I liken SEO to the early days of medicine.
In every forum where SEOs congregate, sooner or later someone brings up one of two topics:
The discussions usually mention:
I own a very part-time business where I teach SEO and I certify some of the students as Professional SEOs. I have trained dozens of students but only two were awarded a certification. (This isn’t a pitch for that business, so there is no link to that website.)
Therefore, these discussions used to intrigue me, particularly because there is very little interest in taking up SEO training.
I began this post by likening the SEO industry to the early days of medicine. Nobody knew how the human body works, but they knew that certain actions (eating, sleeping, exercise etc) were good and others (starving, poking big holes in the torso, etc) were bad.
Then came the medicine men who found ways to cure illness. They found that eating or applying certain herbs was beneficial. It took many centuries before someone decided that this stuff needs to be written down and taught in a college to ensure repeatability and reduce the loss of innocent lives. Even today, humans haven’t fully guessed the body’s algorithms.
Are today’s SEOs comparable to witch doctors? Some can cure a ranking malady and others cannot. In these politically correct times, let’s not offend witch doctors but let’s compare SEOs with quacks. I am reminded of an old joke, modified for the SEO profession:
Q. What’s the difference between a used car salesman and an SEO?
A. The used car salesman knows when he is lying.
I’ll explain why my SEO training business is very part-time. Three years ago I left an employer after making them the then-largest SEO company in the country. (I headed that division). I can’t take credit for the large number of SEO customers – having a great sales force and a large customer base (for other products) had a lot to do with it. However, over 90% of the customers enjoyed a top-10 ranking and 94% had a top-20 ranking.
Buoyed with my own ranking success, I started an SEO training business offering a one-day SEO course and a half-day PPC course. Back then Kalena Jordan ran the only business offering SEO training, but it was online. I felt that a classroom approach also had a place in the market. Later, other companies joined the training bandwagon.
I wrote down all my acquired knowledge, partly to give myself a handy checklist for topics that I didn’t encounter very often. I regarded my course content as a short cut to learning current best practices without wasting time on outdated or ill-informed material that you will find on the web.
I invested in local print ads and AdWords. I booked a venue. There were a few nibbles but a lot of excuses – the date was not convenient. The price was too much. It sounds very technical. And so on. The course was cancelled. The remaining students were trained at their own premises.
In 2007, I went to India for a holiday and almost at the last minute a friend offered to organise a training opportunity in Pune. It was oversubscribed – a great success. Later, the training course was expanded to three days, then cut back to two days because students could not get time off.
Unfortunately, after deducting the cost of an air fare to India and charging an affordable number of Rupees, there isn’t a lot of profit left to make it an ongoing business proposition by my standards. That country is still clamouring for competent SEO training, which is a good sign, given that we in the West like to point out shoddy SEO work from some Indian SEOs. I still get 2-4 training enquiries every day from India without any advertising. I point them to my self-paced online course but very few take it up.
So, for the time being I am happy to be back in corporate, in-house SEO land. When I get an enquiry from Australia, I offer to run the course on a weekend at their premises. That’s where the interest disappears. There’s also a price war of late. I used to charge $1795 for two days but I see others offering a two-day course for less than $600. Good luck to them.
A friend who runs an SEO agency asked me an interesting question, “Why are you selling SEO training?” I asked him why this puzzled him. He could not understand why I would want to share my secrets. Perhaps he didn’t want the market to be flooded with competent SEOs – he didn’t say.
I told him that I was tired of retail SEO, having worked on nearly 2000 websites at that stage. It was a sausage factory, with sales pressures, etc. I liked the thought of being my own boss, travelling as I pleased, attending more than one SEO conference in a year, and so on. I said that there was an obvious shortage of experienced SEOs (I trained all but one of my SEO staff on the job).
The lack of interest in paying for SEO training suggests to me that a lot of operators think that they know all that they need to know and don’t need to pay for any formal certification. This is a simple economic decision. After all, most of us are self-taught in Microsoft Office and unless an employer is paying for it, we don’t do a course in Word, Excel or PowerPoint. Similarly, short-sighted SEO company owners are happy for their new hires to be trained on the job. I get that.
However, I don’t understand why some people are so vocal against SEO certification. Don’t we need operators to have a minimum level of competence? Is SEO destined to be a black art, only to be learnt at the expense of clients?
There is also a lot of ego at risk. I am not certified, so why would I presume to certify others? I have demonstrated expertise, so I don’t need to prove it any further and get certified myself. Similarly, the A-list SEOs are not about to apply for SEO certification anytime soon.
The SEO profession consists of in-house SEOs like me and consultants/agencies who work for clients.
A lot of the in-house SEOs I have met or observed appear to be new to the profession, which is not surprising, as very few business owners hadn’t heard of SEO five years ago. That they are hiring full-time SEOs is a great sign. This group includes expert SEOs who work on their own websites, i.e. they don’t work for others.
The second group is more visible. They include A-list SEOs who speak at every major conference and who try to engage Matt Cutts on Twitter. Their public visibility is usually aimed at picking up new clients and good luck to them. Most of them have excellent blogs or informative websites where they attract more subscribers and potential clients. Their SEO knowledge is undeniably excellent. They are expensive to hire.
However, the large B-list of this grouping is unknown. They include the fresh IT graduates who advertise themselves as an “SEO Expert” and use a Gmail email account. Then there are the agency owners who haven’t practised SEO personally for years but who hire fresh IT graduates and pay them peanuts. Most of the shoddy work I have seen comes from this part of the industry. They don’t invest in their staff and make them follow a checklist of tasks including mass submission to low-quality directories. By the way, shoddy SEO work can be found in all parts of the world. Don’t always blame the operator – blame their boss.
Demand for SEO work is still on the increase; therefore, the number of agencies has increased. It’s a scary thought to think that large numbers of fresh practitioners are learning on the job. I don’t think other trainers are getting much business.
The B-list also includes an unknown number of competent, unsung operators who rarely identify themselves in their forum posts, if any. Don’t for a second assume that all SEO gurus are well-known.
I believe that most people who perform SEO work can deliver ranking success for a non-competitive keyphrase, particularly one that mentions a suburb, e.g. Avondale Heights b&b. In many suburbs there won’t be more than 10 B&Bs with a website. At best there will be directory entries in the top positions but they can be beaten with an optimised, dedicated website.
However, once you need national or international ranking or have multi-national websites, the number of competent SEOs drops sharply.
To conclude, here is what I would look for in a competent SEO:
* The H1 is important but not if that’s the only change you are making to the site. Google can recognise a heading even if it is not marked up as such. The contents of the heading are very important. The Meta Description needs to contain some compelling words to encourage a click. Using it just to repeat the Title Tag might not attract a click. Therefore it has importance, but not in the sense that keywords-in-meta-description help the ranking. The clicks help ranking, if you see the difference.
So, what are your views on SEO competency training and certification??