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Is SEO a science? Yes, says Mike Baxter, Lead Consultant on Econsultancy's Digital Certificate in Search Engine Optimisation

Econsultancy recently launched the UK's first university accredited Digital Certificates, which focus on strengthening digital marketing skills for those looking to begin or develop their careers in this industry. 

Here, Mike discusses the value of the certifcates, and explains why SEO is a science, not an art...

Can you tell me about the Digital Certificate in SEO

Okay, that's a deceptively simple question with some big issues underlying it. Let's start by exploring just what SEO is and how, in an ideal world, we should approach training and professional development for new SEO practitioners.  

Firstly, there IS a science of SEO,  we have a systematic understanding of how search engines work and what changes to websites and the links between them tend to increase and decrease organic search engine performance.

Is our scientific understanding of SEO incomplete? Of course it is! Our scientific understanding of physics is incomplete but nobody ever suggests we shouldn't teach, or offer qualifications in physics because of it.  

The science of SEO is, however, complex. Far too complex for the application of a few rules to guarantee success.

This doesn't devalue the science, it simply means that professional development is required to discover how best to apply the scientific principles to a competitive business environment. Again, this is no different from any other science.  

Part of this professional development involves learning how best to make decisions on the basis of incomplete knowledge (e.g. is Google's semantic 'entity and attribute mapping' influencing all topics in the search marketplace or just some) or incomplete data (e.g. what is the relative value of links from high and low authority domains).

This is what some people refer to as the Art of SEO. I disagree. I think it has a lot more in common with engineering than art, the creation of fit-for-purpose solutions, at affordable cost and with sufficient optimisation to deliver competitive advantage. 

New SEO practitioners, therefore, need two types of education and training: 

  • They need to get up to speed with SEO knowledge, how search engines work, what factors influence search rank and how can we best use data to manage organic search performance? 
  • They need to learn how to apply that knowledge in a practical and effective way, SEO professional development. 

The Digital Certificate in SEO aims to deliver the core of SEO knowledge and help participants make their first strides down the path of SEO professional development.

Why do you think there is a need for accreditation in this area? 

It is really hard to tell the difference between people who know what they are doing in SEO from those that don't. There are enough 'smoke and mirrors' surrounding SEO that a little knowledge can go a long way in an interview.  

This Digital Certificate in SEO is ground breaking by being the first reputable qualification on the subject in the UK. For the first people with the qualification, it will be highly distinctive - a badge of honour in SEO.

As the qualification becomes established, I would like to think it becomes a filter for recruiters. Candidates without this type of qualification will need to prove they have the knowledge to underpin professional SEO practice in other ways.   

Do the doubters and opponents of such qualifications have a point?

I hear all sorts of grumbles and complaints about a Certificate in SEO not being any guarantee that they will be able to do the job.

No, and it never claimed to be!  It sets out to give the knowledge and practical skills to underpin professional development.  

Is this only for people new to SEO or is it also of value if you have worked as an SEO for years?

This would be a great start for anyone new to SEO. I wish there had been a course like this 11 years ago when I started as an online consultant, it would have saved me years of struggle working out, the hard way, the difference between good and bad practice in SEO.  

For people who have worked in SEO for some time, there is still huge value in the course.  Everyone needs professional development and the narrower your experience of SEO the greater the need to refresh your knowledge and skills.  

I've been very fortunate in having such a wide experience of SEO, from setting the SEO strategy of major multi-national corporations and recruiting some of the top agencies for clients all the way to keyword analysis, copywriting and link building for start-ups.  

I've had the opportunity to learn both from my own mistakes and from some of the best brains in the business.

If, on the other hand, you have been a solo SEO within an organisation or have learned your trade mostly from a single specialist, this course could be your opportunity to see where the gaps in your knowledge lie and whether your understanding is quite as up to date as you hope it is.

How will you help people to adapt to the constant changes to Google's algorithm and ranking factors?

SEO is an arms race between the search engines trying to present results of most relevance to searchers and websites trying to achieve the greatest prominence for their own content.  

Arms races are fought by changes to the rules keeping disruptive influences in check. For SEO practitioners, therefore, rulechanges are a fact of life.

Where best-practice SEO gains advantage in relation to rule changes is alertness (knowing about changes as early as possible) and resilience (designing SEO tactics to minimise damage to organic search performance in the event of foreseeable rule-changes).  

Both of these topics (alertness and resilience) will be covered in the Certificate. 

What are the major challenges for SEOs at the moment?

One of the biggest challenges for SEO professionals is that there are more challenges to be overcome. Search is diversifying (social search, local search, mobile search, shopping search) and the SEO data is becoming harder to interpret (SSL search and personalised search).

Another challenge is that SEO is becoming increasingly competitive. As search marketing, overall, approaches maturity SEO features somewhere on every online marketer's to-do list.

Where, a few years ago, it was sufficient to just be doing SEO, now, you need to be doing it better than your competitors and have the KPIs to prove it.

How do you think SEO will change over the next few years? 

The main change I expect is one that has been predicted for many years but which will, I believe, finally happen quite soon - this is semantic search.  

Until recently, search engines have worked simply by keyword matching. Search for 'car insurance' and you get results containing the words car insurance. Synonyms were used for frequently searched terms (so car insurance would be matched to motor insurance in the UK and auto insurance in the USA) but beyond this search engines took keywords at face value.  

Semantic search is different. It takes the keyword searched for, identifies the underlying meaning or meanings indicated by that keyword and returns the most meaningful results.  

A search for Keane, for example would recognise this as the name of a band and offer results for that band's album (keyword='strangeland'), songs (keywords='silenced by the night'), videos (keywords='360 sessions') and tour dates / tickets (keyword='O2 academy').  

Again, it will make SEO a more complex and challenging profession but one where in-depth knowledge will be of even greater competitive advantage than it is today.

The Econsultancy Digital Certificate in SEO is suitable for those interested in having a solid practical understanding of SEO. Apply before Monday 21 May to start on 11 June 2012. 

Graham Charlton

Published 11 May, 2012 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

2565 more posts from this author

Comments (13)

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Nick Stamoulis

"Part of this professional development involves learning how best to make decisions on the basis of incomplete knowledge...or incomplete data..."

I think you hit the nail on the head. A lot of SEO, especially when trying to assess something like a penalty, requires experience and knowledge. You may not always have 100% of the information you need to make a decision, so you have to rely on your past experiences to guide your decisions.

over 4 years ago


Douglas Karr

We've made some massive changes in the way that we approach our clients' search strategies in the last year. A year ago, it was all off-site and doing the math of authority, pagerank and number of backlinks. It was a science and it worked.

However, the algorithms have become much more 'tuned' into this gaming of the system. I'm actually quite thankful for it because it was a flawed system that was owned by whomever had the largest budget for backlinking.

I've been telling people that SEO has moved from a math problem to a human problem. Again, I'm thankful for that... but the problem is there are still a lot of mathematicians out there selling their pixie dust. We have more and more clients coming to us who spent a boatload on a 'offsite promotion' aka backlink strategy that didn't work.

We're now back to critically developing human strategies to ensure our clients produce great content, promote that content, and it's enabled for social sharing. Guess what... it works. We've outperformed all of our old "math" solutions by tapping into the human one.

After all, that's what marketing is all about. Dare I say that SEO is Dead? I think it is.

over 4 years ago

Jason Woolley

Jason Woolley, Head of Search Operations, Asia Pacific at GroupM

A little knowledge doesn't go very far in an interview when the interviewer is a seasoned pro, but it seems to pull the wool over the eyes of many, including recruiters who should know better.
Suggest "how to hire an SEO" could be a popular course if you ran it.

over 4 years ago


Neil Vaughan, Social Media Marketing at Freelance

RE: Douglas

You mention that you now develop human strategies? could you explain what this entails regarding SEO?

Also to the thread - What are the top5/10 factors you look at when conducting SEO for a client? as being the most important


1. Keyword Research
2. Competitor Analysis
3. Keyword implementation (Title, HTML tags and content copywriting).
4. Conversion of customers / CRO /Landing pages taking into account point 3
5. PR style link building
6. Site Design/Usability
7. Existing Link House keeping
8. Social Media integration/mentions/sharing
9. Site Build Analysis (coding of the site)
10. General housekeeping XML sitemaps etc

over 4 years ago

Paul North

Paul North, Head of Content and Strategy at Mediarun

For me, SEO is 2 disciplines. Very briefly, they are:

1. The technical side where I believe the scientific approach is indeed the best one. This mostly deals with fixing issues and resolving problems.

2. The human/marketing side. This covers keyword strategy, content development ideas, link building and everything that links SEO to all other areas of marketing.

The more search engines evolve, the more the first discipline will shrink. Search engines need a lot of help to understand websites right now and that's where most of the technical work is. As the years go by they will need less and less help, I feel.

over 4 years ago



I think an industry accreditation could help potential customers identify a basic benchmark of quality, but it is also a great way to provide structured learning and support for new marketers entering the vast and complex world of SEO.

Relatively new to the industry, I took part in the SEMPO course last year which really helped me to consolidate all that I had learned on the job. However, you can study all the theory you like - it's meaningless without the practical application and hands-on testing. Just like any scientist would tell you! If SEO is a science, then furthering the boundaries of SEO are only through experimentation.
And, ultimately, nothing beats experience.

One thing I would be weary of is, with a professional accreditation, is that it could lose its value over time if it doesn't constantly evolve and keep pace. SEO and SEM changes constantly, which is why it's such an exciting industry. But without support from bedrock SEO communities, an "official qualification" could easily become just another gimmicky marketing tool rather than a benchmark of quality.

over 4 years ago


tony swaby

Lost me when he compared it to physics...come on guy you might offend real scientists.

over 4 years ago


Sammie Appiah

SEO is defiantly a Science but has become very hazy, as everyone seems to have different opinions on how to get the results. Google wants users to pay for clicks and is really trying to make it difficult for search engine marketers.

over 4 years ago



Working out changes in the algorithms is quite scientific but I think a better comparison is with military gaming. Until the search engines start fully collaborating with SEO then we will always be at least one step behind playing catch up.

We can only use "science" to improve the speed at which we catch up!

over 4 years ago


Duncan Wright

Although I agree with the sentiment, as a Marketer of more years than I care to remember, I think the post rather misses the point.

It’s not about whether SEO is an art or science, it is about whether, for your average business, devoting significant resources to professional SEO is the best use of those resources.

As my argument is a little long to fit in a comments box, I have set it out in a reply on our blog.


over 4 years ago



Some interesting points here: As an ex- particle physicist turned internet marketeer I've always believed that there are just too many variables to model SEO processes exactly - especially given the fact that ranking algorithms change so regularly..

over 4 years ago

Salvatore McDonagh

Salvatore McDonagh, Conversion Rate Optimisation Consultant at Salvatore McDonagh

Sorry, but SEO is *NOT* a science, even though it requires scientific techniques to do well. Physics does not respond to the physicists by changing the rules to counter their experiments. Google does. SEO vs Google is an arms race - that requires scientific methods to have a foothold, or to advance, but it is not a "science".

over 4 years ago


Douglas Karr, President and CEO at DK New Media, LLC


A "Human" strategy is identifying opportunities to enhance, promote and make content 'shareable'. Some strategies:
1. Ensuring titles and meta descriptions are tested and lead to greater click-through rates.
2. Incorporating 'sharing' technologies (twitter buttons, linkedin buttons, pinterest buttons, etc.) that allow people to easily share the information with their networks.
3. Incorporating microdata (Schema/OpenGraph) so that when content is shared, the image is optimal as well as the title and description.
4. Leveraging infographics and video. These mediums are easily shared and provide great traction for relevant links and traffic.
5. Pushing PR opportunities - both written and verbal - to get the message spread in front of authoritative sources who tend to get the message delivered more effectively. ie. Bloggers who have a large following and whose content is shared.


over 4 years ago

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