Recently, our search engine marketing (SEM) agency, Anvil Media, was up against a competitor for a piece of business. It was one of the rare situations in which we were notified that the company selected the other SEM vendor. I inquired as to the reasoning behind the decision, and was surprised by the response. The prospective client believed the competing SEM vendor’s structure (a silo approach) was more appealing than Anvil’s fully-integrated account management approach. I was frustrated that the final decision wasn’t made based on relevant experience, testimonials or case studies illustrating our quality of service and results, and decided to share my thoughts as to why the fully-integrated approach is more effective than the specialized approach.

Let’s start with a definition of fully-integrated vs. specialized approach to SEM. Anvil Media’s fundamental philosophy is that SEM should be managed by a team that understands all elements, including search engine optimization (SEO), pay-per-click (PPC) and social media marketing. Alternatively, the silo philosophy dictates that SEM services should be performed by professionals that specialize in one of the three disciplines: SEO, PPC or social media. While some would argue each philosophy has its benefits, I would argue that there is a clear winner, based on my 12 years of SEM experience.

Specialization is Unnecessary

Whether in-house or in an agency environment, most interactive marketing teams are segmented by specialization: design, Web development, copywriting, SEM, account management, etc. Due to the differences in education, focus and personalities, these disciplines rarely mix well, but are required to get the job done. For example, a good designer or writer is rarely an effective account or relationship manager. A good programmer is rarely a good designer.

With SEM, however, the skills and talents required to be good at SEO, PPC or social media are not divergent. A good SEM professional should be comfortable with marketing, communications and technology, but the nuances between SEO and PPC are subtle enough that they can be managed effectively by the same person.

Specialization is Counter-Productive

Agencies or in-house teams at larger corporations typically create specialized roles for SEO and PPC, with the thought that it creates efficiencies. While this methodology has been effective in creating an industrial economy, I’m not convinced it creates better results in a knowledge economy. The specialization typically results in the building of silos and potential animosity. My experience in 5 multi-disciplinary agencies (traditional full-service and interactive) demonstrated that if you have a fixed budgets and specialized teams, they will fight over the budgets to defend their fiefdom and justify their existence, as if they were competing companies.

It’s very unusual for an agency or corporate environment to effectively manage multi-disciplinary teams towards a common goal, especially in the current economic conditions where layoffs are a daily occurrence. Even with the best intentions in a well-functioning cross-disciplinary team, the additional layer of communication and management required hinders effective management. The right hand may not know what the left hand is doing, which rarely adds up to a successful effort.

Specialization hinders Return-on-Investment

When you have too many cooks in the kitchen, people can get burned. In the case of SEM, if someone is taught to market a company with only one set of tools, they get a myopic view of what success looks like, and how to get there. PPC specialists tend to frown at SEO specialists, and vice versa, even though both offer tremendous value.

A team’s lack of understanding of fundamental SEO, PPC or social media marketing strategies can drastically hinder a campaign’s performance. For example, a SEO specialist may determine a keyword is too competitive to achieve a high ranking in organic results, but may not have the knowledge, support or infrastructure to do anything about it. Similarly, a PPC specialist may find that a keyword is too expensive to purchase, but is unable to collaborate with an SEO specialist. Essentially, the success of an SEM campaign in a specialized environment depends on management’s ability to oversee strategy, communication and training.

A truly integrated SEO and PPC effort requires a deep understanding of human behavior, website usability, analytics and how SEM strategies and tactics intertwine to create optimal ROI. Unless your SEM team is effectively cross-trained and properly motivated to communicate and integrate, you can all but guarantee your SEM efforts are under-performing.