs, years of experience become moot if the entire industry learns about a new feature at the same time. If a more experienced SEM takes his or her position for granted, he or she might not be aware of changes until AFTER younger cohorts have already started to evolve. This creates a classic exponential learning curve where, given enough time, a person new to SEM can become a master more quickly and make years of experience irrelevant.

Of course, more experience can mean exposure to more situations, but let me ask you: would you rather hire someone with 2 years of agency experience or someone with 5 years working on the same in-house account? What kind of edge do these 3 extra years represent? In my opinion, not much at all. The students are becoming the masters – adapt and evolve, or you’ll lose.

Sean Marshall, Director of Search Engine Marketing
– Questions? Comments? Email us at blog at ppcassociates dot com.

1 Comment

  1. Jeremy Mayes November 16th, 2011

    Even more than experience I think more often than not it comes down to the person, their ability to learn and most importantly their passion for search. I know people with 6 months in the industry that I think are closer to “expert” than people than have been at it for 4 or 5 years. Some people will just never “get it” no matter how time they work on something. You see this most often in in house roles where there’s not a real benchmark to measure some against. If you’re a solo in house person with a manager that doesn’t really get what you do (more common than one would think) and don’t have any “peers” within the organization it becomes more difficult for you or anyone else in the organization to really gauge your expertise.

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Sean Marshall
Sean Marshall is the CEO of Intended, an SEM agency founded in 2013 to provide industry-best service for SMB clients. Before Intended, Sean was the VP of Business Development of PPC Associates (now 3Q Digital). He is a huge Cal fan and has been known to win a buck or two playing online poker.