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.