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I was at a dinner party explaining (unsuccessfully) for the umpteenth time what exactly it was that I did at work when I got an interesting question: “Who is the best search engine marketer you know?”

Now I am a pretty opinionated guy, so I can usually come up with an answer for this sort of thing. For example, if you ask me who the best non-fiction writer is, I’d say Jon Krakaeur. The best candy bar? Reese’ Peanut Butter Cups. The living person I admire the most (outside of my family)? Jimmy Carter.

But trying to figure out the best search engine marketer is a tough one, mainly because SEM is a highly fragmented industry with little or no transparency. Right now, there are thousands of SEM companies and consultants and each has an entirely different approach to SEM.

Take the example of keyword selection. Some SEM experts research competitor Web sites and meta tags to get keyword information, others use WordTracker, many use the Google and Yahoo search suggestion tools, some have their own keyword database, Excel concatenation is popular, and there are still plenty of folks who do everything through brainstorming.

Which of these approaches is better? I have no idea. My preference is to always find the most automated approach possible, which enables scale and thoroughness, but ultimately, the proof is in the pudding. After all, the “best search engine marketer” should be judged not by the sophistication of his/her methods, but rather by the effectiveness. I have no doubt that there are SEM experts who have completely manual operations that blow the socks off uber-savvy technologists.

Search engine marketing is basically one giant black box at the moment. No one knows what their competitors really do to be successful. To conclude that ‘person X’ is better than ‘person Y’ is sort of like going into a department store and concluding that one cologne smells better than the other based on the bottle styling and box packaging, but without actually smelling the scent.

Someday, of course – once SEM grows up – it will be much easier to crown someone “SEM Expert of the Year.” SEM will become routinized, with almost every using the same practices and the same technology. Then, once there is a level playing field with a higher degree of transparency, the cream will rise to the top. Either through superior hiring, efficient management, or ongoing innovation, there will be search marketers who everyone will be able to look at and conclude “he’s one of the top ten in this industry in the world.’

A great analogy to such a transparent world is the NFL (it is Super Bowl Sunday as I write this, so I need to at least mention the game to avoid looking like too much of a nerd . . .). When you think of the “best coaches” in the NFL, you don’t think about their personalities, their appearance, or the number of years they’ve spent coaching. Instead, you think about their record. Both coaches in today’s Super Bowl have previously brought a team to this game and have had numerous winning seasons. To be a top NFL coach, you just have to win. It doesn’t matter how complicated your plays are, how sophisticated your draft analysis, or how great you are at motivating the team in the locker room, you are judged by the number of wins you achieve.

In today’s dot com world, we do not have this sort of transparency. In poorly managed companies, employees are judged by their ability to politically align themselves with top management, by their ability to be a ‘yes man’, and by their ability to accept blame and delegate responsibility. And even in the best companies in the Valley, many managers determine the relative value of their employees through largely subjective means.

At least in most established dot coms, however, you can judge your team’s overall performance against a public competitor’s performance. For SEM, however, even this is not possible, simply because public companies that have an SEM component don’t tend to separate out this performance as a line item in their SEC filings, and private companies don’t release any information whatsoever (aside from press releases, which are about as reliable as a late night infomercial). So, you can judge an SEM expert within your company based on the relative performance (the delta) of his work over a similar time period. But it is basically impossible to weigh a SEM expert inside your company against someone at another one.

Thanks dinner party companion for asking this tough question. I hope in a few years I’ll be able to give you a better answer! And I guess since there’s no way of really knowing anyway, let’s just assume that the winner is . . . me!