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Your New Title: The VP of Search

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What do the New York Times/About.com, Citicards and Passages drug treatment center have in common? You guessed it, a Vice President of Search, the hottest new title in town. Curious to learn how this role came to be, Danny Sullivan moderated as three pioneers discussed how they broke through the glass ceiling.

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference, August 6-10, 2006, San Jose, California.

Just a few years ago, the only person with in house search engine marketing knowledge was either a techie or an underling in the interactive marketing department. Needless to say, neither commanded the attention of the CMO, CTO or CEO.

As the quantifiable results from SEM gained attention, these early players became the "go-to" people for all matters search. Once the CMO took notice (and perhaps credit), search earned a firmly anchored line item in the annual marketing budget. Enter the VP of search.

So who exactly fills these shoes?

For Sean Smith of Citicards, the first stop was as an art director and information architect. After a particular online project didn't go as planned, the online acquisition channel was formed to improve matters. The VP title, however, came much later in a firm that still distrusts the web. Smith commented that "90% of the job is still convincing the company that my job is worth having. To do this, you need to educate."

Smith spends a good deal of time learning how to best leverage search over the long run. For Citi, understanding how search contributes to the lifetime value of a customer is as important as today's average CPC.

The results have paid off. "Internet acquisitions surpassed direct mail at Citi last year," said Smith. "Do you open that mail? The push is not effective."

For others, it is a jump to the other side that lands them in the top slot. This is particularly true for agency employees, such as Abilash Patel, who flirt with the idea of "working on the client side." His move earned him the title of VP Search Marketing for Passages Malibu, a high-end drug treatment center.

If agency life is about being in constant motion, the client side is often about accepting the slow progress in molasses-like organizations. Patel has earned respect by asserting that search is an independent sales channel, and furnishes numbers to prove it. He recommends that VPs of Search "pronounce and define your impact on the firm, thereby taking accountability." He is responsible for paid search, paid inclusion, click fraud research, organic search, reputation management, link building, affiliate marketing, business development and distribution and viral marketing.

Patel feels strongly that link popularity and content generation must be executed in house, yet accedes that outsourcing other efforts can be more efficient.

Passages now earns 95% of its business from search and revenues have increased 354%. The firm has also uncovered significant click fraud, learned to better manage vendors and conducted a redesign.

While HR might be flexible enough to create new titles such as VP of SEM, the remainder of the organization might not be so fast to accept change, as Marshall Simmonds experienced. "As VP of SEM, I walked back to tech and asked for a CD Rom drive. IT asked if I was a Chief. So I found out that you get more toys as a Chief than as a VP." Simmonds must have been doing something right; he soon became Chief Search Strategist at the New York Times/about.com.

The bureaucracy within the Grey Lady's IT department was just a beginning. Simmonds faced 11 million documents, a registration wall, a paid subscription wall and editorial guidelines. And these were just a few of the obstacles.

The audience quickly learned that Simmonds is not only a search expert, but something of a change management guru. His ability to overcome ego and cut through old school turf wars has become one of the greatest case studies in search engine marketing.

To facilitate communication, Simmonds actively seeks out projects that require involvement across multiple units. The formula integrates search into the workflow via a series of small changes that deliver big results. He has also provided significant support, including a dedicated email address, a search center, an SEO discussion board, training, reports, chats and newsletters. For those on the execution side, there are checklists that remind employees to consider titles, annotations on all links and keyword rich anchor text. "Everyone owns search," he declared.

The newsroom, however, is an uphill battle. A prime example is the evolution of headlines, which itself earned a dedicated New York Times article 'This Boring Headline is Written for Google.' For Simmonds, this means explaining consumer speak and search patterns on a daily basis. "It isn't 'A Marriage Made in Heaven', but a 'Treo 700," he said. The newsroom doesn't always take such advice kindly. "They will be damned if you will teach them how to write. They see the writing on the wall and they see where it is going," he concluded.

And they most certainly should. The New York Times and about.com have experienced a significant increase in visitors from search. The former earns about 22% and the latter an impressive 80%.

After the presentations, the audience aimed to determine how much of search should be outsourced.

For Smith, the answer was clear. "I have never found a vendor that knows my business like I do. I have done it and they have fallen apart. I am very distrustful all the time." He did admit that in some cases, "we have to go external, for speed, such as analytics or tracking." Patel also prefers to bring outsourced activities inside, noting that he has also been burned in the past as the firm hemorrhaged at over $25 a click.

Simmonds' internal execution was a function of necessity. "At about.com, I didn't have a budget for 6 years, so we did it all internally. At the Times, we have a little bit of budget, so we used it in areas that I don't want to do." These include link building or designing a toolset.

The entire panel agreed that large teams are not necessary. For the Times and Citi, this means just two people who educate. Smith has one person on paid search and one on natural search. "I have dispensed with the idea of team because it creates a barrier. I create a zombie army. It is a matter of educating the product managers and marketing managers." Simmonds has a similar strategy by creating SEO project managers. "We leave these everywhere."

Sara Holoubek is a free agent consultant for the interactive advertising sector and its investors. She can be reached at [email protected].

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