SEO University: Should Academia Be Our Standard?

Recently, the SEO industry debated whether or not we need standards as part of our profession’s requirements. You may have heard about it. I made a bored face. It does not seem viable that any real restrictions could be put on an online industry like this, but I wonder about the pros and cons of introducing SEO as an academic field in which one can earn a college degree. Let’s look at these advantages and disadvantages:

Advantages

  1. Official training. This is a given within accredited colleges and accounts for everything from my degree in English (I am officially licensed to write good and do other stuff good too) to the certifications given to surgeons.
  2. Certified instructors. With university courses come teachers. These are people who (generally) know a lot about their subject and can impart it in an efficient fashion.
  3. Trusted knowledge. I’d like to think that between two and four years of structured learning would take care of the basics of SEO and a lot more besides. Training new SEO employees would no longer be necessary.
  4. The Idiot Recession. Total dimwits can’t call themselves doctors. Requiring some certification might elimiate some of them within SEO.

Disadvantages.

  1. Money. Not everyone can afford to go to university and those who do often end up paying for it for a large portion of the rest of their lives. College educations can be hideously expensive and beyond the means of many people. At present, this expense doesn’t stop a person from becoming extremely successful in our industry. It seems criminal to threaten that.
  2. Snobbery. I’m not sure this extends beyond the United States and Britain (it probably does, but it doesn’t seem to affect my native New Zealand), but have you heard what graduates of the University of Random State will say about the graduates of Random State University? Adding degree programmes in SEO is a definitive way to make our cliquey, infuriating industry even worse.
  3. Standardisation can kill ingenuity. If too many institutions establish a “correct way” of doing something (and universities are excellent at this), innovation can be stifled as non-standard and thus incorrect.
  4. A lack of qualified teachers. Danny Dover, a colleague of mine at SEOmoz, is currently enrolled at the University of Washington. He recently commented about how little true web development education was available at UW, a large, respected state college. He and I are both relatively sure that one of the reasons for this is that great web developers are still developing. Few have yet to progress to teaching, and becoming a web dev teacher is not yet understood as an accepted profession, whereas teaching geology or French is a normal aspiration.
  5. Bastardisation. Following on from a lack of qualified teachers, universities will throw non-SEOs at SEO classes. A print-marketer or an IT specialist isn’t necessarily qualified to teach SEO, but do you remember the awful Teacher’s Assistant who taught your Biology session in your second year? The one who knew less than you did? Imagine that person in charge of teaching the difference between robots.txt exclusion and the meta noindex tag and in which situation you should use either.
  6. Limitation. Even if SEO had been an option when I was choosing a college major, I doubt I would have picked it. Forcing or even encouraging people to obtain a degree in a subject before embarking in a corresponding profession limits the people the industry will eventually obtain. This isn’t a certainty: I’ve often heard that the subject of one’s degree rarely dictates their career path and that is definitely true for me. I spent four years being an obsessive wordsmith and analysing seventeenth century plays. Now I read .htaccess files and find well-executed CSS replacement delicious. Peter Chilson, you were the best teacher I ever had and I am truly sorry for what I’ve become ;)

I’ve spoken to several people who graduated with marketing and advertising degrees (in New Zealand) who learned about SEO during college. On a superficial level, it seems like regulating SEO by introducing it into collegiate environments is a great idea, but are those benefits worth the significant and undesirable disadvantages? Is it better to put up with the idiots (your junk mail folder confirms that we have quite a few of them) and accept that Julie and I have degrees in English, Rand is one semester away from a degree in Finance and that I’d be even better at what I do if I’d spent the years between 2002 and 2006 ranking websites rather than doing my Modern British Lit homework?

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31 Responses to “SEO University: Should Academia Be Our Standard?”

  1. SEO Hack says:

    lookit. i already gave you people SEO Standards (http://worstseoblogever.wordpress.com/2008/04/01/you-want-seo-standards-well-here-ya-go/) and since i have yet to receive bullion or oxen, it appears all you all are ignoring them. so i have to go set up an seo course and shit? sheeesh!

    i think your pluses illustrate why we don’t need an SEO track in college as much as your negatives do.

  2. Perhaps it will start as it did with most others, a single class on the subject and then a few more classes added on. Perhaps there will be a degree or perhaps not but I think it would be cool to have at least some basic training out there. Coding and languages evolve all the time but the basic principles of writing code stay much the same. I think SEO can be viewed in the same sense.

  3. Yura says:

    Nicely put.

    Practically, I think that at the moment, real SEOs are teaching at conferences (which we have plenty) and there are too few great SEOs that’d have time and desire to teach in universities, if any.

    Maybe we need to figure out the problem(s) why people clamour for SEO universities:
    - too many people without SEO knowledge claim they do know a lot and do not meet expectations
    - inexperienced SEOs don’t set the right expectations either
    - there are so many managers/CEOs who hire their daughters to do their websites and who hire quacks and call them VP of Marketing, that there need to be better business management classes before there are any SEO classes. Every manager, who doesn’t know SEO, should get a SEO consultant to get good hires. Or at least attempt to look for good SEOs in trusted places/get references from real experts with proven results.

    Clearly, SEO universities won’t fix these problems, so when we do have some government organization enforce rules to SEO by, we’ll all screech for liberties, lack of control, creativity in new SEO hires, etc.

    Maybe the government should enforce the laws for fraud and apply it to shady SEOs, but given their knowledge of SEO and inability to differentiate between lying and not meeting high expectations, we’d rather simply resort to educating the uneducated.

    Thus, I suggest we wait it out.

  4. David Temple says:

    IMHO there will never, I repeat never, be standards for seo despite the occasional clamor. Sure there are some universal truths about seo but change is what’s it’s all about and that’s why people like you and I love it. Even with your official training you write that you’re “licensed to write good”. C’mon Jane, tell the truth, education don’t mean nothing.

  5. Peter Young says:

    Would probably add the lag factor to your list.

    From my memories of uni (albeit 8 or so years ago), they were considerably behind the times (in internet terms – 2 or years) in terms of what was being taught in comparison to commercial requirements.

    With something like search, where trends and factors are so changeable and the marketplace itself open to new factors on an almost constant basis (social networks/blended search etc), I can’t help thinking that such a lag would cause some issues.

    All the same, I can’t help thinking some appreciation of enterprise level search marketing wouldnt go amiss, if only to reduce the amounts of Joe Bloggs in his garage operations….

  6. Jane says:

    Thanks for your comments everyone! And David, you know I’m licensed to abuse the language too, right? Because I was kidding ;) Although I used “ain’t” in all seriousness on the SEOmoz blog yesterday… I find that word and “y’all” far to appealing for someone who did not grow up in the States, let alone in its South.

  7. Julie Joyce says:

    Nothing has prepared me for SEO like reading some Lord Byron…

  8. Julie Joyce says:

    I am the only person on this blog allowed to use y’all bee tee dubya.

    Seriously…my background is in English lit, anthropology, and social work, THEN came the technical bits. There’s absolutely no way that I could have learned what I’ve learned about SEO by taking classes on it.

  9. Dan Perry says:

    I can’t imagine that it won’t eventually be widespread at universities. I doubt it will be SEO-specific, but it will become a piece of an Online Marketing program.

    It’s already hit the online schools (http://www.rasmussen.edu/internetmarketing/Program/im-associates-degree.asp) and is even at the Bachelor and Masters level (http://www.careercollegecentral.com/node/434).

    Yes, the change is why we love it, but that doesn’t mean best practices can’t be taught. Even if some best practices are conflicting, both sides of the issue can be taught.

    Bottom Line: If people want it, academia will teach it.

  10. Rick says:

    Shouldn’t the decision to hire an SEO be made solely upon what that SEO has achieved?

    Certifications may help a person land a corporate SEO position, but there’s only one question worth asking when considering an SEO consultant/firm:

    * What have you done, and what were the results? *

    I certainly don’t ask for a resume that may tout SEO-related academic training.

    Furthermore, technology-oriented classes (especially at the university level) are notorious for being “behind the times.”

  11. Rick says:

    By the way, I agree with Dan Perry, Universities will most likely implement general “Online Marketing” classes into their curriculum. There’s certainly nothing wrong with learning best practices, but Academia will always fall short when trying to teach the nuances of Google’s algorithm changes, good/bad links, etc.

  12. Standards are not about certification, although you cannot have credible certification without standards.

    Academia could develop some credible SEO programs by working with industry advisory councils (many technical schools and universities do actually work with such groups).

    The teachers would pretty much have to learn as they go (and I took Computer Science from a faculty who were learning CS from Georgia Tech one quarter and reteaching it to us the next — it was an interesting educational experience). Still, you could find qualified learner/teachers in Information Retrieval Science, Marketing, and Web Design who could focus on the strengths those disciplines offer to search engine optimization.

    The most likely problem to arise from the early years of an academic program would be the reinforcement of nonsense concepts (like “Links are endorsements” — absolute rubbish) until enough research was published to clean out the bilgewater ideas.

    On the other hand, a lot of search-engine research is already being published. It wouldn’t take much effort for people in those other academic disciplines to start publishing research on search optimization. Creating a body of research for the field first would probably help it evolve without some of the nonsense that is coming out of the universities today.

  13. Jane says:

    Michael, Dan and Rick,

    Thanks for your thoughts! I agree that it will begin to infiltrate certain programmes more frequently, and my friends’ experience with some marketing courses overseas certainly confirms that.

    Interesting point about the correlation of being taught and re-teaching content. Since this is often how knowledge works in the workplace, it is probably a good way to have newer subjects spread throughout an academic field. I suppose we already have Teaching Assistants at most schools (and contrary to what I seem to say in my post, most of them were just fine at my college!)

  14. David Temple says:

    Jane, that’s my point exactly. So you go to school, learn all the rules and then in real life do what you please. Okay to make this relevant let’s say you get your seo learnin’ at the U and have a fancy seo or online marketing degree. Then you go work for SEOmoz and guess what, you rarely use what you got from that fancy book learnin’ cause mozzers are light years ahead of what was being taught.

    Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for seo/sem training after all I am the SEM Scholar, lol. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking there will ever be any seo standards, so the whole point is moot.

  15. I have my doubts over SEO ever becoming a full time course though it can be offered it as part time alternative course in universities. But may be a more processed course in Internet Marketing and SEO can be offered

  16. CJ says:

    Thank you for a very interesting article Jane.

    I think that having a degree is a really good start, it teaches you to persevere with something, pick up new things quickly, write at length and accurately, read a lot of things, research different topics and ever go abroad for a year.

    Arguably you could get this from going directly into an seo job, but I think that at 18-22, it’s good to be in an environment where you get a lot of support and also meet a lot of different people your own age and also have a good time.

    I’ve taught at Uni as part of my PhD (it’s a requirement), and I know that undergrads are mostly a bit lost when they first turn up. They start to settled down in the second year, and by the end of it, they’re ready to go out in business, but for a lot of them it will be a shock. A good thing though.

    I just think that the Uni environment is good for growth, and good for learning stuff you don’t learn in business like writing a dissertation with full references. It helps when you start writing SEO reports and so on. Nothing is daunting after the dissertation module!

    Also in computing, some will go on research programs like PhD’s and working IR, AI, and digital libraries. I come from this background and it’s really helped me in my SEO work. Without a degree I would never have had that opportunity.

    I do however think that coming from a related background to SEO is invaluable. Studying marketing, computing, or business can really give you a good background for SEO. Learning SEO after that means that it now has a context. And the skills they’ve learnt can also be applied, which means you have SEO people from different backgrounds, capable of doing the same job, but with different perspectives on things. That’s cool, I love working with people like that. We learn from each other.

    This of course applies to the junior people coming into the profession. The more senior amongst us have a wealth of professional experience to draw from.

    cj

  17. In my opinion, I think it’s better for now that SEO will be taught only on conferences…probably we can start learning it in university later if we have a clearer idea or definition of what SEO is and what are the things that encompases it.

  18. Chewie says:

    I think the whole idea of SEO academia is something that could probably be taught in university, but just like web development it is still MILES away from real life.

    I know people who have done web development courses at Uni, i even know of agencies that go into uni’s a teach a module on SEO. Each time the people say that it wasn’t exactly what they expected and from what i can tell, they would have probably benefit more just going straight into a web dev/marketing/pr job like most of us did.

    I didn’t go to Uni so maybe my view is bias, but i think that in terms of SEO then we should stay away from Academia.

  19. Terry Howard says:

    I’ve always thought there were two camps of people who could benefit from an “internet marketing degree”. The SEO coders of the world who can make anything rank, but lack the guidance of what they SHOULD rank in order to balance branding and ROI. Then you have your traditional marketing professionals who are really smart at the big picture concepts but lack the vocabulary or base of knowledge to instruct their IT and development teams on how to deploy their strategies.

    As well, I’ve never found much value is perceiving SEO as a bag of ever changing tricks. SEO is best when done with a core methodology that achieves purposeful goals and the results of are measured in a meaningful manner. The flavor of the week strategy is directionless without that base. That’s what a structured learning environment can instill. Any superstar SEO could benefit from learning how to incorporate projections, budgeting, branding and various other marketing competencies into their skillset.

  20. Dave G says:

    Learning SEO in college would be a waste of 4 years and tens of thousands of dollars because everything you learned would be antiquated shortly after you leave. At most, SEO should be an elective. To call yourself a university-trained-SEO would be ridiculous.

    If you want university education to aid in SEO, study the skills that go into it, e.g., writing, marketing, programming, math, design, etc.

  21. seo blog says:

    The whole idea of SEO academia probably can’t be tought in a class room. It changes to much and would go out of date before the end of a single class

  22. Mike says:

    Those who can do, those who can’t teach.

    Especially in such a money-driven industry as SEO, which means the only teachers will be failed/crap SEOs.

  23. I always think of it as more of a “critical thinking” gig thana practical guide to how to do a job.

    I mean, they don’t teach lawyers how to win cases or anything – they teach them how to understand and interpret the law and the like. It’s not an exact how-to guide but more of teaching the skills which will be brought to bear in a situation.

    So really could not SEO be “taught” through simply understanding how and why and whatnot and leave the actual learning to the first appointment after graduation?

    Or should I stop watching reruns of “Legally Blonde” on TV…?

  24. [...] a posting on SEOchick, Jane Copeland weighed out the pros and cons of an SEO degree in, SEO University: Should Academia Be Our Standard?  Looking at her breakdown, there are definitely more cons to SEO becoming an academic [...]

  25. Colleen says:

    Perhaps if we included an SEO course into Web Development curriculum, I could talk about more complex problems to web developers rather then have to explain to them why it’s probably not a good idea to create a site 100% in flash or AJAX.

    As far as time and money go, I’m more than happy to teach that class if it means the entire SEO community will enable them to place their energy into other SEO practices.

    Also, maybe SEO shouldn’t be centered around web developers, maybe it should centered around writers?

  26. Perhaps it will start as it did with most others, a single class on the subject and then a few more classes added on. Perhaps there will be a degree or perhaps not but I think it would be cool to have at least some basic training out there.

  27. Kelly says:

    Maybe one day they will offer this in a college course.

  28. Kelly says:

    With as many business today needing SEO and GOOD Search Engine Optimization at that, some sort of formal education to set a standard is a must. Otherwise we’ll have 100 people telling the same client 100 different things, and it’s quite possible none of them are right.

    It’s why we have licensed plumbers and electricians.

    We should probably have licensed SEO people.

  29. [...] blog post by Jane Copland, a blogger and ex-SEOmoz employee, she addresses the advantages and disadvantages [...]

  30. Jane Copland says:

    Hi Kelly,

    It’s still a point of contention whether this would actually work, and Jon Henshaw did a nice job today of talking about why he would not be for industry certification: http://raventools.com/blog/seo-certification-is-stupid/

    This certainly isn’t the same as general training, and I definitely don’t agree with the vigilante activity that tends to go on in the SEO world regarding things that the loudest community members don’t like, even if they are in the right. However, in the years since I wrote this post, I’ve competed in some very difficult markets for rankings. There is no way that companies trying to rank for terms like [poker] or [insurance] would see fit to adhere to rules defined in their licenses. They’d likely do themselves a disservice if they did.

    SEO is very different to plumbing, and norms apply to both industries that don’t apply to the other. I don’t think you can compare them when deciding what should be licensed. And as Jon says in his piece, “People are going to do stupid things, regardless of whether or not they are certified.”

  31. Andriene Lindsay says:

    Hi there,
    I wondered if any of you are interested in doing some private work? I’d really like to get someone to do some SEO stuff for me as I really do not have the time or professionals to do it. Please email me.
    Thank you
    Andriene

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