SEO Teaching: Should SEO Be Taught at Universities?

Posted by Carla_Dawson

SEO is a concept that has been around for years and some universities have incorporated it into the curricula. A while back, I posted
this question on Moz and noticed some very strong opinions on the idea that SEO should be part of formal education. Search Engine Journal also posted an article on the idea that SEO should not be taught in universities. We (I co-wrote this post with Aleksej Heinze, who also currently teaches SEO) obviously believe SEO should be taught in higher education and got together to discuss how it benefits the SEO industry and how SEO can be incorporated in higher education. Aleksej teaches SEO in the U.K.; I teach SEO in Argentina.

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Before I get started with the pros and cons, I want to share with you some opinions from people in industry on the topic of SEO in universities.


Wil Reynolds (Founder - Seer Interactive)

1. Do you believe universities or higher education institutions should equip students with the skills to meet industry needs?

Yes, people take BIG loans to go to the university in the U.S.; we should at least make sure when they graduate they have the skills that are in…demand in the workplace.

2. Are SEO skills something you believe are lacking in industry?

Not sure. “SEO skills” is a broad phrase.

3. Do you think teaching SEO in universities gives credibility to the profession?

Not really, I think the profession has credibility. Teaching SEO in universities gives a student a great platform to learn and to be prepared for one of the industries that is in desperate need of talent.


4. Do you think teaching SEO in universities benefits the industry?

Yes, but I think SEO is too narrow, according to many definitions. If you think about it, SEO is as much about technical as it is about link building [or] keyword research. To teach the broad definition of SEO you’d need a pretty multi-disciplinary group to teach it. Maybe we’d just teach it as part of a digital marketing rotation.

Stephen Lock (Head of Content & Inbound Marketing, Linkdex.com)

1. Do you believe universities or higher education institutions should equip students with the skills to meet industry needs?

Yes, it makes sense that universities, where appropriate, offer courses that are based heavily on industry demands, especially if the course/institution has been marketed as…tailored for employers.

2. Are SEO skills something you believe are lacking in industry?

They definitely are. There is a real shortage, and due to the fast-moving nature of the field, knowledge is quickly outdated, meaning even experienced practitioners aren’t always great candidates.

3. Do you think teaching SEO in universities gives credibility to the profession?

I believe it does, although it is one of those fields where it’s common for people to…come from a broad range of backgrounds. The skills required are so diverse that it’s also understandable that people who have studied one field can adapt. From experience, employers are more interested in the person, their attitude and capacity to learn. However, SEO in universities can only be a good thing for the industry.

4. Do you think teaching SEO in universities benefits the industry?

Teaching SEO, I believe, would benefit the industry, as the skills shortage is so acute and it is so common for entry-level candidates to come from many different backgrounds. My final thoughts are that SEO is so broad as a discipline that calling it just SEO may not do it justice.


What we can see from these and other opinions we received for this article is views are still mixed since SEO education is not clearly defined. Where do you start with a subject area that touches such a broad range of disciplines, including technical, content and engagement? However, the vast majority of our respondents were
positive about the need to integrate SEO in higher education!

Pros to teaching SEO in universities

Eli Overbey wrote a great article on this topic
here, but me and Aleksej took some of the ideas one step further. Basically, we identified problems in industry and how teaching SEO in universities might help the industry.

How teaching SEO in universities may benefit the industry

Industry Problem How SEO in higher education might alive the problem?
Long sales cycles – Selling SEO is a lot about educating your potential client. Today’s student is tomorrow’s potential client.

Students who learn SEO formally (and not just on the job) are likely to have a broader understanding of its benefits, and therefore, be able to “sell” it more effectively to clients.
Lack of Credibility – Most SEOs learned SEO on the job, or through reading great books like “The Art of SEO” and reading great articles on the internet. However, few formal institutions recognize it as a valid marketing technique. SEO is not taught in many marketing related programs. Creating an educational standard for SEO increases the credibility of the field. Treating the discipline as if it was law, engineering, etc., would elevate SEO to a discipline seen as requiring a significant period of study before it can be practiced.
Everyone says they know SEO. Without a recognized standard for the field of SEO, anyone and everyone can say they know SEO.
Clients with bad experiences don’t trust SEO companies.
Showing clients you have a certified person on your team may alleviate this situation.
Long recruiting cycles. Recruiters currently have to give SEO tests to verify that the job candidate in front of them really knows SEO. A certification or a degree does not guarantee you know the subject (this is true for lots of fields), but it is an excellent filter and a great starting point.
SEO is constantly changing, making it hard to keep up. Law, medicine and most other subject areas are also constantly changing, and content and concepts are updated accordingly. The same can be true for SEO in universities.
Clients challenge your techniques (ex. “Why don’t you use the keyword meta tag?” or “Why are you using parallax scrolling when it is not SEO-friendly?”)  This happens in all industries and being able to reference an independent institution and a high-quality article will probably reduce discussion time.
There is a high demand for SEO skills. Below you will find articles that mention demand for SEO skills in industry. Universities are in the business of creating professionals and satisfying workforce demands.Higher education institutions are often criticized for their lack of relevant educational courses that will equip students with the skills to meet specific industry needs.

SEO is relevant today and will be well into the foreseeable future.

Cons to teaching SEO in universities

We do see some negatives to teaching SEO in universities, but we see them more as issues to be mitigated.
John Weber did a great job identifying the difficulties in teaching SEO in his article on searchenginejournal.com. We agree with several of the points in this article. However, we see them more as issues that can be alleviated through great program development.

Obstacles  Potential Solutions
Google makes changes to its algorithm constantly. This exact topic should be brought up in the classroom. Students get that what they learn in school is somewhat “academic” and may be slightly out-of-date, but is still useful.

(On a side note, laws change all the time, yet law is taught in school.) 
SEO is complex. It requires analytical and creative skills. Case studies are a great way to teach complex concepts and creativity. Law, perhaps, is similar to SEO in that it requires analytical and creative skills to be successful, and it is taught in universities.
No one absolutely knows “the magic formula.” This exact topic should be brought up in the classroom. This is true with many professions. Medicine is not an exact science and continuously evolves. Physicians often prescribe differing treatments for the same diagnosis. 

Current flaws in academia

We also see lots of flaws within the academic world regarding SEO, specifically the fact that if the subject is taught, it is mostly taught as an extension (vocational) course or optional part of an MBA program.

Here are some universities that offer SEO:

We feel SEO should be included as part of many other degree programs.

Please note that mentioning the concept and explaining it is not the same as teaching how to do SEO. In some cases, the concept should be mentioned and included, and in other cases, SEO should be fully taught. For example at Salford Business School, students are expected to plan, execute and evaluate live SEO campaigns and report on their results. This kind of SEO learning helps in job interviews where students can show their own artefacts and discuss what they have done and learned from their practical SEO experience.The academic world
has not incorporated the subject in a holistic manner.

How could SEO be incorporated into higher education?

Degree focus SEO Concept (not to be confused with course) to be incorporated in program Comments
Master of Business Administration (MBA) How to use SEO as a business strategy for long term sustainability of business? Not many MBA courses recognize SEO as a strategic tool for developing value for their business. Hence a number of businesses are missing growth opportunities in the online world.
Advertising How to use SEO with viral marketing and word of mouth as an advertising technique?

Is Inbound Marketing an advertising technique?
Television ads are no longer as effective as those created for YouTube with viral sharing in mind.
Web design/ computer science Designing for Search Engines – Is SEO part of web design? SEO is not taught in many web design or computer science schools. This has major issues/benefits for agencies that try to turn a non-SEO-friendly website into one that can be crawled by search engines.
Marketing Organic search engine results are an important marketing channel, and this concept does not have visibility in the educational system.

Many marketing programs talk about SEO as if it is something that’s useful to someone else. We are all individual brands who can learn and use SEO (e.g., integration of keyword research allows for better digital consumer profiling and learning about the digital personas to be engaged with in marketing mix).

Public Relations (PR) Synergies of online PR with content development strategies and long-term link building Many PR ignore the benefits of SEO and miss out on the mutual benefits that an integration of SEO and online PR could provide. 
Journalism Writing text for online readability and scanability (e.g., using headings, bullet points, etc.) Many journalism courses are still based on great headlines and catchy first paragraph, but these are great techniques when combined with SEO, too. Not thinking about the online audience means you miss a lot of reach with articles that are “thrown” onto the web without much consideration.

We argue for wider adoption of SEO at university teaching because of these three reasons:

Shaping the SEO industry

Starting with understanding SEO principles at the university-level, we are shaping the digital marketing professionals of the future. Recognizing the growing range of opportunities that digital marketing creates as a consequence of good SEO practices offers an invitation to the industry for new talent. Offering SEO at universities will not stop cowboy SEO practices, but at least it will reduce the use of such practices out of incompetence.

SEO is no longer a “dark art”

By demystifying the process of SEO, companies will be more likely to employ SEO professionals by recognizing and better appreciating the value they create. SEO is no longer perceived as a “black box” or “dark art” and individuals who might be supervising others will be more able to expect higher standards and discern whether someone is using unwelcome practices.

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Good SEO practices will make our industry sustainable

By integrating SEO into wider advertising, digital marketing, journalism, web design, PR and MBA courses, we are able to create a better long-term future for SEO as a profession. Having SEO skills applies to many disciplines, and business would be prepared to pay for these skills as soon as they recognise the return on investment that good SEO can create. By teaching SEO in higher education, SEO will appear more professional, which will lead to long-term sustainability.

Is there demand in the industry for SEO skills?

Universities have often been criticized for offering courses not relevant to industry needs. Students invest in higher education to broaden their horizons, but also to obtain skills that equip them better for their chosen profession. The underlying principle is that universities have to offer “universal knowledge and skills” to improve innovation and skills of the world we live in. So if an industry demands SEO skills, then perhaps it is time for higher education to respond? Here are some articles that show workforce demand related to SEO. 

2012 – Conductor –
Demand for SEO Professionals Has Never Been Greater [Study]

2013 – Bruce Clay –
Studies Reveal SEO Analysts are in High Demand

2013 – Search Engine Land –
SEO Talent In High Demand — How To Hire An SEO

Here are some great stats from the articles above.

  • Studies show a 112 percent year-over-year increase in demand for SEO professionals, with salaries as high as ,000, as reported by Conductor, an SEO technology company based in New York.
  • Search Engine Land surveyed the SEO industry and found that 93 percent of respondents expected their SEO business to grow by the end of 2013. It makes sense, then, that 82 percent of respondents also reported plans to hire additional SEO staff this year.
  • Digital Journal proclaimed “there is no doubt that a career in an SEO agency as an SEO professional can be an exciting and rewarding one. Stress levels would match the lows found in other online positions, while the employment opportunities in such a fast growing business are obvious … Mid-level strategist and management roles can earn from ,000, while senior marketing directors can expect to approach six-figure sums.”

First-hand experience – Aleksej Heinze

Salford Business School is currently leading a European project, a Joint European Masters in Digital and Social Media Marketing (
JEMSS). This project aims to develop the digital marketeers of the future. JEMSS is a partnership between five European Universities and two commercial organizations, one of which is a digital marketing recruitment agency based in Manchester, the UK.

As part of this project, an extensive consultation with digital agencies and in-house teams has been conducted across five European countries. This multi-stage research project started with a brainstorming session that included ten UK-based agencies in December 2013. They were looking at the top
10 digital marketing skills for international business. The key skill identified as part of this focus group was Search Engine Optimization.

The views from the UK-based agencies were also inline with the online survey results from students and potential students regarding digital marketing courses. The list of 25 skills was developed through the initial focus group with industry practitioners. We can clearly see that SEO tops the table of skills needed when developing knowledge and skills in the area of digital marketing. This online survey was completed by 712 respondents across several countries. We were interested to look at five countries taking part in the JEMSS project: Bulgaria, Greece, Lithuania, Poland and the UK. At least 50 respondents for each of these counties were collected to have a representative sample group.

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Do people want to learn SEO?

Looking at the generic searches related to learning SEO/SEO courses in various parts of the world we see some interesting trends:

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This Google Trends screenshot shows some of the main terms related to the popularity of SEO courses. We can see there is a major difference between “SEO training” and “SEO courses.” This can mean most people are seeing SEO as a vocational skill and not an academic course. It is also interesting to note that the location for those interested in “SEO courses” tends to be in India, the U.K. and the U.S. More research should be done in to identify additional hot spots throughout the world.

First hand experience – Carla Dawson

My students are eager to learn about SEO. Many of them make comments like “Carla, we have been waiting for this class” or “This is the best class [in the] program.” In the SEO class, I notice that students pay closer attention than they do in other classes. Multiple requests have been made by my students to “offer a second course or a seminar” so they can learn more about SEO. It almost seems as if the SEO course has more value than some of the other courses. In class, I get questions like “where can we learn more about SEO?” “What sources are reliable?” etc.

Conclusion

Long gone are the days gone where
universities were run by nuns and monks and the main courses included Latin, metaphysics and theology. Most universities are becoming businesses that develop educational products, research and sell them.

If you believe that universities or higher education institutions should equip students with the skills to meet specific industry needs, then perhaps SEO or better yet “Search Marketing” is ideal for universities?

SEO touches so many fields and in our opinion it should be incorporated in various degrees not just offered as an extension course. We would love to hear the communities opinion on this topic so please comment below!

This article was co-authored with Aleksej Heinze from the University of Salford Manchester . You can find more information about Aleksej here.

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October 9, 2014  Tags: , , ,   Posted in: SEO / Traffic / Marketing

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