A couple of decades after graduating from college, I’m back in school—only this time my “campus” is a room in a Beaverton conference center, and my eight fellow students are working professionals. Each of us (or our employers) has paid between $995 and $2,195 for two, three, or five days of instruction. That may sound like hefty tuition, but the skills we’re acquiring will make us invaluable: we’re learning how to win the search engine wars.
“Let’s hear your keywords,” says Colleen Wright, our instructor and the owner of Search Engine Academy of Oregon. The school, which opened in September 2007, specializes in teaching search engine optimization, or SEO—coding, programming, and designing websites so that they zip to the top of Google or Yahoo results pages. That positioning can boost a company’s business. According to a 2004 Cornell University study that tracked the search habits of college students, Google users clicked on the first results-page link nearly twice as often as they clicked on the third.
On the first day of class, we learn that choosing the right keyword phrase—and incorporating it throughout a website so that Google’s software can easily find it—is crucial to online marketing. For example, if research shows that people habitually Google “Valentine bouquet under $35,” a florist might create a page on his website where such bouquets are featured and add links from the home page. A term like “flowers,” on the other hand, would make him no more unique than thousands of other florists and could send his website to the Internet boonies—the third page of Google results, or worse.
Demand for individuals with SEO skills has grown so much that search engine classes—which, as far as Wright knows, didn’t exist in the Portland area as recently as two years ago—are beginning to crop up around town. Portland State University, for instance, now offers search engine marketing courses through its multimedia professional program. “SEO is exploding because it’s measurable,” says Wright, noting that online page views can be tracked and quantified—not the case with print media advertising.
That may explain why, despite the lagging economy, four of five top US search marketing agencies reported double-digit percentage revenue increases between 2006 and 2007 for their search engine services, according to Advertising Age , and why Portland search marketing companies are growing. Ben Lloyd, the thirty-five-year-old CEO of Amplify Interactive, a search engine marketing firm located in the Central Eastside Industrial District, says demand for his company’s work has increased by 40 percent in the past year. Some large corporations, he says, will pay six to eight thousand dollars a month for SEO maintenance to make sure their websites stay at the top of search engine pages. “When I started doing search marketing in 1999, people would say, ‘What is it that you do, and why should I care?’” says Lloyd. “Now, people come to us and say, ‘We need someone today.’”
The sector has expanded so steadily that in May 2006 Kent Lewis, president and CEO of Portland-based Anvil Media Inc, helped form SEMpdx, a local trade group for search engine marketing professionals. Membership, which costs $125 a year, has grown to more than 120 people, and in March, SEMpdx will host its third annual SearchFest convention here.
Part of the salability of search marketing is the speed at which companies can change their online strategies as consumer demand shifts. Employing Internet tracking software such as Google Analytics, SEO marketers can tell if keywords are working and can make adjustments within minutes. Plus, software can trace the series of search terms that led people to a particular home page, notes Portland-based consultant Eric T. Peterson, author of Web Analytics Demystified .
If you want to see whether Wright walks her talk, Google “SEO workshops Oregon.” Search Engine Academy of Oregon snags eight of the ten slots on the first page—which has been, Wright says, very good for business.