SE Degrees of Optimisation

SE Degrees of Optimisation

In an industry as self-taught or ‘learn on the job’ as online marketing, especially when it comes down to the finer details of SEO and PPC, it has always been interesting to work in such a diverse office in terms of colleague’s backgrounds. Whilst a few of the team at PushON have specific marketing degrees with digital modules built into them, the older and wiser members of the team who pre-date the existence of the internet have more traditional training, with digital only really playing a part as their careers progressed over the last few years.

In SEO particularly we are learning every day, whether it’s through our reactions to algorithm changes or unique situations that may arise with client’s websites; there are always new case studies or blogs to read which impact the way we approach our day to day work. So when one of these go-to resources, the Moz blog, published a recent discussion we took note.

“Should SEO be taught at Universities?”

There were over 100 responses to this post from Carla Dawson and Aleksej Heinze and a fairly balanced debate about both the practicalities of SEO as a standalone degree and what need there is for SEO to be taught as an actual qualification. This provided much discussion at PushON, as we spoke about what formal SEO (and PPC) training we’ve each experienced, whether at degree level or within separate training programmes; our very own Nikki Stasyszyn is actually involved in the digital course run by Aleksej at Salford University. With SEO one of the most rapidly changing professions over the past few years we’ve explored the arguments as to why it should or shouldn’t be formally taught.

Charlie“Tesco currently has a healthy dominance in the UK retail market, but Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrison and M&S combined outsell them. But imagine for a moment that Tesco’s dominance was virtually absolute – say, 85%, with the others scrapping over 3 or 4 per cent of the remainder.

Now imagine that universities started offering courses teaching students how to get their products on the shelves of Tesco stores. You’ve seen the flaw already. Tesco’s dominance isn’t a given (in fact, quite by coincidence, the company has been going through a rocky period of late, at least by their standards). It’s not inconceivable that in five years’ time, Aldi and Lidl could be the dominant forces and the “big four” of today could become the minnows. These stores have completely different supply chains and management styles, which are possibly incomparable to today’s leviathans.

This brings us back to the point in question. Because when we say SEO or search marketing, we’re not really talking about Bing, Yahoo, Ask or AOL. We’re talking about Google. And that means teaching students about how to maximise their future clients’ and employers’ relationships with Google.

Encouraging students to learn about Google is risky. Google is a private company and can decide how it does things. It might choose to do suicidal things, and often takes a punt on services that turn out to be duds. It’s a powerful company now and can absorb departmental hits, and is branching out into all manner of sectors – driverless cars, space travel, wearable tech etc. But what if its original raison d’etre – search – became overwhelmed by a new technology just as it overwhelmed Yahoo, AltaVista, infoseek, Lycos, LookSmart, Hotbot, Ask, MSN, alltheweb, Overture …

Google’s initial attraction was that it was simple and clean, devoid of the banner ads that made old-skool ‘gines look confusing and overly commercial. Its ranking, based on passed-on authority, seemed almost democratic, too (although it turned out to be its loophole).

But as soon as someone comes up with an even simpler interface with ever more relevant results (I dunno, reading your mind or somesuch), it could well add Google to the list of sunken search engines – unless Google recognises the threat and buys/borrows the idea. And Google’s paid advertising is subject to threats along with its organic reach.

So is it wise to teach SEO at university when at present SEO pertains to effectively one company? I’d be cautious about it. There are aspects of marketing that are timeless and they apply to the online world just as much as the offline one (if such a thing exists).”

Charlie Hankers, Copywriter

“Whilst Charlie makes a good point in regards to Google’s dominance and likely central role in any SEO course, it’s the principles of SEO and digital marketing which are fundamental in this case. To use the same example, students who have been taught how to get products on the shelves of Tesco are not going to be out of job if this practice changes slightly. They’ll learn and adapt to the new practices or how to migrate to new stores. And anyway, if they’ve been taking a dodgy approach and paying backhanders to the store manager then they deserve to be penalised.

I am one of the beneficiaries of a formal digital and SEO education, having studied on the fantastic course at MMU as part of a marketing degree. Exposure to the digital community in Manchester was vital in helping me to find the position in which I’m in now, and winning the prestigious ‘SEO Cup’ certainly gave me an icebreaker in interviews. This did not teach me how to “game Google” any more than it gave me a real understanding of the growing role and importance of digital as a marketing channel. Much of my technical knowledge has come from the last 4 years I’ve spent in online marketing roles, working alongside varying levels of technical and creative minds.

The point that was debated on the Moz article, and indeed by us today, was about future proofing any SEO education against the likely changes that Google will continue to make. I feel that this is less important as teaching digital as a module will provide graduates and a new generation of online marketers with the skills and awareness they need to work in this challenging industry.”

Jonny Pennington, Senior Online Marketing Consultant

“I think from an outsider looking in, SEO doesn’t seem as complex as it actually is, especially with clients. Every industry changes, just at different speeds, and a prime example of this in SEO is Google’s ongoing updates (Panda, Penguin etc). To have a page one ranking on Google doesn’t always guarantee more profits or loyal and regular customers. This is something that has to be achieved by building the brand’s reputation and identity. Unfortunately online presence doesn’t happen overnight like some businesses assume. It all takes time. There’s a whole pot of tricks from link building, on page optimisation (urls, title tags, meta descriptions, keywords etc.), quality content, social marketing as well as limitations. SEO is a bespoke service and work that has been done for one client can’t then be duplicated for another. Like humans, businesses also have different needs.

I very much fell into working in SEO and initially didn’t have a great understanding. SEO is complex and the skills you acquire and tools you rely on are constantly changing so much so that it would be impossible for a university to keep on top of all of this, especially having to follow a structured course/lecture timetable. But I don’t see an issue with the basic understandings being taught at University.

I’ve actually just signed up to a free 6-week course on a Coursera learning about ‘Understanding Media by Understanding Google’. It feels like Google one day might take over the world, and when they do I’d rather know a bit more about them.”

Jenny Pearse, Online Marketing Consultant

“If we take physics as an example then this is an exact science governed by the fundamental laws of physics, and while scientific principles and approaches can, and are applied to SEO, it is NOT an exact science in the sense that it is governed by the laws of the internet (Google). As these do not appear in nature they are therefore governed by humans, and humans, as we are well aware are subject to change / changing their minds.

The concern with a course focusing solely on SEO is that 3 years hard work towards a degree can be wiped out with a single algorithm update from Google. This is not to say that there are no benefits to a potential SEO degree course. While day to day optimisational tasks can and will continue to change in this ever evolving landscape there are still fundamental underlying skills in both technical understanding and appreciation of wider principles that will stand the test of time and will only benefit the industry to see more of these joining the digital scene.”

Andy Darnell, Paid Search Manager

“Whilst there exists an argument that teaching facets of digital marketing such as SEO & PPC as whole courses at University ignores the fact that this is based on Google’s current algorithm or platform offering, where this could change at a moment’s notice leaving the student’s current industry trade knowledge redundant – I feel there remains a true need for such niche courses. For instance, it would be remiss not to explore the fact that marketing is always an evolving industry, as goes the business adage “evolve or die”. Such current trite and formulaic lectures of the 5 P’s or Kotler et al. textbook musings regarding print or TV marketing lay the foundation to any marketing course, were relevant marketing techniques once upon a time. Therefore, why not teach the foundations to current relevant marketing strategies such as SEO & PPC at University now?”

Daryl Burrows, Paid Search Executive

Whilst the team very much agree that the foundations of digital and SEO are important, not just for those planning on entering an online career but for anyone involved in marketing, there are still misunderstandings about the influence of Google specifically and how they shape our approach to SEO. We all expect digital modules to become a much bigger part of marketing degrees, if this leads to a better understanding from both those working in SEO and the public then that can only be a positive thing.

  • Nice thoughts @pushon team – always love working with you 😉

    Let’s not forget that your team have great ideas and you were there to help us to develop the first Search and Social Media Marketing evening course – #SSMMUoS and as you mentioned above we value your contributions to the guest speaker sessions first by Simon himself and now by Nikki Stasyszyn!

    I think we also have to mention the MOOC where Simon was able to share his thoughts on Twitter and Personal Branding

    As well as contributed to shaping our ideas to the new international project we are working on #JEMSS

    There are obviously a number of great events that you contribute to and lead in the Manchester / Salford area and we value your critical thoughts! SASCON and CreativeENT are just some of them!

    So, I really like your critical thoughts and contributions to the debate – ultimately we are all in this together 😉 Manchester and MediaCity are just buildings if we don’t have a good bit of discussion. Right, so here are a couple of points that I would like to pick up on:

    1) Charlie @Hankers4Charlie “So is it wise to teach SEO at university when at present SEO pertains to effectively one company?”

    Well – “Is it wise for entire businesses such as PushOn having a business model that is based effectively on one private company?”

    Personally I think that anyone who learns SEO on our courses will be mostly exposed to the main principles of search, there is so far not enough time to go through the individual technique in great depth. So whilst we do teach that the algorithm changes on a regular basis the core point is that basics of Marketing sill apply: “Monitor to understand what your customer needs and develop your products and services accordingly” – in this case the customer is the end users as well as Google.

    2) Jonny @heresjonnyp mentioned that another important point – what happens if we don’t teach SEO at universities – ultimately both agencies and in-house teams will be disadvantaged by this lack of vital skills! Our research suggests that SEO is one of the top skills that agencies and in-house teams desperately need now.

    3) Jenny @Jenbobity mentions that Google might take over the world and we better be ready for it – well, good point well maid 😉 Ultimately search engine use is the second most popular activity online. We have intention to purchase when we use search and as a marketeer this is a place to be where your goods and services have a chance to reach your audiences. If we ignore these and don’t understand how organic SEO works Google will be making a lot more money on PPC!

    4) “3 years hard work towards a degree can be wiped out with a single algorithm update from Google. ….there are still fundamental underlying skills in both technical understanding and appreciation of wider principles that will stand the test of time and will only benefit the industry to see more of these joining the digital scene.”

    Well, I have been teaching SEO since 2006 and whilst there are major changes in terms of linking SEO with Social Media, Mobile Search, Video and Images etc… The core process does remain pretty much same. For example – last year we did the SEO MOOC where the keyword research was taught to highlight “exact” search results. Now that the AdWords keyword too has changed that exact does not really make much of a difference – in particular since we are looking for trends and yes, I do agree here that SEO is not “hard science” such as physics. However, SEO is a great combination of hard and social science – we have data and we also have comments, images, video and a number of other user generated content sources which good SEO’s will know how to use to their advantage. So, what we teach in 3 years is not just every single algorithm but how the process works, how to manage digital teams and this is very important for MBA students – how SEO should be used as a strategic tool to advance a business. Personally, I think that if we don’t teach how to take SEO seriously in an organisation we are misleading our students – and increasing their chances of failure.

    5) Daryl Burrows mentions: “Therefore, why not teach the foundations to current relevant marketing strategies such as SEO & PPC at University now”

    Well, this is exactly how SEO is currently taught at least in Salford. We teach it as part of the Search and Social Media Marketing module – emphasising the importance to the integration of search and social.

    eCommerce – emphasising how SEO is a major tactic for any online business model.

    The forthcoming MSc Digital and Social Media Marketing was named this way because SEO works best when it is integrated with other strategies such as social, mobile and even offline communications.

    Overall, I do agree that the major challenge for SEO is the dominance for Google. However, this is not the case in Russia and China – they have their own local giants of their own. Also, the EU is keen to keep the European Competition levels under review and who knows there might be a need for Google to be broken up into different operations in Europe. Will this happen? Well, it might or it might not – especially since Google has some interesting tax arrangements!

    Anyway, I do hope to see you guys at the Creative Entrepreneur event in December –

    • Thanks again for the thorough response Aleksej! As we mentioned in the article we’ve obviously got close and keen links to both your course at Salford and Dave’s at MMU and we think this is great for the online marketing community in Manchester. I guess our responses show that those who have had digital and specifically SEO education are very much in agreement in that it should be taught, the real educating that is needed is for those outside this bubble to understand it’s importance. Again, I noticed on twitter over the weekend that there were a few negative responses to your original piece, the main concern being that SEO would be taught badly possibly due to a bad perception of the current SEO industry – again another issue that needs to be addressed.

      Your point that companies such as PushON have a business model that is based effectively on one private company (Google) will certainly get Simon talking! Whilst SEO is very much the main focus for me and some of the rest of the team, we are a multi service agency and very much online marketing consultants. Whilst Google obviously dictate the majority of our organic and paid search activity we do consider multiple channels; social for example has become an even bigger focus for us with the developments in paid social targeting and advertising. Additionally, we feel like we are an agency who are aim to be at the forefront of developments in SEO, meaning we react well to changes and ultimately future proof all of our client work.

      I’m looking forward to seeing how this discussion continues anyway!

      • Yes, one of the reasons we set up our courses was the need for transparency and understanding of the industry. SEO is not a dark art to be practiced by agencies without informing their clients of what is going on. Our evening course was prime rely set up to help companies to understand the principle and offer generic introduction to what is needed.

        If you look at this post – dated a bit now and I see that images are missing too! but the core content is pretty much why courses in SEO are needed:

        Yes, the response about PushOn being very Google focused was the analogy reply to Charlie’s opening position. I realise that you are more than just Google experts and same applies to our courses too. SEO is taught as part of eCommerce and as part of Search and Social Media Marketing.

        Ultimately to be effective, SEO impact is best when integrated with other channels – social and where commerce is concerned perhaps eBay, Amazon etc – essentially following where customers are!

        I find this Customer Journey to Online Purchase a fascinating way of thinking about the need to develop long term strategies that integrate SEO with other touch points –

        And yes, you are doing a great job as an agency giving your customers help with each one of these points of online interaction.

    • Aleksej, thanks for a comprehensive and considered response to our post.

      With regard to the point about both academia and industry focusing on Google, PushON (like all search marketing companies) is responding to the dominant search provider as chosen by the great global public. If this changed, so would we, and, I’m sure so would academia.

      As an industry and as its employees we understand that the status quo might not survive. It’s in our own interest to monitor search trends continually and react accordingly. There might come a day when we will advise a client that Google is no longer the dominant search channel in its sector and that we’ll need to change tack. We are, after all, in the marketing industry, not the Google-based SEO industry.

      You rightly point out that any threat might not necessarily come from a rival’s technical supremacy but from a political decision, e.g. its tax affairs or a privacy concern.

      My main misgiving, though, is the “private company” angle. The way Google ranks pages in response to queries is an entirely human construct. The company answers to no one and can set up its results as it sees fit – which could in theory mean rewarding paid over organic (as a highly unlikely example). Should public institutions be teaching students about the latest speculation surrounding Google’s algorithms, updates and refreshes?

      Unless and until there’s a more even spread of search channels, I don’t think it’s universities’ job to teach students about something that’s entirely in the control of a secretive search provider than can change its rules on a whim. Even “best practice” techniques only exist as long as Google says they do.

      There’s an important place for teaching the principles of SEO and all aspects of marketing in academia, and our Jonny’s living proof. Students learning about marketing definitely need to know about SEO. But it would be too much to guide them through the day-to-day changes in the industry over the duration of a course.

      • Charlie, good points here. Yes, we realise that there is a dominant player in the industry. It is interesting to see how they are defending their position in European courts now – saying that Amazon and Facebook are their major search rivals! So, the future might be optimising for Amazon and Facebook as the main platforms. However, the process of SEO is what we emphasise. A methodical, transparent and logical way of identifying content needs and developing it to help our customers on the journey to the next purchase 😉

  • Ben Barker

    Nice debate! in regards to the “learning about Google” comment I disagree… anything I’ve ever learnt that has been SEO related wasn’t for “Google” but rather making websites perform better organically overall along with improving UX and brand presence and more importantly, conversions.

    • Good point Ben,
      Ultimately Google SEO is just part of a customer journey and the challenge is to get our conversations and brand awareness or any other KPIs for a business to work well online.

      Also, where Google leads others follow to some extent – so even if it was broken apart the ideas of community development and engagement are not just unique to Google.

      • Ben Barker

        Exactly, I think we also need to consider other specific “search engines” and how they affect our clients and the work we can do for them for example we have auto trader for cars, amazon, ebay etc – I think the problem with a lot of SEO’s is simply that they are too focused on Google and develop a tunnel vision.