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NEW DATA FROM MARKETINGSHERPA’S ANNUAL Search Marketing Benchmark Guide found that while most search marketers think they get the most bang for their buck with Google, ROI expectations for their investments with Yahoo, MSN and Ask’s search offerings are on the rise.

This June and July, the Rhode Island-based research firm surveyed more than 3,000 marketers online and followed up with a select few for a more in-depth analysis of their responses. MarketingSherpa split the respondents into groups according to their search ad spending, with average spenders (between $5,000 and $10,000 annually) making up the majority at 60%–and big spenders (over $25,000) coming in at 19%.

Average spenders were most likely to view Google’s search dominance as well-deserved, as 84% said that the search giant delivered “the best ROI for search dollars,” compared to 76% of big spenders.

A majority of both large and smaller advertisers seemed to have faith in Yahoo’s ability to innovate, and believed the Web giant would snag more of their budgets within the year. Some 60% of big spenders believed that Yahoo’s Panama advancements would “pay off with a higher share of SEM budgets in the next 12 months,” with average spenders following closely behind at 55%.

Just under half of the big spenders (48%) thought that improvements to MSN’s adCenter would increase its search budget share within 12 months, followed by 42% of average spenders. Meanwhile, Ask’s new 3D interface was popular with big spenders, 40% of whom said that the engine would likely garner a greater chunk of search budgets in the coming year. In contrast, only 24% of average spenders thought that Ask’s 3D upgrade would pay off with more search share–possibly because they may not have as much cash to spend on content like rich media or video.

In terms of marketing tactics that produced the best ROI, 25% of all respondents ranked email campaigns using an in-house list as the strongest tool, followed by SEO with 18%, and paid search with 16%. In contrast, print and display ads came in at 4% and 3%, respectively.

But determining the true value of organic search is still a gray area for many businesses, as some 21% of respondents said that it was “hard to gauge” the return on SEO investments, compared to only 8% and 9% who said the same of email and paid search, respectively.

Hiring an in-house search pro also seemed to be somewhat problematic, as almost a third of all respondents (30%) said that it was “very difficult” to hire an in-house SEO specialist. 21% said the same about recruiting an SEM manager, 19% said it would be “very difficult” to hire someone just for PPC campaigns, and 12% said the same about bringing in a campaign analyst.

“It’s a tough market for in-house search employers, partly because of the market’s inherent growth, but also because the field affords a lot of mobility,” said Stefan Tornquist, research director, MarketingSherpa. “There are new companies expanding, and people can go do the same thing for them and get a 15-20% bump in pay.”

Tornquist also said that the high demand for skilled search marketers paves the way for many pros to open their own firms or make other, more lucrative moves. “Once people get the skill, and learn how to effectively drive traffic, they can start a string of affiliate sites, manage part time and collect a tidy sum.”