Search engine marketers seem to be a pretty progressive lot. Maybe its because the epicenter of SEM is San Francisco – “the left coast” – or maybe it’s because SEM has (until recently) been a fringe industry that attracted wide-eyed idealists who loved the idea of “sticking it to the man” by creating successful advertisements without the need for the resources of a big, conservative advertising agency.

No doubt SEM will shift toward the center, particularly as the industry grows up and the dollar amounts involved continue to rise into the multimillions per company. The days of SES parking lots filled with Priuses (is that the plural for Prius?) may be numbered, replaced instead by valet parking for Land Rovers and Ferraris.

For now, though, let’s assume that a lot of you reading this are among the pioneers of SEM – tree-hugging, Burning Man attending, Dukasis-voting liberals (could I throw any more stereotypes into one post?) If this describes you, you may be shocked to learn that your SEM efforts may someday cause mass destruction of America’s now-pristine wilderness areas. Let me explain.

I contend that America’s wilderness is protected today, not because of the work of green lobbyists in Washington or Julia Butterfly, but rather because most America’s simply have no direct personal interest in these wild places.

Americans – raised as we are with the concepts of ‘the free market’ and individualism – are generally self-interested. Thus, there is a phrase used in the world of law and politics called “NIMBY” which stands for “not in my backyard.” Someone wants to build a nuclear powerplant? Fine by me, just NIMBY! The state wants to build a new highway? Great, but NIMBY.

Most Americans are concerned with the environment insofar as it concerns them. Bay Area residents are concerned about keeping Tahoe blue but not so concerned about, say, Tiger habitat destruction in India.

Consider, for example, the Arctic National Wilderness and Refuge (ANWR). My sense is that most people I talk to (and again, I live in San Francisco) seem mildly-outraged that Big Oil wants to drill in this pristine place. And in fact, a Gallup Poll survey in March, 2005 found that most Americans were pretty wishy-washy about the issue. “Many people have an opinion on the matter, but enough people hold that opinion so lightly — they don’t care one way or the other — that they could support either option. Up to 55% could go along with oil drilling in ANWR, and up to 81% could go along with no oil drilling.”

Now consider the opinion of Alaskans – the folks who will be directly impacted by oil drilling (either due to more jobs in oil exploration or less wilderness areas). According to Dittman Research, an Alaska-based research company, 72% of Alaskans feel that oil and gas exploration should be allowed in ANWR. The message here, I guess, is: environmentalism is all well and good, just as long as it doesn’t impact the economy . . . in my backyard. Let me just be clear, my point here is not to advocate for or against ANWR drilling, but rather to prove the NIMBY point I made many paragraphs ago.

So now, let’s somehow transition this back to search engine marketing. Search engine marketing really requires three things: a computer, an Internet connection, and a credit card. That’s it. You don’t need a fancy office, an Aeron chair, or a foosball table.

For that matter, you don’t need to live in a city. You can run a $10 million SEM business from your home – whether you live in Manhattan, New York or Manhattan, KS. In some respects, working in an office can be detrimental to an SEMer, simply because it means getting involved in mindless meetings, TPS memos, and painful commuting. At the end of the day, because SEM is basically direct marketing, the value of each SEM expert is very quantifiable – did SEM bring in the right amount of revenue or profit, or did it not? Face time doesn’t matter in this scenario.

So as SEM becomes more and more important to companies big and small, and as high-speed Internet access becomes available in more and more rural areas, it is going to become easier and easier for SEM experts to pack their bags and leave the city. For those who truly long for the great outdoors, it will be possible to work from the most remote outposts in Alaska.

Let’s not forget that search engine marketing is but one of several industrials that are ripe for telecommuting. Programmers, customer support, telesales, business development – as the “information worker” segment of the US economy grows, the need for big office buildings housing thousands of employees will become less and less necessary.

And this is great – for me, for you, and for all of our fellow SEMers. It’s not so great for the environment. If the definition of wilderness is “An unsettled, uncultivated region left in its natural condition”, the more we are able to move beyond cities and suburbs, the more vulnerable our wilderness.

Over time, this means America will spread itself out – some people will opt for the city, some will opt for rural areas. Inherently, this means that more and more people will take a “NIMBY” approach to the wilderness. Thus, instead of logging companies protesting environmental protection of spotted owls, it will be a group of programmers who want to tear down some trees to build their dream homes.

Don’t believe me? The Census Bureau recently reported that – for only the second period over the last 80 years – America is seeing population growth in “nonmetropolitan areas.” According to a summarization of this study: “Data from the 2000 Census reveal that nonmetropolitan areas of the United States contained 56.1 million residents, a gain of 5.6 million since April of 1990. In all, 1702 of 2303 nonmetropolitan counties grew between 1990 and 2000; 662 more than during the 1980s. Most of the growth came from net migration rather than from the natural increase (births-deaths) that has traditionally fueled nonmetropolitan growth.”

Now granted, you could argue that each of these new rural residents might well be a local advocate for the environment. To a degree, this is a valid point; after all, this will be a self-selecting bunch of folks who flee the cities, and they will likely have strong environmental viewpoints.

The problem with this argument, however, is two-fold. First, simply by leaving the city and moving into remote areas, these ‘settlers’ are destroying wilderness. Someone who once lived in a 1000 square foot apartment in the downtown of a city who is now clearing an acre of land for a log cabin (or worse, a monster home) is displacing formerly empty land with civilization. Collectively, if you have hundreds of thousands of employees moving out of cities, this adds up to a lot of formerly wild areas being colonized.

Second, the NIMBY argument still remains. Those folks who so staunchly stood up for the environment from the comfort of their suburban condo, will turn and fight for their right to ‘improve’ their land come hell or highwater. And the folks moving out of the cities, it turns out, aren’t always the eco-friendly environmentalists. Just ask folks in Montana, Oregon, and Washington what they think of the Californians invading their states.

As always, I am purposely overstating the problem here for dramatic impact (not unlike other posts in which I predicted the demise of Yahoo, Google, and search engines in general). But I do think this could be a real problem for the environmental community going forward.

Technology is the great equalizer – it does enable advocacy groups to get their message in front of thousands of people for pennies (unless, of course, Google bans your ads). Technology will also make it easier for pent-up John Muirs to live out their dream away from urban sprawl, and that could be a big problem for America’s remaining open spaces.

3 Comments

  1. Anonymous February 27th, 2006

    so does peterson know that you’re a big-time blogger?

  2. jonathan bayer February 28th, 2006

    great illini v. hawkeye game last week.

  3. searchquant March 7th, 2006

    I don’t know of any concrete data supporting the hypothesis that practitioners of SEM have any greater tendency to move to sparely-populated, wooded areas.

    Other than the intellectually stimulating notion that SEM skills would allow us to do so if we chose, of course.

    Reality is, you still need communities, schools, banks, sports, etc, and those things can’t be had in Timbuktu, Alaska.

    [Written from my bed at my new home in the forest land… …above Silicon Valley]

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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.