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Bright SEO career prospects could dim

Job prospects in search engine optimization are rosy, but the situation could change 10 years down the road, says Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen.

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Q. I would like to ask for your advice on the career prospects for search engine marketing or optimization.

Career advice from Jakob Nielsen, principal of Nielsen Norman Group:
A. In the short term--say, five years--I see great potential for jobs in search engine marketing (SEM) and search engine optimization (SEO). However, I am a bit more skeptical about the long-term prospects for these fields, looking ahead 10 years, but it should be possible to use a job in SEM/SEO as a springboard to a more senior position in Internet marketing or user experience.

Next 5 years: I am optimistic for two reasons:

  • Search is the main way customers locate a new Web site. In one of our studies, we gave users a task to perform on the Internet but didn't specify what Web sites they were supposed to use. In this scenario, 88 percent of users went straight to their favorite search engine and used it to find sites to solve their problem. Furthermore, users almost never went to the second page of search results. Combining these two observations leads to the conclusion that you have to be on the first page of results for popular queries in your business, or you will never get any new customers from your Web site.
  • Despite the importance of search, most Internet marketers continue to be clueless about how to perform well in search engines. One of the most important guidelines for writing for the Web is to employ the users' terminology, because you won't be found unless your page contains the keywords people are searching for. This advice is 10 years old, and most marketers persist in using made-up terms that may sound fancy, but which nobody searches for.

Web sites need SEO consultants to save themselves from their own stupidities. Whenever a site gets a good SEO workover, traffic invariably explodes, because the site all of a sudden starts showing up when customers search for what offers. Even the best optimization can't always get a site on page 1 for the most competitive keywords, and that's where search engine advertising comes in. Again, most advertising agencies are clueless when it comes to designing a 15-word ad that can't contain any graphics.

Search ads are the best form of advertising on the Web because people go to search engines to find a place to go and because any given ad is only shown when people search for the exact keyword that it relates to.

10 years from now: I am pessimistic about the long-term prospects for SEO jobs, because the basics of search engine optimization are fairly simple and ought to be part of the core competency of anybody who makes a living in Web design, Internet marketing, or writing for the Web. You shouldn't need a special consultant to make a Web site that follows simple guidelines. Of course, I have been trying to teach people to write for the Web for 10 years already, ever since we discovered the main guidelines in 1997. And most sites still get it wrong. So maybe I am wrong when I predict that Internet marketers will stop being clueless in 10 years. In any case, even if most sites eventually learn how to do their own SEO, it will be good for your career to have spent several years working with the most effective component of Internet marketing. You will be able to broaden your scope and take on other duties, based on your evolving knowledge of what works on the Web and what customers want (they want what they search for!).

Career advice from John Brand, research director, Hydrasight:
A. The career prospects are good for search engine marketing/optimization, if you don't mind being in the middle of a never-ending arms race. Everyone wants--and needs--their online initiatives to be seen and heard above the general din, but it's hard to keep raising everybody to the top of the pile. Somebody inevitably has to be at the bottom of any list. So, as much as you can learn the complete in's and out's of individual search engines in order to exploit their algorithms and marketing programs, a whole bunch of other organizations and individuals are also trying to do the same. There's the rub. Plenty of people can make a tidy packet out of not getting everyone to the top of the list. There are plenty of organizations out there today that are having piles of cash extracted from them on the promise of a "0.5 percent increase in relevance ranking". If finding or creating a valuable niche might be something that appeals to your creative side, then SEM/SEO might not be entirely for you. If, however, you get a thrill out of "squeezing another 150km out of the smell of an oily rag" then you've probably picked the right game.