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In case you didn’t know, I am IBM’s representative to the Google Tech Council, a consortium of B2B tech search engine marketing (SEM) leaders. We meet quarterly at Google’s offices to share best practices and new innovations in SEM. The last time we met, I asked the group what their top pain point was. Resources, as in human resources, was the almost unanimous answer. They all spend the majority of their time training and otherwise educating people from the greenest copy writer to the highest executive in SEO and SEM. Many of my colleagues on the Tech Council voiced frustration about this, because it seems like all they do is train, and retrain and train some more. But they don’t see a corresponding improvement in skills.

Since I started focusing on SEM for IBM, I have trained thousands of content producers, information architects, developers, metrics analysts, and executives on search. I have developed more than a dozen education modules, including my six-part Outside-In Search Marketing LiveLesson series, which I recorded and released through IBM Press. I even cowrote a book called Audience, Relevance and Search, intended to convince people of the importance of search in digital marketing and help them learn how to do it. Yet, as I craft my 2013 plans, training once again appears on the top of my list of activities.  This post will serve as the first in a series on the topic of cultivating this critical skill set within companies.

Why is SEO such an important skill for digital marketing?

Study after study shows that between 80 and 98 percent of users “frequently or always” use search to find what they are looking for. Yet I am continually dispelling myths that “search is dead” or “curation will replace search,” etc. The myths are most loudly spoken by those who think social media will replace search as we know it. The idea is people will rely exclusively on information from their friends and the people they follow. Thus they will stop searching for stuff.

Those who espouse these myths miss a simple fact: Users of social also use search to find influences and to do deeper research on the topics they discover through social. In fact, since social became a thing, search query volume in Google has steadily increased by about 30% per year. That percentage is also increasing at about the rate social is increasing as a percentage of web activity. (I can’t share the reports that show this because they’re proprietary to Google.) This makes sense because social information comes in the form of smaller bits and everyone is creating them. Social only increases information overload, which is the reason people search for things. Far from killing search, social feeds it.

Search queries are actually going up faster on mobile devices. With mobile search and social search together, query volumes are now doubling every year. Why? Because no one navigates on mobile devices. They search, with their voices or on their mapping apps or however. Mobile users nearly exclusively use search to find what they’re looking for. Consider those Siri ads. Search is at the center of all those queries.

If search is so important, why is search talent so scarce?

I’m reading the book Outside-In: The Power of Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business. It makes a compelling case for viewing customer experience as job one for every company. Unfortunately, it misses the most important customer experience of all–searching for information developed by a company and finding it (or not). Companies that learn what their clients and prospects are searching for and provide that information in a clear and compelling way give good customer experiences for between 80 and 96 percent (depending on the study) of their customers who use digital devices. If you get search right, you solve your customer experience problems for most of your clients and prospects.

The fact that the book missed the central customer experience for most businesses (whether they do e-commerce or not) is strong evidence that search is consistently undervalued by companies. The authors–Forrester Research practice leaders in customer experience Harley Manning and Kerry Bodine–interviewed more than 100 customer experience executives from around the world. Search was called out in only a few of their plans. In part because of this, I’m writing a book with Mike Moran on a related topic, tentatively called Outside-In Marketing, Using Big Data to Drive Inbound Marketing. Look for it late next year from IBM Press.

Simply put: Search talent is scarce because companies don’t put search at the center of their customer interaction plans. If companies viewed search experiences with the same (or ideally greater)  focus as they give store design or user experience design or customer service, they would make search talent a priority. But the customer experience executives interviewed by the authors of the book saw customer experience as exclusively about what customers do once they get to a store (whether made of bricks or clicks).

Customer experience executives don’t consider that customer experience includes what they see on search engine results pages (SEPRs), or whether those SERP experiences lead to good customer interactions if clients or prospects click them. When retail executives plan a new store, they consider how customers get to the store as part of the experience (not just traffic, but ads as well). Not so with the SERP. If we consider the sample of customer experience executives interviewed for the book, they were much more apt to think of social mentions or banner ads as part of the experience than search. Yet search referrals dwarf all other ways customers get to company sites.

If marketing and customer experience executives gave search its due as a top driver of business to their companies, they would make search skills a priority for human resources. But, as it stands, SEOs are very rare within companies. SEM skills are rarer still, if my anecdotal evidence is right. Most SEMs I know are willing to farm out paid search optimization and bid management to agencies, rather than owning it in house.

My hope with this post is to raise awareness of the need for search skills, not just SEO and SEM consultants and trainers such as myself, but every person who touches digital customer experiences needs to know how their work affects client search experiences. More importantly, they need to know the importance of client search experience in all the goals of the business–sales, customer loyalty, branding, etc. These are the people I spend most of my time training.

In future posts, I will try to delve into how typical roles need SEO skills in greater detail. For now, I recommend the following “Whiteboard Friday” link from SEOMoz.

 

 

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