SEO Certification: Necessity, Myth, or Scam?

Just the other day, I ran across an ad for a website that piqued my curiosity. It said, “Receive your SEO Certification in just 6 hours.” I’d never heard of SEO Certification. Thinking that perhaps I’d missed out somehow on certification, I decided to do some research before I panicked.

I ran a search for “SEO Certification”, and many sites came up. There was one in particular that stood out to me. I followed the link in the search results, and began to read.

From their website:

“Our courses are backed by the United States educational system. All of our material, exams, and the education program itself have to be approved by the University. Our courses can even be taken for University CEUs. Our certification means something. We have a governing body looking over our shoulder.” This sounded good enough, but I wanted to look at it a little closer. After all, anyone can hang a sign on their virtual door stating that they’re offering ‘certification’ in search engine optimization. But what does that really mean? Who is backing the certification?

United States Educational System

“Our courses are back by the United States educational system…”

I went to the US Department of Education’s website, and looked for any information on these courses. Even with the advanced search option, I could find nothing regarding search marketing on the government’s website. I also checked their database of nationally accredited institutions, and couldn’t find them there, either. Then again, I don’t know which University they are referring to, because they never actually say. I couldn’t research this deeper until I found out which University they were referring to.

“All of our material, exams, and the education program itself have to be approved by the University. Our courses can even be taken for University CEUs.”

Which University are they referring to? CEUs are the industry measurement of non-credit education, counting for 10 contact hours of participation, or a measure of completion of non-credit professional development learning activities by an approved provider. This is generally referring to workforce training. Most Continuing Education classes are classified as “non-credit” and are geared specifically to the special interests of the community. Subject areas could include personal development, recreation, creative arts, and health and fitness, to name a few. My local community college offers CEUs in quilting. No, I am not joking.

“According to research, business owners want and need SEO services, but would rather have the expertise in-house than to outsource it. With local SEO training, you offer a solution to a growing problem and since your company has received Search Engine Optimization certification by the Academy, you build trust.”

So, I checked out this Academy to see if I could assess which University this was from. After scouring the website, I still couldn’t come up with a name. Finally, after digging around on one of their sister sites, I found the answer: The University of Southern Mississippi. It took me a while to find USM’s Continuing Education Units program, but I finally did. Yes, indeed, there it was: Search Marketing under the category of Internet and Web Programming. There are two courses: the basics, and then the advanced. You cannot attend USM, however, for these courses. They must be taken through the original site that offers the certification.

The way this course transpires is interesting. Basically, you have a 2-day training course, which is mostly emailed newsletters, or an occasional conference call. They claim that you will learn as much in 2 days as you would in a full week-long course. The CEU program at USM is self paced over 16 weeks, with eight lessons.

Another very interesting thing is what the Academy site is actually selling. “You will be given your own exclusive territory to offer Search Engine Optimization training services.” So they are really selling the ability to sell SEO training and certification to others. In other words, you’d be certified to certify others? It could just mean that you’d just be a sales representative; territory to me means the area in which you are designated to sell a product.

Ok, there’s nothing wrong with setting up a promotional website so that you can sell your product, and get others to help you do it. I guess what I find disturbing is that certification is something that is desired to be achieved on an individual level, and not “sold” to the consumer. Maybe I’m wrong.

After doing even more research, I found there are a lot of companies out there that offer “SEO certification”. The one above, however, is the only one I could find that is backed by an accredited educational institution.

I viewed another popular optimization website that offers SEO certification. However, they do state that this certification is not an industry standard, but rather “…it does indicate that as an SEO specialist, you have set a personal standard for yourself.” After checking out this certification training program, I have found that it is very expensive, plus, you have to travel to California . There are no online options for this certification.

What are the “tuition” costs are involved? Course studies range from $189 to $895, and certification can cost you from $995 to several thousand dollars. Most usually require an annual membership fee as well.

cer·ti·fy:

  • To confirm formally as true, accurate, or genuine.
  • To guarantee as meeting a standard: butter that was certified Grade A.

I am a certified Nortel technician. Not a lot of people know this, only because I decided that I didn’t like the telecommunications industry, and changed my career soon after receiving my certification. My Nortel certification forced me to travel to Dallas , Texas for several weeks. I had intense, hands-on learning courses, with nerve-wracking tests every step of the way. When I was finished, I received my certification from Nortel Networks, Inc.

There are two aspects of the certification process that I want to point out:

1. There was a definite right versus wrong way to do things. If I entered incorrect code into the programming module of a Nortel system, then telephone systems or voice mail would not work correctly. If I answered a question incorrectly on a test, I would fail that particular question; if I answered enough questions incorrectly, then I would fail the test. If I failed enough tests, then I would flunk the course.

How can you certify something that doesn’t have an established right or wrong way to do things? If you are a CPA, or certified public accountant, then there is a right way of doing things, and that right way is often the legal way. The wrong way could land you in financial difficulties, for you or your client (or worst case, prison).

There are definite no-nos in the SEO industry, that’s for sure. There are definite right ways to do things, but even if you happen to agree with other professionals, there are still no guarantees. Every SEO that I speak with has a differing opinion on something that should be done, and it even varies in regards to every search engine.

2. The certification is from a trusted authority, and that authority is actually able to issue the certification because Nortel sets the standard in this case, as they created the product.

So, who is setting the standards for the SEO certification? The search engines? No, I don’t think so. Simply put, search engines do not have any relationships with search marketing firms in that respect. It wouldn’t make the search results completely objective, now would it? In order for certification to be valid, it must be genuine in accordance with the industry standards.

While we are on the subject of industry standards, let’s talk about those for a moment. What are the industry standards in SEO? There are none. There are basics that fundamentally do not change, but even these basics are not the same today as they were even two or three years ago. So, if even the basics change from time to time, can this be something that one can be trained, tested, and certified on?

What would be required in order to grant certification of a sort in Search Engine Optimization?

1. Every search engine would have to operate fundamentally the same, or all search engine diversions are covered in the training, and that training should be kept up to date.

Mike McEwan talked about the diversity of search engines in his article Search Engine Overlap and Divergence. What this should indicate is that there are huge differences in the way the major search engines operate. It is the job of the SEO to understand these diversities, and compile an optimization strategy that covers them all.

I am finding it difficult that you could get all of that down in two days. SEO is a constant learning process, and training continues all the time. I worry that people will achieve their “certification” and not keep up on the changes with the search engines. While this is a concern with any SEO firm, the danger is higher when a certification sticker is there. It may lull the consumer into a false sense of security.

2. Search engines would need to authorize and recognize the certification as valid.

Let’s take the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) program. After an intense several days in a Microsoft approved training center, and usually after 6-8 exams, MCSE applicants that pass receive their MCSE certification. This certification is recognized by Microsoft as being genuine. Let’s break this down a little. The “product” is the Operating System, Network Administration, MySQL Database, or whatever the certification has been issued for. The “product’s manufacturer” would be Microsoft, as they created the “product,” as well as the standards for certification.

With SEO certification, I would have to believe that certification would be authorized or at least recognized by the search engines in question. When you are certified, you are genuinely approved to operate, sell, repair, administer, or educate about a product, as outlined by the product’s manufacturer. Let’s look at a few more examples:

  • If a teacher is certified, then he or she is able to teach a “product”: a school curriculum. The certification is issued by the “product’s manufacturer,” or in this case the school district or the state’s school administration. The school district or the state’s school administration has the ability to offer certification, because they created the product and the standards by which the product adheres. They are also able to authorize training centers to offer certification under their tutelage.

  • A certified Harley Davidson mechanic is genuinely able to repair a “product”: Harley Davidson motorcycles. The certification is issued by the “product’s manufacturer,” in this case, Harley Davidson. Harley Davidson sets the standards by which training and certification occur, and can approve the training centers where people could be certified.

  • A CPA is a certified public account. He or she is able to administer and educate about the “product”: the current tax law. The certification is issued by the “product’s manufacturer,” or in this case the Internal Revenue Service. The government sets the standards and facilitates the training under an approved training center required for certification. The authorized training center in this case would be an accredited college.

Do you see where I’m going? So if you are a certified SEO, approved to operate, sell, repair, administer, or educate about a “product,” like optimization for search engines, wouldn’t the certification have to be authorized by the “product’s manufacturer,” or in this case, the search engines? So far, the search engines do not even recognize certification as being valid, let alone authorized.

3. The program must have distinct certification requirements.

If you were to get a group of SEOs together and asked them particular industry-related questions, I would be willing to bet that you would receive several different responses, and even opposing points of view.

If you were to receive your certification in an area that causes controversy about methodology even among professional SEO’s, then it would have to include distinct qualification requirements for everyone.

4. The certification must be backed by a trusted authority.

We touched on this earlier. Usually, a trusted authority for issuing certification in an area is the “product manufacturer.” The first company that I discussed initially who offers certification is backed by the University of Southern Mississippi; however, is the University’s CEU program then backed by the product’s manufacturer? Not in the case of SEO certification. We already mentioned that search engines state they have no special relationships with anyone, and make absolutely no mention of certification.

5. Without certification, one would be less qualified to administer SEO than one who is certified.

In order for certification to mean anything, it would need to show that the person holding the certification is better qualified than one that is not certified. I have a bit of difficulty with this. If all the above conditions were met, then in order to offer SEO to my clients, I should be certified. While I have no problem with that particularly, the problem I do have is that a company (who is not authorized by the product’s manufacturer to offer certification in the first place) is telling me that I’m not qualified unless I have their certificate, or that their view of industry standards is the right way. There is no decidedly right way.

So is SEO Certification truly a necessity for SEO professionals? Or is it a myth or a scam? In my humble opinion, I believe it is a myth. However, give me a year or two then ask me the question again. I may have a different answer.

There are many companies out there that offer certification in an industry where no standard has been set as of yet. I would be wary of any certification not offered from the authorized trusted authority. While I am always for honing skills and keeping oneself up on the industry through training and learning, I would caution against the idea that you are less of an SEO professional without certification with the way the industry is currently. There is one point I want to ultimately make clear: there are no industry standards as of yet. Right now, the best certificates you can receive are the ones that starts with: “Pay to the order of…” and the other that ends with “Thank you so much.”

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