Is professional SEO certification a state of mind?

Ash Nallawalla

2 January 2010


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:

  • Is it worth my while to get SEO certification from XYZ academy?
  • My SEO client was ripped off by some amateur posing as an SEO.

The discussions usually mention:

  • Examples of shoddy or outdated SEO practices such as keyword-stuffing, over-optimised content, needless site redesign, mass directory submissions, etc. The insinuation here is: “I am a better SEO because I can point out shoddy SEO work.”
  • Who is competent to certify someone as a professional SEO? The insinuation here is: “I am a competent SEO but I doubt that anyone offering certification is better than me (or equal to me).”
  • A comptent SEO should be able to provide evidence of successful rankings. The insinuation here is: “I can show some page-one results for my SEO work, therefore all competent SEOs should be able to do likewise.”

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.

SEO = Witch Doctor or Quack?

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.

On SEO Certification

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.

Giving a Bad Name

Not surprisingly, some trainers have given SEO training a bad name. What do you make of this post – SEO Certification Guide? Has anyone tried this one?


Why Get Trained?

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).

A State of Mind

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 State of the SEO Profession

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:razz: 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.

SEO Competence

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:

  • On-the-Job Experience. Both depth and width of experience are necessary, which is easier for the agency SEO than an in-house SEO. The agency SEO sees large and small websites in various industries, each with its own peculiarities. However, they only learn where the assignments are customised, that is, they don’t use the same checklist for every customer. Getting a new website to rank #1 nationally for “home loans” is not possible for a $5,000 or even $10,000 price tag.
  • Personal Experience. Even an agency SEO cannot get a breadth of experience unless he or she owns their own websites. Not one but many personal websites. Some can be affiliate sites, some can be information sites and at least one blog. What you can experiment with on your own sites must not be done on a customer site.
  • Currency of Knowledge. If you still believe that an H1 tag or the Meta Description are important for ranking, then your knowledge isn’t current*. If you don’t want formal training, you need to follow the right people on Twitter and participate in the right forum and read the right blog. There are some other good sources but there are also a lot more places where you could waste your time listening to the voice of ignorance.
  • Marketing or Business Experience. A recent IT graduate might know how to perform on-page SEO but you need someone who is first a marketer and then an SEO. This industry is known as Search Marketing and not Search IT for a good reason. It’s about selling or engagement with the customer, which requires knowledge they teach in business school. A Marketer-SEO can always hire an IT expert to solve technical issues.

* 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??


Ash Nallawalla

Search strategist experienced in large, complex websites. SEO consultant.

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