Getting an SEO Education

I took time last week to help some of my ClickZ, Search Engine Watch, and Search Engine Strategies colleagues man a booth at a virtual expo. It’s not very often (except at certain live events) that I get a chance just to chit-chat about the industry with the various writers, editors, and organizers.

During a break from my booth duty, I read my colleague Erik Dafforn’s column on educational requirements for search marketers. It’s a very interesting read and I mentioned it at the booth, which prompted a little more dialogue on online marketing education.

It’s an interesting discussion because I’ve looked at so many SEO (define) courses, classes, conferences, seminars, workshops, Webcasts, reference books, and downright spam manuals over the years. To date, everything I’ve learned (or not, as the case may be) I haven’t been able to cohesively bring together and document. And the reason for that, I believe search is still very much a living experiment.

I gave a presentation at a conference in Austin, Texas, this year regarding changes in approach since the arrival of universal search and blended results. Most of what I discussed was based on Google’s and the other search engines’ difficulties and changes that may occur in the future. Another panelist happened to be a Google engineer. As the first question was fired from the audience, she gestured toward me and said, “As you’ve just heard, search is not yet a solved problem.”

If the mighty Google has not yet conquered the problem of search/information retrieval on the Web (and it’s still a long way from it), should we be trying to develop long-term certified SEO programs?

As I struggle to come up with my own third book on search, I want to tear my hair out at times and set fire to my research work. It gets that frustrating when you finish part of your text and feeling quite pleased with your work, only to discover the next day that something in the industry has changed and you have to go back and rewrite again and again and again.

It’s true that I’ve spoken to my publisher on numerous occasions to say that I heard a little whisper that such-and-such will change in the coming months, so let’s put the launch date back. I’ve been doing that for nearly 18 months and my publisher is now pulling his hair out!

Mostly this is based on the fear that the minute I draw a line under the research and publish the actual book, it will be yesterday’s news as soon as it hits the bookshelves. I have copies of all the most recent books on search engine marketing, and fortunately I also know the authors. Rarely is there a time I bump into them that I don’t hear the words “and I’m so busy working on the next edition.”

Strangely enough, in the introduction to my own second edition I used the idiom from the U.K. about painting the Forth Bridge. It refers to a never-ending task, where the moment you finish you have to start all over again. That was eight years ago and I don’t think a lot has changed. Perhaps not for the same reasons, though. Back then, there was talk about how often the algorithm changed, and search engine crawler analysis was at its geekiest.

These days, the difference isn’t so much about crawler limitations. It’s more about the user’s sophistication and his more immediate information need. We can study crawlers forever and a day but probably arrive at the same conclusion as many researchers in the field: the crawler is gradually losing the search battle.

I’ve talked many times about people employed in search needing to be constantly ready to change and adapt. It is my firm belief that search isn’t about the battle of three giants to gain the most market share anymore. It’s about satisfying end users’ growing long-term information needs. These are end users who, like me, learned about the death of Michael Jackson via Twitter before a major search engine.

The huge success of Wholefoods (my local supermarket) on Twitter with nearly 500,000 followers for the global account and many, many more following individual stores is a fine example of how a business can cater to long-term information needs for its audience.

Does that mean SEO professionals who are more used to analyzing bots crawling around the Web should become social media experts? Or is that type of information retrieval a different field? More to the point, should I now consider writing a mighty chapter in my book on the social media phenomenon? Or will it be called something else and not be a phenomenon anymore by the time the book is published?

There will be convergence at some point in the future. But until then, I’m not sure what the best qualifications are for someone looking to get into SEO. To be honest, most of the successful search marketers I know range from, literally, rocket scientists to physicists, from direct marketers to journalists. In my own circle, I don’t know any one of us who has the same background or qualifications.

However, we all seem to have done quite well in the business. I wonder: when we do have convergence and there is a course and qualification, how many of us would actually pass it?

Meet Mike at Search Engine Strategies San Jose, August 10-14, 2009, at the McEnery Convention Center.

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