SE Degrees of Optimisation

PushON | October 10th 2014

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.