October 31, 2005, 12:00 AM

Searching for Searchers

In hiring search marketing expertise, it’s a seller’s market.

As the search engine ­marketing manager at Overstock.com, Doug Sundahl is the type of seasoned professional web retailers can`t seem to find and hire fast enough. Sundahl, who started Overstock`s search engine ­marketing program from scratch four years ago, ­routinely receives phone calls from recruiters with openings at other retailing companies and interactive advertising agencies.

"Having a background in search engine marketing is definitely a stepping stone to career advancement," says Sundahl, who isn`t looking for a new job. For now, he`s happy at Overstock, where he manages a search engine marketing program with four full-time employees, a multi-million dollar advertising budget and several hundred thousand keywords and phrases. "Search is becoming more prominent within our organization and there is opportunity for search engine marketing professionals to grow into bigger roles at Overstock," says Sundahl, director of internal marketing.

Scouring trade shows

Overstock knows full well the value of keeping its search engine professionals motivated and well ­compensated. And that`s a lesson other retailers and search engine marketing firms are learning as well.

These days it`s a seller`s ­market for experienced search engine marketing professionals. As a result, retailers and agencies are scouring trade shows and online job boards for candidates, ­luring talent away from the ­competition or building search programs from scratch with ­promising workers and ­managers from all types of professional backgrounds, including advertising sales reps, warehouse managers and even professional dog handlers. "For search engine marketing professionals, especially in retailing, the job environment is wide open," says Kevin Lee, chairman of the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization and executive chairman of search-marketing company Did-It.com.

In the early days of Internet retailing, experienced programmers, web developers and e-commerce managers were the object of ­bidding wars as retailers and Internet start-up companies competed for their ­services. Now recruiters see a similar hot job market in search engine ­marketing. In particularly high demand are marketing ­managers, account executives, pay-per-click specialists and organic-search ­specialists with a retailing background. "With the right background, a candidate with retailing experience, a proven track record and management ability can pretty much write their own ticket," Lee says.

Top dollar

Today web retailers and interactive marketing agencies are paying top dollar for search engine marketing professionals. The starting annual base pay for mid-level search engine professionals is $45,000 to $60,000 and it goes up to $80,000 to $100,000 for program or ­department managers. "A good professional with an excellent record can easily receive a job offer with a six-figure base and a lucrative bonus based on performance," says Dana Todd, SEMPO president and principal of SiteLab International Inc. "The big challenge is finding enough qualified candidates and ­giving them enough incentives to make them want to come and stay."

Given the relatively new status of search as a digital marketing and advertising channel, recruiters can`t pinpoint the number of available search engine marketing jobs in retailing. But it`s clear that many retailers with online operations are in a hiring mode. For instance, Amazon.com has three openings for marketing ­managers and specialists who will work on search projects, while Benchmark Brands, which operates FootSmart.com, is ­looking for five e-commerce employees with search-related skills. Other ­retailers in need of search marketing professionals include Bellacor.com Inc., an online retailer of ­lighting and home products, which is looking for an online marketing coordinator with search responsibilities; AllPosters.com Inc., which is in need of a ­pay-per-click ­specialist; and Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse Corp., looking for an online ­marketing manager with search engine ­responsibilities.

The need for managers, account executives and specialists at firms that provide search engine ­marketing services to web retailers is even more acute. Avenue A|Razorfish, an interactive services agency, has multiple regional openings for search engine marketing professionals. Icrossing Inc., another interactive services provider, is expecting to hire as many as 35 search professionals in the next several months and has openings for account executives, optimization specialists and search intelligence specialists. "Marketing managers are realizing that search is growing because it`s an advertising vehicle that gets results," says Sara Holoubek, chief strategy officer, corporate development, for ­icrossing. "Companies, including retailers, are reallocating resources to search and adding search engine ­marketing as a dedicated category in their ­advertising budgets."

Both sides of the brain

For search marketing department mangers, most web retailers are looking for applicants with hands-on experience building and ­optimizing campaigns on Google, Yahoo and other search engines, a good understanding of online and offline consumer behavior and the ability to analyze large sets of data and manage an advertising budget. Their specific job responsibilities include developing and maintaining customer acquisition programs for paid and organic listings, creating keyword bid ­management and optimization strategies, maintaining and expanding a keyword inventory, and analyzing customer traffic using web analytics.

"You can hire a specialist to run the mechanics of a program, but a good search engine manager, the kind of manager this industry needs to develop more of, needs to think out of both sides of the brain," says Gordon Magee, Internet ­marketing and analysis manager for pets supply retailer Drs. Foster & Smith Inc., which uses three staffers to ­manage paid and organic search engine marketing campaigns. "What`s really in demand is someone who can read the data, draw conclusions and make marketing changes that deliver results. You can teach someone the mechanics, but not to be an intuitive thinker."

In general, web retailers are eager to hire search engine ­marketing employees with a minimum of three years of experience in search marketing. But given the limited pool of employees with both search and retailing experience, a growing number of web merchants and agencies are filling positions by ­promoting from within.

For instance, eBags Inc. is ­developing a unit of three to four full-time employees, all found within the company, who will concentrate on generating ­better natural search results for eBags.com and several other e-commerce sites. They all already have experience working on eBags` interactive marketing programs or have marketing and data analysis backgrounds that can be applied to natural search.

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