Getting an SEO Education

Unlike western medicine, SEO is mostly “self-taught.” Students read books and articles, visit SEO forums and attend conferences, and then apply what they learn to their sites. They observe the results, tweak, and repeat the cycle. Is there a better way to learn the subject?

Before I give an answer, I’m going to give you two caveats. The first one is that search engine optimization as a practice is little more than a decade old; as a profession apart from being a webmaster, it is even younger. While there are currently a few certifications in the field, they are not universally recognized in the same way as a diploma from an accredited medical school.

The second one is that I’m hardly an SEO practitioner myself, aside from researching the field and writing appropriate content. I don’t actually do any significant work with HTML, I don’t study keywords, I’ve never tried to conduct a pay-per-click campaign, and most of what I’m going to talk about here is stuff I learned second hand.

But I have been watching the field closely for the past three years, and I’ve seen a certain “maturation” taking place. I hear a lot of real concern expressed about SEO scam artists, and I see a lot of people who are new to the field struggling to learn. Some have been calling for some kind of universally-recognized certification. At the end of 2005, Randfish lamented the lack of training opportunities available in the industry. The story has changed some since then, but you always have to wonder which ones to take seriously.

Let me illustrate this point. Google the phrase “SEO education” without quotes and you’ll get 1,180,000 hits. Try it with “SEO classes” and you’ll see 543,000 hits. Another likely combination, “SEO training,” yields 614,000 hits. And “SEO certification” gives you 238,000 hits, including a first-page placement for an SEO Chat article from 2005 wondering whether such certifications are a necessity, myth, or scam. Aside from the SEO Chat article, how do you know which entries to trust?

Until there are courses and/or certifications recognized by all the search engines, would-be SEOs will have to continue learning the field in a variety of ways, including, most importantly, in the school of experience. But there are more options out there now than there used to be. In this article I hope to bring a few to your attention that you might not have known about before.

{mospagebreak title=Factors to Consider}

When you think about your educational options in SEO and SEM, there are a number of factors you should consider. First, of course, is how much you already know. If you’ve been playing around with your own web site and experimenting with a few things to see if you can get it to rank better in the SERPs, you probably know more than you think. That’s especially true if you’ve been hanging around in SEO forums for a while, reading SEO-related articles, and perhaps even picked up a book on the topic (ebook or dead tree version). A beginning course on SEO is likely to be a waste of time, effort, and money for you. A more advanced course, on the other hand, or a conference, might be just what you need.

A second factor to consider is your learning style. Do you like to learn things quietly by yourself, perhaps on a computer? Or do you do better with a one-on-one instructor? Perhaps you enjoy a small classroom, with the opportunities for interaction and everybody getting the chance to voice their ideas. Or maybe you crave excitement and would relish the opportunity to meet a large group of people, all focused on the same kinds of things, with several instructors offering different approaches based on their differing experiences. And you’d be thrilled to come back from a few days of intense learning, energized and eager to apply what you heard.

The third factor you’ll need to consider is your budget. Some ebooks available on SEO are free of charge; others cost quite a bit. Some online courses on SEO are relatively inexpensive; others run $2,000 or more. Conferences are often expensive, but sometimes you can try to arrange some kind of discount (there are some that offer “scholarship” programs). Whichever option you choose, remember that getting an education in SEO is an ongoing process; no one is going to ever be able to teach you everything, because the Internet is always changing, and the search engines are always adjusting their algorithms right along with it.

{mospagebreak title=Going to College}

In 2006 (judging from the copyright on the page), Internet marketing company Vertical Measures decided to track down the top college level courses for both search engine marketing and search engine optimization. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t as easy as we had hoped,” they noted wryly. They did multiple, appropriate searches for .edu sites on both Google and Yahoo using relevant keywords. Then they narrowed the list by finding out which organizations offered a quality SEO or SEM curriculum.

They came up with a list of 19 schools with quality SEO/SEM offerings. I can’t speak to whether these offerings all still exist, but I would be surprised if they did not, given the growth in this field. Each of the entries in the list links back to the educational organization’s web site, so you can check them out for yourself. It’s worth noting that not all of these institutions are accredited, if that matters to you.

Some of the institutions that earn praise for their curriculum come as no surprise. George Mason University’s Search Engine Marketing curriculum is said to provide “a high level of coverage including in depth courses in Search Engine Optimization, Pay Per Click Marketing and Web Site Copywriting.” For $1,895 you can expect to spend 250 hours (one year, really) on the class – not counting homework. It’s an online course; you’ll receive 32 downloadable PDF lessons totaling nearly 600 pages, 26 assignments, and truly extensive online resources.

Indiana University offers an introductory SEM course. It appears to be on-site, though the materials are all available on the web (and the links to material in the syllabus still appear to be active).

I was pleased to see that my old alma mater, Rutgers University, also offers an SEM course that Vertical Measures believed should be rated “one of the best.” It appears to be very similar to the one offered at George Mason University.

The University of Alabama at Huntsville offers two courses, one on SEO and one on SEM. These are distinct online courses, with the SEM class taking up more time and costing more than the SEO course. Both of them have the goal of getting their students in the position of being able to open their own business or apply for a job as an SEO or SEM.

{mospagebreak title=Other Educational Options}

Most of the courses listed above are for Continuing Education Units; they’re not really college credit for graduation. If you don’t feel like your education needs to come from a college, there are other options available. Dan Thies is known in the industry and offers a selection of SEO and SEM courses. He starts you off with a free ebook, available for download. He offers two other training programs, “From Amateur to Expert” and “From Expert to Professional.” He also offers a personal coaching program. It looks as if the bulk of his courses are online.

Bruce Clay offers an impressive selection of courses, including a series that can lead to certification. These appear to be a combination of classes offered over several days at their California facility, followed by several months of course work online. Special training is offered in the areas of Internet marketing, SEO, PPC, web analytics, SEO web design, and online branding.

The SEMPO Institute offers three SEO-related courses, ranging in price from $399 for the basic course to $1,399 for the most advanced course. All courses are offered online. There is no instructor; you’re simply interacting with the course materials. But if you’re self-motivated, and like working on your own, this kind of course may be the best approach.

If you already have a good basic background in SEO, and you can afford it, you might want to consider going to one of the large search marketing conferences. Search Engine Strategies (SES) holds conferences all over the world; there’s a big one in New York City every year. This year it will be held March 17-20. With five tracks of sessions offered most days, you’re sure to get an education; the only problem will be figuring out how to keep up with it all!

If you’re looking for one-on-one instruction, or at least instruction in smaller groups than you’d find at a large conference, SES also offers search training workshops. Their next one will be held on May 6, in Denver, Colorado. At the time of this writing, their agenda had not yet been determined.

I hope I’ve let you know about some possibilities you were unaware of before for continuing your SEO education. Good luck!

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