What it takes to be a subject matter expert in search marketing
Search marketing continues to be a rapidly evolving space.
There is a great demand for search marketing talent – specifically for people with subject matter expertise.
I always hear it from recruiters and colleagues: “There just aren’t enough people who truly know what they are doing.”
But is this true?
What does it take to be a subject matter expert?
What is a subject matter expert?
A subject matter expert, or SME, is a person who has a deep understanding and specialized knowledge of a particular topic.
SMEs develop and demonstrate competence through years of professional experience and continuing education.
So what does it mean for search marketing? I think there are three components to this:
- Years of experience.
The combination of these three areas (not just one) can define a subject matter expert. Let’s break down each in more detail.
Years of experience
This is probably the easiest to identify from afar and the hardest to manipulate. Simply put, how long have you been doing this specific skill?
Regardless of the line of work you are in, the more time you spend on a field, the better you become at it. This is true of chefs, athletes, carpenters, software engineers, and search marketers.
You have the advantage of seeing more situations and knowing how to respond.
What do you do if your account’s CPC starts to spike or your rankings decline overnight?
With more on-the-job experience, you will have had the opportunity to go through these situations.
The longer you are in the game, the more opportunities you will have to go through that same situation multiple times and know how to ensure the optimal outcome.
Many search marketing platforms offer a way to become certified in that skill, platform, or subject matter.
Earning and maintaining certifications is a great way to demonstrate that you have mastered the skill, at least academically.
While earning a certification doesn’t necessarily mean you understand how to apply those skills and knowledge to a real-world problem, I feel this is necessary to maintain for most search marketers.
The platforms and tools are evolving so quickly. Earning and maintaining certifications is one way to force yourself to validate that knowledge, so it doesn’t become stale.
You can provide these certifications to a potential employer or client to show you have done the hard work necessary to be certified in that field or tool.
Here are a few certification examples that are worth looking into:
- Amazon Ads
- Google Ads
- Digital Marketing Association
- The TradeDesk
This is the hardest to identify in an interview and yet the most important. Some people are just built to do a certain thing.
You could send LeBron James to the worst high school or college, training camp, and basketball strategy class, and he would still be LeBron James. He was built to play basketball at an elite level.
This is true for every other skill as well. You can’t teach talent.
In an interview, you can sometimes sense a person’s talent by the depth they answer your questions.
The details they provide give clues to how much a person has a grasp of that specific area.
Subject matter experts can see a problem before it happens and think through ways to tie business objectives to the strategies and tactics available in a specific platform.
Talent also has the widest amount of gray area to it. It’s not you are either talented or not talented. There is every permutation possible available.
You can also evolve and maximize your talent level with hard work and strong mentorship. I’ve seen people who aren’t as talented as some of their coworkers outwork and out-hustle their peers.
You can argue that this work ethic is a part of one’s talent, but even so, it’s a key element. You can use the tools available to you to improve your subject matter expertise. This means online resources and the network around you (or that you build).
Don’t forget that no one who is a subject matter expert did it by themselves. There are always support systems helping someone find the right resources, get the right opportunities, and push them to improve their craft.
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So, are you a subject matter expert?
You might ask yourself, “Am I a subject matter expert?” or “How can I identify a subject matter expert?”
I think you should consider the combination of the three areas – years of experience, certifications, and talent – in the context of what you are looking for and/or where you are in your career.
If you are just starting and looking to break into an area, you have to compensate for your lack of experience with certifications.
If you are more seasoned in your career and have let your certifications expire because of the experience you have, you can still call yourself a subject matter expert.
Not everyone needs someone who has a Google Ads certification, has been doing paid search for 10 years, and was dropped on this planet to optimize a keyword list.
Budgets and team structure don’t require all those areas in every circumstance. Sometimes just being certified is enough.
How to grow as an SME in search marketing
Subject matter experts evolve as they progress in their careers.
Ultimately, given the pace of change and innovation in search marketing, you must continue to stay a practicing professional, read the latest blogs, and test new platforms and betas.
Keeping those elements going and maintaining your subject matter expertise will be key to growing your search marketing career.
But before establishing a level of expertise and gaining technical proficiency in a domain, the challenge can be deciding which direction to take and what opportunities to pursue.
There’s also apprehension that if you are an SME in just one area, you can get typecast and stuck in that specific skill.
On the other hand, if you choose to grow broader, you will lose what got you to this point – subject matter expertise.
There is no right or answer to this decision. The image below is helpful as you think about these types of decisions.
While it may seem to close some opportunities, many more are ahead of you.
Here are a few tips to help you navigate your search marketing career as a subject matter expert.
- Define what subject matter expertise means based on the role.
- Think through what motivates you day in and day out.
- Identify what the business needs the most.
- Don’t feel any pressure to conform.
- Keep learning.
Define what subject matter expertise means based on the role
Subject matter expertise is relative to the role.
For example, explaining how PPC works can be considered subject matter expertise if you are talking to someone unfamiliar with paid search.
But, let’s say you are talking to someone who has been in paid search for even a few months. Then sharing such information is not subject matter expertise. This is important to grasp because you might lose perspective as your career evolves.
Since at one point, you could log into Google Ads and know exactly where all the levers and knobs are, but now the UI is different since you last logged in.
You suddenly don’t feel like an expert, but in exchange for losing touch with Google Ads base details, you have gained subject matter expertise into how paid search impacts total web traffic or merchandising.
This is important to wrap your head around when thinking about your career and your level of knowledge. There is too much to learn about any specific discipline to expect yourself to be a deep expert.
Think through what motivates you day in and day out
You probably already know the answer to this question.
You know if you love to get into spreadsheets or data visualization tools.
You know if you like to know a little about many topics, but go deep into one area.
You spend a lot of time at work. The more you like what you are doing, the better you will be at it. This is fairly cliche, but it is true.
Understanding your strengths and weaknesses and what motivates you is important on this subject matter expertise journey.
Identify what the business needs the most
Depending on the company that you are working in, the opportunities to grow will be a good indicator of the type of knowledge and skills needed.
For example, some companies will have a search department that includes SEO and PPC.
Others will separate PPC and any other type of paid media. Some will keep it all together as one “paid media department.”
The type of organizational structure gives good clues at the level of depth of skill in any one discipline that will be needed to advance your career.
Don’t feel any pressure to conform
I have had many conversations with team members who felt they needed to expand broader to grow their career.
However, once they did that, they felt unfulfilled in that role. They didn’t enjoy the subject matter expertise. They didn’t have an appreciation for what motivated them.
They were instead chasing something they think they wanted. This is not easy to avoid and, in some cases, might even be worth trying to better understand your interests.
Taking a risk and trying something new will teach you something. Even in failure, you will learn and grow.
The other thing to remember is subject matter expertise is fluid.
Things are changing rapidly. Search marketing overall is still in its infancy.
It’s hard to remember that text ads had a fixed number of characters for headlines or bids were set manually. Things are constantly evolving.
So even if you are in a broad job encompassing many areas, you must still learn and evolve.
This can be through keeping base certifications current, sitting in on a webinar on a new topic, or just reading the newsletter from a publication like Search Engine Land.
These are all ways to keep up with what is happening in the space and refresh your subject matter expertise.
You don’t need to be able to actually tweak the dials to know they exist. Keep learning, and you will be rewarded with new opportunities and knowledge that will inform your future plans.
Subject matter expertise: What comes next?
Being an expert in anything is hard. Most people are just trying to keep up and know just a little more than the person they are talking to.
To grow and develop your career, be open to new opportunities and continue your quest for new information.
We are lucky to work in such a dynamic space that is rapidly growing and evolving.
This forces us all to learn and push the entire industry forward, whatever your subject matter expertise path may be.
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