Ask any consumer start-up what their biggest obstacle to growth is and it's likely you'll get a consistent but surprising answer: I simply can't find enough SEM/SEO talent. It's not a shortage of programmers that are hindering start-up growth (much of the coding talent is being provided by offshore developers anyway), but rather the talent pool hasn't adjusted quickly enough to support the new Search Economy.
Nearly all consumer businesses are banking on search as the major source of customer acquisition – both Search Engine Marketing (SEM), where their company is featured as a paid advertisement on a search results page, and Search Engine Optimization (SEO), where their company comes up "naturally" or "organically" in the search results. Marketing and advertising dollars that were once funneled into television, radio, print and even online banners are rapidly flowing into search as the most effective, low-cost tool for customer acquisition.
The search economy has exploded at such a stunning rate, that it's worth stepping back to really appreciate it. The leading recipient of these funds, Google, will receive revenue over the course of 2008 in the range of $16 billion, the bulk of which is paid search. That's an entire nation's economy built around optimizing search results in the last 4-5 years! And the category (in which Google owns a 70% share) is growing at 30-40% per year, even in the midst of cut backs (see the association's data at www.sempo.org) – in fact, researchers seem to keep raising their estimates every year of the size and importance of SEM.
Yet, the SEM figures vastly under-report the true importance and impact of the Search Economy. No one gets paid when a company achieves customer acquisition through SEO, but companies are spending untold resources trying to optimize their websites for natural search results. Imagine how valuable it is for a financial services firm to appear as the first result when you type in "mortgage refinance" into Google and you can see why talented SEO wizards are worth the investment.
The problem is that the speed with which SEM and SEO have exploded on the Web has resulted in a massive talent gap. For those that can figure out the black art of search, the rewards are lucrative. One entrepreneur proudly declared to me, "Google is my b#&%$!" (hint: rhymes with "witch") when describing why his business has achieved competitive advantage and profitable growth in its niche.
I recently joined the MITX (Massachusetts Innovation and Technology Exchange) board of directors and was chatting with fellow board member Don McLagan about what the region needs to do to entice young, talented college students to obtain good jobs and stick around. The Boston Globe's Scott Kirsner is focused on this topic as well, recently writing about it in his weekly column.
I have one word for our industry: search. Our region's companies desparately need search talent. And it is a talent that can be easily trained in almost a vocational fashion. Let's create a 10-week program on SEM/SEO and have some of the local stars lend their top talent to teach it, leveraging what SEMPO has already done. Every city has large advertising councils and Internet trade associations, but the Search Economy is wildly neglected relative to its size and importance. If Massachusetts (and other regions?) can train young graduates in the black art of the Search Economy, then a major constraint to start-up growth will be removed. A workforce that knows how to tame Google (absent the profanity) should be everyone's goal.