SEO software company, SEOmoz, has released the results of a survey of the SEO industry, which received 10,000 respondents making it the largest ever conducted. Answers were given to 45 questions by over 10,000 people from over 90 countries on topics ranging from earnings, job title and responsibilities to tactics and tools. The entire project is a great measure of the search marketer's role in 2010 and candidly reflects the mood of the industry - everyone is feeling upbeat; but may still be keeping a few tricks up their sleeve. In collaboration with SEOmoz, the Distilled team wrote up their findings, to surface some extremely valuable insights and create a fascinating barometer of search marketers' capacity to play by the rules - or not - whatever the case may be.
An SEO's career path, as demonstrated by the survey, is one of great toil and great reward. For the first couple of years, plan to work alone or in a team of two, earning experience instead of cash and expect an incremental salary growth of 5% to 13%. Don't worry because after 5 years you should be expecting to have almost doubled what you made as a rookie.
Agency vs. In-House:
Looking at the distribution of labor graphs, it seems that agency workers will spend more time on the fundamental aspects of SEO than their in-house counterparts. Keyword research, link building and on-page optimization demanded the most time from agency workers whereas in-house workers had a more even distribution of activities.
So, the choice of whether to work in-house or at an agency comes down to what experience you want. Do you want to work for lots of clients, gaining expertise in lots of markets, or do you want to progress through one particular vertical?
Also of note was that in-house SEOs spent less time on link building and spent more time on social media. Given the obvious correlation between building links and creating relationships via social media this is arguably an odd result. The situation seems to be that companies are outsourcing their most valuable source of exposure, namely gaining links, whilst retaining the means to control their reputation, via social media. Strategically speaking, this makes no sense as one would have expected reputation to be directly aligned with the ability to create high quality links.
Such a dissonance is not the fault of the industry, but part of a wider issue of market friction. Link building is time consuming, easier to conceal mistakes but harder to attribute ROI. Social media is easier to attribute value, harder to conceal mistakes but neatly fits into the average daily workflow. To my mind, SEOmoz's findings echo a recent report that companies are in a state of confusion as to who should own the social media function. This shows there's an opportunity for savvy agency people to collaborate with savvy in-house people to create more elaborate and effective link building campaigns. SEOmoz alludes to an increased co-operation between both sides of the industry being the way forward too.
But Seriously Now, What Should We Do With the Black Hats?
A fascinating insight from the survey is that those "operating outside of Google's guidelines" live in a dog eat dog world of spam reports and reconsideration requests. Of those who have been reported for spam (thus required to file a reconsideration request) 35% have reported spam themselves. This indicates that certain markets are particularly cut-throat, but more worryingly suggests that reporting spam could be tantamount to turning yourself in as a 'black hat'. Nobody tell Matt Cutts!
Also noteworthy is the findings that link buyers tend to self identify as being top earners with over 5 years of experience and consider themselves to be experts. This suggests that Google's propaganda machine against buying links has been a pretty effective deterrent among junior SEOs. By contrast, if their self proclaimed seniority is to be taken seriously, link buyers are taking risks and reaping rewards.
To add more fuel to the fire, 30% of survey respondents who buy links via brokers have had to file reconsideration requests compared to only 20% who have bought links direct from webmasters. As the SEOmoz team points out, this suggests that Google is more effective at detecting paid links with a network footprint, than it is at specifically detecting a paid link from any other link. Furthermore, the next generation of SEOs are buying links, filing re-inclusion requests and de-duping their content, suggesting that there is a rising tide of content network builders and affiliates who are able to take some big risks before they "get a real job".
All of the above poses a tempting dilemma as to what direction to take your SEO career... is it time to join the dark side?
Black hats are earning the most and arguably making it harder for white hats to compete. Is this an injustice? Are they giving the industry a bad name? Or are they core to the industry and pushing the boundaries of innovation? A year ago I asked founder of SEOmoz, Rand Fiskin and founder and Chief Strategist at Distilled, Will Critchlow, the very same question:
To conclude, I only found one finding to be a bit too much of a "wet finger in the air" test (as you would to determine wind direction): when marketing agency executives were asked if they had seen an increase in demand for specific online marketing services, the overwhelming response was positive. And that was despite the recession.
Whilst SEOmoz fully acknowledge this, and there is plenty of other data around that supports an optimistic look, to get a bullish response from practitioners - without disclosing actual client or brand spending on these services - is a bit like asking an Alsatian dog if it likes ham sandwiches and taking its bark to mean 'yes'.
But hey, it's nothing to get stuck on. After all, drawing conclusions from data is never a case of black and white - it's all just shades of gray.