I was reading an excellent article about site audits by Rhea Drysdale when a certain segment jumped out at me. In describing the intersection of her college education and SEM (define), Rhea said, “‘Internet marketing’ was a single paragraph in my Principles of Advertising class. That’s it! One paragraph that said that Internet marketing was too new and risky for agencies to pursue it, we were better off carefully crafting newspaper ads and direct mailers!”
As pathetic as one paragraph must have seemed, it was certainly one paragraph more than existed during my matriculation. And I will assume that the same can be said for many SEM professionals out there.
For many, a discussion of the relative merits of learning SEO (define)/SEM in college versus on the job is largely moot, because only one of those options existed.
Back to the Future
Now that formal SEM education does exist at most schools, would I prescribe a curriculum of digital marketing prerequisites to any potential hires? Not necessarily. I’m a big proponent of a liberal arts education, and I’ve applied plenty of things to SEO that I learned prior to installing NCSA Mosaic for the first time, several careers ago. Following are some academic paths that have some striking similarities to SEO and SEM:
- Chemistry. An engine’s algorithm is similar to a chemical compound like water. Generally, compounds have a predictable behavior unless their environments become unstable. Change the atmospheric pressure or temperature, and water might change state from liquid to solid. Add another oxygen atom, and suddenly water turns to hydrogen peroxide. Similarly, engines adapt their algorithms to user searches, analytics data, spam loopholes, and current events. Only through repeated testing and observation can you semi-reliably predict the outcome of environmental changes.
- History. It sometimes seems like the adage should be changed to, “Those who are ignorant of history are doomed to form a new search startup.” I’ve been fascinated by watching startups over the years, including Google, and trying to identify the exact circumstances under which success or failure occurs. So far I’ve had little luck.
- Psychology. Beyond an understanding of statistics (whose importance doesn’t need to be stated), a psychology background is very helpful in assessing your target audience. Understanding your customers’ needs is only a short hop from a full-blown usability study, and you’ll have acute insight into what advertising venues, keywords, and so on might be effective for your site.
- Biology. As with history, a working knowledge of biological processes is wonderful preparation for observing the technical Darwinism that exists in the market today. Every SEO consultant knows of clients who didn’t adapt quickly enough, or perhaps more frustrating, those who changed too rapidly and didn’t wait for their environment to adapt to them. Similarly, SEO companies themselves often work for years to find an environment (pricing structure, product offerings, and so on) hospitable to their growth or, perhaps more likely, wither and die in the harsh exposure to the competition.
In Defense of the Academy
Many people whose formal education came before the Web find it difficult to comprehend how a college course could adequately capture the industry’s rapid changes. Similar to a new car’s value as you drive it off the lot, isn’t an SEM syllabus obsolete minutes after the toner dries?
But when I get too smug, I try to remember people like Patricia Galea and Mike Margolin, two colleagues with whom I’ve worked in the past, who teach a class called “Advertising in the Digital Age” through the University of California Los Angeles’ extension program. The program is a comprehensive online marketing course and contains a healthy dose of SEO and SEM. By day, Patricia and Mike represent the cream of the SEM in-house and agency crop. So you can bet that if you sign up for their course, you’ll learn subtleties of topics that are days, if not hours, old.
Further, many SEO and SEM fundamentals haven’t changed significantly in years. The goals of keyword research, analytics, site architecture, and usability are very close to what they were 10 years ago. While the tools and techniques we use to build them have changed, the concepts have largely remained static.
We’ve hired people with no, a little, or a lot of industry experience, and none of those experience levels have a positive correlation to long-term success. Instead, a few traits common among people I really trust are intellectual curiosity, excellent communication skills, a broad (and not always college-based) education, and a cautious obsession with the unknown lurking beyond the horizon.
This column was originally published on July 8, 2009. Erik is off today.