Do You Have to Go to College to Be An SEO?

by on August 11, 2011

This is what happens in College

As more teens graduate high school, and as others – already in the workforce – look for opportunities to make money, SEO has become a profession that draws them. It seems like an easy job, and tons of sites talk about the money you can make as a professional SEO specialist.

With this in mind, it was no surprise to see a visitor hit our site based on the search query, “do you have to go to college to be an SEO”. It is, after all, a legitimate question.

The short answer is, “no”. In fact, there are no search engine optimization courses available from an accredited college, at least to our knowledge. There are many, many offers of SEO certification, however; SEO Certification vs. Certificate of Completion does a good job explaining the pitfalls of this road. The opening of the article summarizes the difficulty of certification:

Are you a Certified SEO Professional? If you answered yes to the above question, it’s time to face reality. There are no official certifying organizations in the search engine marketing industry, yet. What we do have are a few organizations establishing themselves as what appears to be a certifying authority, which may or may not be in the best interests of the SEO industry. And, based on what I see some of those touting these certifications doing, I don’t think those doing the certifying want to take responsibility for these individuals. Or do you?

No college or certification – what does that mean? Does it mean SEO is so easy you don’t have to have any training? Can you just sit down at a computer and “do” SEO?

SEO is Constantly Changing

The reason – or one of them – that you can’t go to college for SEO is because it’s one of the fastest changing industries in the world of business. By the time you got out of college, half of what you learned would no longer be valid.

The problem with certification, as the article referenced above points out, is that there’s no governing body. To this date, SEOs still cannot agree on a set of “best practices”. –And, again, in a year or two those best practices could very well be defunct. In such a fast-paced environment, what sounds like the fast lane to success can become a trudging path fraught with potential failures.

So What Can I Do If I Want to Get Into Optimization?

Learning SEO

Obviously, becoming an optimizer isn’t impossible; otherwise, there wouldn’t be any. So, it’s not hopeless; if you want to become an SEO, there are options. Just be aware that the road to becoming a professional SEO specialist (vs. being an unknown) is neither fast nor easy.

Option 1: Find a mentor.
The first option is on the job training. Do the research necessary to weed out the crap from the gold. Find yourself a respected individual in the SEO community to become your mentor and work with you.

Option 2: Learn on your own.
There are places, such as the SEO Dojo or SEO Moz, that offer training and memberships. The training isn’t formal, however. What you have is a lot of information to read and practice on your own. Member groups help you understand what you’re reading and how to apply it – if you ask questions.

Option 3: Go to college.
Right about now, you’re saying, “Wait… but I thought you said…” Yes, yes, but read on, and all will become clear!

Prepare yourself...

SEO and College

While you can’t go to college and get a degree in SEO, you can take classes that will help you excel at optimization. For instance, two degrees that would serve you well, are:

Bachelor’s Degree in Business (BBA) – Optimizers need to understand the focus of a business before delving into how to help that business. As well, the BBA courses can give you necessary skills such as:

  • Planning – An optimizer must be able to create a plan, or strategy, and arrange that strategy in a logical order. You’ll need to be able to build short and long-term goals/strategies.
  • Organizing – The more projects an optimizer juggles, the more organized that optimizer needs to be. Depending on what level in the industry you reach (i.e. sole optimizer, optimization manager, agency optimizer in a team), you may be in a position where you have to coordinate between several departments (marketing, sales, web development, etc.). Organizational skills are extremely useful in optimization.
  • Staffing – Again, depending on what level you reach, you’ll need to be able to create and fill job positions. For example, if you aren’t a copywriter, there will be times that you need one to complete a campaign; your client may not have one in house. At this time, you’ll need to write up a job description, know how to recruit people, and know how to screen the writers to get the quality you need.

Bachelor’s Degree in Information Technology – What you’ll learn in the course of getting an Information Technology degree differs depending on the college you choose. Some of the things that would help you excel at SEO are:

  • Web Development – Although the “higher ups” in the SEO community may now frown down at an optimizer lifting their hand to code, having the ability to develop websites is invaluable to a professional SEO specialist. Technical SEO, a subset of the whole SEO “thing”, is important to the success of a campaign; having a strong, foundational website greatly helps the campaign succeed. As well, knowing HTML, xHTML and other coding languages can come in very handy in the course of your work.
  • Data mining and data analysis – Even optimizers that don’t offer web analytics as a service will eventually end up opening at least one analytics program in their professional life time, if not 20 or 30. With data mining and analysis courses, you’ll gain useful skills like being able to find relationships between data sets. You’ll learn how to better target marketing prospects based on data feedback. You’ll also learn how to pull all the data together, from several sources, into a comprehensive report for use by your team and/or the client.
  • Algorithm design – Where does algorithmic design come in? Part of optimization is being future-focused; in other words, creating future-proof strategies. One of the ways to do this is to keep updated on the patents being placed by the search engines and prepare for the eventualities to the best of your abilities. Many of these patents have to do with algorithmic changes; having a background in algorithm design can greatly help you understand what’s coming down the line, among other things.

Now, although it was said earlier that college isn’t required, there’s a caveat to that. Many internet marketing firms require either a) one of the degrees above or b) 5+ years of proven experience with another SEO agency.

Courses to Prepare You for the SEO Profession

Preparing you for success

If a college degree isn’t in the plans, you can also go another route: take individual courses to teach you what you need to know, and then find training or mentoring (option 1 and 2 above) to fill in the blanks. Three of the most valuable types of courses you might take are:

Website Coding
Basic knowledge of website coding has proven an invaluable skill set for many a professional SEO specialist. There are literally thousands of college accredited, paid and free courses you can take to learn PHP, HTML and CSS (the most common languages).

Copywriting
Whether you do the copywriting yourself or hire someone, you’ll need to be able to recognize good, strong marketing copy when you see it. You’ll need to understand the difference between key word stuffing and natural use, as well as how to define visitor needs based on search terms.

Web Analytics
A course in web analytics is also a valuable skill for optimizers. Once you implement a campaign, you’ll need to know how to track it, and understand the data coming across your screen. As with copywriting and coding, there are many courses available to choose from. One of these courses comes from Google itself, called Conversion University, which teaches you how to use Google Analytics specifically.

Conclusion

As you can see, becoming a real SEO (as opposed to someone just guessing) takes more than just knowing how to use a computer. Whether you go to college and take courses to help you or not is up to you. In general, college degrees and courses help as a supplement to real life experience, but not as a direct method to learn SEO. There really is no experience like real life experience; there’s no training ground as good as the real thing.

Before making a decision, really do your research. Decide how much time you can afford to take learning this industry, and how much work you’re willing to do. Becoming a professional SEO specialist isn’t easy, but – if you like excitement, constant change and challenges – it can be one of the most rewarding jobs you’ll ever take on!

 



{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Philip Townsend March 15, 2013 at 1:53 pm

None of the schools around here have any type of online marketting degree. I already have an internship at an seo firm. Im thinking about just majoring in Programming. what do you think?

Reply

Gabriella Sannino March 16, 2013 at 8:22 am

Yes, let me also suggest some writing courses. You see in any given SEO project you will need to know how to write relevant content. Or at the very least understand enough about how to write a relevant strategy in any given 3,6,12 months campaign. It all boils down to great content…

Reply

Lex Smith June 21, 2012 at 10:59 pm

The Internet has been a hub for all sorts of things. No wonder a career involving the Internet is now in boom. Career opportunities and technology specializations are continually expanding their focus and accredited colleges and universities now offer the most comprehensive array of certificate and degree programs available.

Reply

Cathy Dunham March 24, 2012 at 5:32 am

To “optimize” your own skill sets, it’s truly helpful to have all of the following:
* HTML, PHP, CSS – the more knowledge and skills, the better
* WordPress (the ability to select and tweak well-programmed and designed themes and plugins)
* Time to continually follow and research top search engine algorithms, SEO influencers and webmaster tools and trends.
* Google Analytics (as of March 2012, there’s lots to figure out how to use and how to apply)
* Statistical Analysis – love pouring through web stats and know how to extract information that show you what’s going on, how visitors are using your site and what you need to work on next. Tip: look for trends (good and bad ones).
* SEO – the basics and all the other white hat tactics
* Copywriting – the trick is to write concise, relevant content that truly engages readers and quickly conveys useful value – based on their perceptions and needs. Correct grammar and punctuation might not be everyone’s forte, but it’s still necessary – but only if you want to look credible.
* SWOT Analysis – know how to prepare a SWOT for your clients’ business. Small and mid-size businesses rarely do this. Probably the one and only time they did was when they started their company and needed a bank loan. Having a current SWOT gives you a realistic, objective look at their industry, competitive market and customer profile.
* User Experience (A/B Testing, Web user Testing) – know or learn how to assess how online visitors will perceive and navigate websites. Where are their frustrations?
* Web Design – know how to create a balance in attractive, professional designs that, at the same time, look relevant and easy to use. Making your website visually pleasing translates into being perceived as “credible”. Bottomline, people need to know how to move through your site and find what they need.
* Engagement – know how to capture and retain visitor interests. Tip: know how to locate, follow and listen to prospective customers and current customers on social media – to learn WHAT they are interested in.
* Conversion – know how to persuade visitors to follow through on your suggestions or directions (click to learn more, follow me, like me, print this, contact us, subscribe here, buy now… and all other call to actions).
* Marketing – the more knowledge and experience you have, the better.
From my experience, there is not a single degree that offers all these different skills (and there could be more added to this list). The majority require hands-on application for an individual to really become accomplished.

Reply

James Norquay August 22, 2011 at 10:46 pm

Hey this is a nicely done article, I was looking for something totally random SEO related and found this =)

But really you need to have a degree in IT or Marketing to get ahead and get into big agencies, Global agencies will probably not take grads on with no degree they only take people with experience on.

The thing is if you have experience + a degree you will set yourself apart from some one who just has experience.

Also if you want to get a bigger position such as director, GM, Head of dep, not having a degree will be a set back too.

And finally I think they have a unit for SEO in cali uni’s I am sure, I go to uni in Australia and we have a e-Marketing degree (where you pick up IM subjects) yet the course content is lacking compared to a SEO degree.

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Leora Wenger August 12, 2011 at 7:26 am

When I went to college, there was barely any information technology courses available. I took one computer science in college and quite a few directly after college. What a great array of choices students have nowadays for information technology and web courses!

I would suggest adding to your already useful list: take classes that teach communications. If you can’t write (you did mention copywriting) or speak, how will you convince a client or employer that you are a great candidate? Or of any of your ideas. I wish I had taken a speech class.

Thank you for mentioning the Conversion University – I will keep that one in mind for myself, as I use Google Analytics a lot with my clients.

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Nicolette Beard August 12, 2011 at 6:55 am

I met a woman while volunteering and when she learned what I do for a living (SEO Specialist), she asked if she could come to my office and work for “free” because she’s always wanted to learn what this SEO-thing was about.

My response left her staring blankly back at me: “Only if I could surgically remove my head from my shoulders and plant it on yours would I be able to transfer the body of knowledge I’ve gathered over the past several years.”

Great insight in this article. I do know Full Sail offers 2 yr accreditation in Internet Marketing.

Reply

Melissa Maw January 8, 2012 at 4:47 am

Hi Nicolette,

I know I’m a bit behind on this forum, however I came across your post and saw that you’re an SEO specialist. I am an IT project manager for a start up web agency and we are looking to hire an SEO person – wanted to see if I could email you personally to get some tips on the main skill sets and experiences to look for when hiring someone in this field. If you are available to discuss, you can reach me at melcmaw@gmail.com

thanks!

Reply

Level343 January 8, 2012 at 6:22 am

Hello Melissa, thanks for joining the conversation. I’ll make sure to pass this comment on to Nicole, but if she can’t help you please feel free to contact us, we will be more than happy to answer any questions you may have. ;) Happy New Year!

Reply

Wiehan Britz August 11, 2011 at 1:14 am

Valid pointers stated! That is why it is so sad when you enter the SEO world with an ‘irrelevant’ University degree – you are in the deep-end and it’s tough when you can’t keep head above water – and that is right from the start when you undergo an interview with the company.

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