Do Some Search Marketers Really Believe They Make The World Worse?

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A new survey shows that those employed in search marketing are much more likely than those in other occupations to say their work makes the world a worse place. Ouch. But the percentage saying this is small, and there are several questions about how reliable the survey is.

The data is from PayScale, a company that crowdsources compensation information. The company looked at survey data it gathered from 2.7 million respondents from June 2013 to June 2015 to create a “Most & Least Meaningful Jobs” report.

Self-Hating SEMs?

A question on the survey asks, “Does your work make the world a better place?” As you might expect, those in occupations like education, medicine, the military or the clergy answered affirmatively at high rates, more than 80% or more agreeing they make the world better in some way.

One option to answering the question was to pick “My job makes the world a worse place.” Fast food workers picked this more than any other occupation, 25% in all. “Search Engine Marketing (SEM) Strategist” had the fourth highest rate, 18% — tied with Merchandise Planning Manager, Valet and Paralegal/Legal Assistant.

If the survey is to be believed, nearly one-fifth of those involved in search marketing feel they make the world worse. Again, ouch!

SEO’s Reputation Problem

There’s no question that search marketing, especially search engine optimization, has a terrible reputation in some quarters, based on the spam activity that happens: people sending those absurd link requests, dropping crappy links into blog comments and elsewhere, or using tools to generate thousands of pages of garbage in hopes that one might somehow rank well.

But that activity, I’d say, is not representative of the vast majority of those who consider themselves professional SEOs, as opposed to professional spammers. There’s a big difference between the two, and I’d recommend reading my Why People Hate SEO story from two years ago for a still-valid overview of the issues here and more background.

Suffice it to say, if search engine optimization were making the world a worse place, Google wouldn’t be currently hiring an SEO. Done right, SEO is a helpful activity. So is SEM, the act of doing paid search advertising. So is search marketing, the combination of the two.

Behind The Survey

So what’s up with SEMs hating themselves? Time to trot out the qualifications. For one, PayScale didn’t tell us how many people in search marketing answered this question (We did ask). We do know it’s a high enough number that PayScale didn’t qualify the stat as being somehow statistically insignificant. But whether 100 or 100,000 people answered, we don’t know.

It’s also unclear what a “Search Engine Marketing (SEM) Strategist” is. PayScale pointed us to this definition here:

Search engine marketing (SEM) specialists work in a variety of settings, ranging from smaller websites to large firms. Job duties include planning strategies and goals for optimization results, conducting keyword research, and producing marketing campaigns. They are also in charge of auditing content and content delivery, generating detailed reports, and keeping up to date with the latest trends and concepts in search engine marketing. SEM specialists’ work requires excellent communication skills, as they must regularly communicate with other departments about potential improvements and techniques. Although individuals in this position report to management, the ability to work independently is also needed. In some large firms or websites, the SEM specialist may be required to working with a team of other marketing specialists.

That could be someone who does SEO. That could be someone who does SEM/paid search. It could be someone who does both.

But PayScale also has 10 — yes, 10 — different occupation titles specifically relating to SEO, which you can look up here (just type SEO into the search box to see them appear). In addition, there are seven titles relating to SEM.

Overall, PayScale has nearly 20 different occupations that relate to search marketing. Only one of these made the “makes the world worse” list. The others were clearly more positive (since they aren’t on the list), and perhaps much more so. Despite this, one title will likely get used to represent the entire industry.

Behind The Question

Let’s also take a closer look at the particular question. Again, PayScale said people were asked, “Does your work make the world a better place?” Here’s the full breakdown for the SEM strategist title:

  • Very much = 9%
  • Yes = 9%
  • A little = 36%
  • No = 27%
  • My job may make the world a worse place = 18% 

Most — 54%, the total of the first three items — were positive about their work. Those saying “No” didn’t think they made the world better, but they also didn’t think they made it worse. A minority — that 18% figure — thought they made things worse.

Remember again, this is the answer to only one of 17 job titles relating to search marketing, answered by an unknown number of people, which may include people who aren’t even search marketers but perhaps spammers.

The Search Engine Land Awards:
We’re Looking For Your Positive Stories!

Overall, take these results with a big grain of salt. There are multiple reasons to doubt whether the stat holds up. In fact, we debated even covering this at all. In the end, we decided that the figure would likely get remarked upon elsewhere, so it was important to examine some of the methodology and problems behind the results.

That said, there’s no doubt that as explained, spamming has long tainted search marketing, and SEO in particular, as unsavory. Worse, despite search marketing being 50% of online ad spend in the US, those involved with search marketing can still find themselves fighting battles to prove their worth or to not seem “boring” compared to social media and video marketing.

Having covered the search marketing space for nearly 20 years now, I know that there are search marketers — SEOs and SEMs alike — doing great work. It’s terrible that the space gets most associated with spam and not with its wonderful and helpful successes.

That’s one reason we launched the Search Engine Land Awards this year. We want to highlight the great work that’s going on. You’ve still got to the end of this month to enter. So please, those of you doing great stuff in search, do enter. You’re overdue to be celebrated rather than underappreciated or represented by spam.

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