I had the pleasure of attending and presenting at the SES Chicago search conference earlier this month. On the trip I discovered that the traffic in Chicago makes a drive up the congested FDR Drive in New York look like a trip on the Autobahn, and that there are no tchotchkes for my kids anywhere on the length and breadth of Chicago’s pricey Magnificent Mile shopping district.

(Pro tip: Don’t ask the sales person at Michael Kors if she knows where you can find a children’s size 7 Bulls jersey. She won’t appreciate it.)

SEMPO SEO Salary Survey

One of the panels on which I participated, together with Chris Boggs from Internet Marketing Ninjas and Mark Engelsman of Digital Brand Expressions was a discussion of key findings from SEMPOs recently released SEO salary survey. At Conductor, we contributed in large part to the data analysis on the survey, and were gratified to see that the trends that emerged from the analysis meshed nicely with our own independent research and our organization’s perception of the direction of the industry.

Below, I share with you what was presented at the session: a mix of key findings from the salary survey, Conductor research, and third party data that added some additional color around the findings. We welcome your input on interpreting the findings in the comments below.

First, some background on the SEMPO survey details:

  • 2,000 + Respondents
  • Mix of B2B, B2C, and Agencies
  • Mix of SEMPO and Non-SEMPO Respondents

Average SEO Salaries Declining

The first finding seemed like a red flag for the SEO industry. Compared to salaries in 2011, the last time the study was done, average salaries declined, dropping from an average of $75,543 to $68,600.

SEMPO salary survey 2013

Digging deeper into the data, however, we find that the average decline may actually be due to people joining the industry at the entry level (whose low starter salaries bring down the average). This gels with other findings: compared to 2011, respondents with 0-3 years experience grew by 10%.

SEO salary survey

Upon further reflection, we think that this influx of entry level Search Professionals is downstream from a number of factors that have coalesced in the industry and ushered new professionals into the fold.

First, increasingly, organizations are recognizing the business opportunities in search. Some of this is about a Marketing maturation for industries, marked by a general shift into digital, and some of it may be about a circling back to the search channel post placing big bets on the latest and greatest digital technique that didn’t quite pan out to the degree they would have liked.

For example, look at it from a user behavior perspective. According to Forrester Research, search is the number one channel users turn to for finding websites:

popular channel bar chart

Looking at it from a traffic perspective, data from Shareaholic shows that organic search is the number one source of website traffic, eclipsing all social networks and direct traffic combined by a healthy margin:

organic search distribution

It’s clear that organic search eclipses all other channels when it comes to traffic, but according to Hubspot, it’s also the best performing when it comes to conversions, outperforming Paid Search two fold and social media by 4X:

SEO outperforms paid graph

The result of these factors is that the demand for SEO professionals has increased dramatically.

demand for SEO chart

As demand for SEO professionals has increased, supply has risen to meet demand. SEO professionals on Linked-In increased by 286% from 2011 to 2013.

SEOs on LinkedIn

This has partially been driven by the low barriers to entry to the field—there is a near endless supply of freely available materials on the web, in all shapes, sizes and forms for someone motivated to learn the industry.


The new SEO can also easily set up their own site and use freely available tools to tinker with it, never receiving training or oversight.

Google tools

Conclusion: Average Salary Decline May Reflect a Migration Move to the Industry

At first glance the SEMPO salary survey seemed to be a dark rain cloud, with the news that digital marketers are making less on average. But deeper analysis shows there might actually be a silver lining. The average salary decline is likely due to an influx of entry level SEOs entering the industry, bringing down the overall average salary. This influx is likely driven by increased recognition of search’s value as a sales and marketing channel.

How does that line up with what you are seeing?