My first job at a digital marketing agency was managing AdWords accounts for clients. When I started, I didn’t know PPC from PVC, but I had a great mentor, read every blog I could, and learned quickly from experience.
Then came the day my boss asked me to get official AdWords certification from Google. I studied for that test harder than I’d ever studied for any college exam. This was the first time I’d ever been asked to take a test that might affect my job.
I passed! I got to print out a nice certificate to put on the outside of my cubicle telling the world I was an official Google AdWords Certified professional.
Fast forward a couple of years and I’m trying to make my way in the SEO world as well. Surely Google has a similar exam and certification program that will tell everyone I follow Google-approved best practices for search engine optimization?
Why Doesn’t Google Have an SEO Certification Program?
This question came up during our first Virtual Keynote with Gary Illyes (Google Webmaster Trends Analyst). Someone in the audience asked, “Do you think that Google should have an SEO certification program just like it has an AdWords certification?”
Gary Illyes answered:
We were thinking a lot about this. A lot. And then a bit more. And we always end up with the conclusion that, no we shouldn’t. There are many reasons why that would be a good idea. There are way more reasons that it would be a bad idea. If we endorse SEOs, then that will also mean that we actually have to, perhaps, train them, which would be nonsense because, first of all, it wouldn’t be scalable to train I don’t know how many people.
Second, if we do go down that path, then we will have to hire more people, which costs money. We have to get that money somehow, so we would ask for money [from those applying for certification]. Search doesn’t ask for money for anything, so there’s already a conflict there. There were tons of things that we brought up against this. My short answer is no, we will not have that any time soon. That’s it!
Let’s go through the key points in Gary’s answer.
1. Google would have to provide training
A certification test is only meaningful if it is certifying that the one who passes it has an acceptable level of understanding of a prescribed curriculum. It would be absurd if you signed up for a college course with your grade totally dependent on a final exam, but were then told that there was no syllabus, nothing to read, not lectures, no way to prepare for the exam.
So fine, why doesn’t Google just put together such a curriculum? Gary mentioned cost as one reason, and I’ll get to that in the second point below, but I think there is likely at least two more possible reasons he didn’t mention.
- Volatility of SEO: The algorithms that run paid search advertising are complex, but relatively static. Yes, Google does make changes to how AdWords works, or introduce new features, but those happen relatively infrequently. So updating the curriculum and exams is not a huge task. The search algorithms, on the other hand, change constantly. One Googler has been quoted as saying there are “thousands of updates to the algorithm each year.” Updating curriculum and exams would be a constant and labor-intensive job.
- The Secret Sauce: For any SEO certification program to be accurate and meaningful, Google might have to reveal more about their search algorithms and how they work than they are prepared to do. Just listen to public interviews of anyone from Google Search and compare them with interviews of AdWords representatives. While the AdWords folks are often able to give clear, straightforward answers to almost any question about their service, the Search reps often have to be more circumspect. It’s not that the Search employees are inherently less giving people. Rather, they understand how easily any information they provide could be misunderstood, or worse, used to game the system.
2. Google would have to charge SEOs for the exams
Putting resources into training materials, exam construction, and maintaining a certification database are all expenses with little ROI to Google. That’s why they charge a fee to take the AdWords exams. (Also, probably because charging a fee makes people take the exam more seriously.)
UPDATE (29 March 2016, 1:20pm EDT): I was informed by an alert reader that Google no longer charges a fee for taking AdWords exams, and confirmed that they indeed dropped the fee in 2013. However, I think Gary’s assertion is probably still valid. Remember that AdWords and Search operate entirely separately within Google, with their own budgets. Also keep in mind that AdWords directly generates huge revenue (actually, the majority of Google’s revenue), while Search only generates revenue indirectly (via the AdWords ads it displays). So it is likely that it would indeed be difficult for Search to get budget for a certification program, since it could not be justified with a measurable return in revenue.
People will use AdWords whether or not there is a certification program for AdWords managers, so Google gains little by providing it. Mostly, it is a service for those managers. It gives them a plaque to hang on their wall and an icon to put on their websites that might give their clients more confidence about using them.
So it’s legitimate for Google to charge for the service.
So, as Gary says, Google would have to charge for any SEO certification program in order to cover and justify the expense and person-hours that would go into it. And there’s the problem.
Search Is Sacred
As Gary said, “Search doesn’t ask for money for anything.” At Google, Search is Sacred.
Search is Sacred? What do I mean by that? Search is still the single most important thing Google does, because it is (by far) the largest revenue generator for the company. People continue to use Google search because they trust it. They expect the search results to be totally unbiased, to be beyond any possible influence by anything other than the impersonal, objective algorithms.
For that reason, Google has always guarded the sanctity of the search results from even the appearance of untoward influence. For example, there has been a recurring accusation that big-money AdWords accounts get preference in the search results. Not only has Google repeatedly and vehemently denied this, even ex-Googlers who no longer have anything to hide have been just as strong in their insistence that there is an absolute wall of separation between AdWords and Search.
I believe them, for one simple reason: whatever revenue Google might gain by allowing paying advertisers to think their money might buy them preferential treatment in search would be pennies next to the billions Google would lose if it ever got out (as it inevitably would) that such was the case. Again, the entire value proposition of Google Search is founded on trust, on a sacred promise that the results are beyond any manipulation or influence.
So that is why Google won’t contemplate taking even the small fee that it might have to charge for an SEO certification program.
What About an SEO Industry Certification Program?
There have been any number of proposals for some kind of third-party, industry-recognized program of SEO certification. One such attempt was the SEMPO Institute, launched in 2008 by the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization, but shut down in 2012.
Two current online SEO training and certification programs are one by MarketMotive and a forthcoming USC Davis course by our own Eric Enge: Become an SEO Expert. While both are excellent training opportunities, they still don’t fill the place of an industry-recognized SEO certification program.
Why has no such program emerged and been accepted by SEOs everywhere?
- There has been no industry-wide consensus on who should administer such a program.
- There is wide disagreement on what should be included and required of SEO certification.
- Such disagreement becomes even sharper when the topic of “ethical SEO” comes into play. Many think that SEO ethics needs to be part of any certification, as businesses are increasingly concerned about the damage that an unethical SEO could do, but there is much disagreement about where the line between ethical and unethical (or “white hat” and “black hat”) lies.
- Even on some of what most SEOs would consider fundamentals of SEO, there are dissenters. For example, recently one well-known SEO proclaimed that he believes Google is already working to eliminate link signals from search algorithms, but many other SEOs vehemently disagreed with him.
- Proving what actually are valid SEO practices is difficult because none of us has access to the algorithms. That doesn’t mean there aren’t practices which have been more than reasonably confirmed, whether by careful testing or confirmation from Googlers (or both), but there is still disagreement about much of SEO among very smart and reputable people.
Without Certification, How Does an SEO Establish Credibility?
Licenses, diplomas, professional certification, all of these are relatively recent developments in history. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, and other similar professions have existed for centuries, but it was only with the increasing availability of university education in the nineteenth century that licensing and certification became the norm in the West.
Before that, what we call professionals today were simply practitioners. Typically they learned their profession in some kind of apprenticeship. Their only certification was reputation, both that of the master who trained them and their own as they plied their trade.
Because of all the reasons listed above, SEO remains one of the few professional occupations that still (for the most part) functions under the older system. Name any prominent, respected SEO you know today, and chances are good that they have no formal certification in their field. In fact, in most cases, they have little or no formal education in their current profession (since college-level SEO programs didn’t exist until a few years ago, and are still relatively rare).
Despite that fact, those people are often working with some of the largest companies in the world and making incomes well into six figures. In other words, they are trusted as much as anyone trusts a doctor or lawyer with a diploma, license, and professional organization certification. But they earned that trust “the old fashioned way,” by proven performance and demonstrated expertise.
How to Become SEO Certified Without a Certificate
Therefore, here is my advice on how to become an SEO professional, despite the fact that there may never be a fancy, gold-embossed certificate to hang on your wall.
- Seek out a ground floor opportunity. Whether in an SEO agency or the SEO department of a company, find an internship or job that will get you in the door and working with real SEOs. When I wanted to get into this industry, I took a big pay cut and talked my way into an entry-level position in an agency just so I could be around SEO practitioners and learn from them.
- Find a mentor. This is where the apprenticeship system kicks in, and in my opinion, it is the best way to learn SEO. Find an experienced SEO who is getting good results, and do whatever it takes to work with him or her and learn. The most valuable mentor will be someone with whom you can actually spend time, asking questions, and even better, assisting in their work. But you can also have “virtual mentors,” people in the industry whose publications you read. Sometimes you may even get to ask them questions on social media or elsewhere.
- Enroll in a course. While there may be no “standard” SEO training and certification program, there are two excellent online courses linked in the “What About an SEO Industry Certification Program?” section above.
- Read read read. One of the guiding principles in my life was put into me by a teacher in my sophomore year of high school: “He who will not read, will not lead.” Spend time learning what the best resources for SEO education are and read everything they’ve written. Or save yourself a ton of time and read The Art of SEO from cover to cover. (Disclosure: Perficient Digital’ Eric Enge is the lead co-author of that book.)
- Do the work. Learning SEO theory is one thing, but there is no substitute for getting your hands dirty, so to speak, with actual SEO projects. If you’ve found a ground floor opportunity and/or a mentor, you’re already on your way to doing this.
- Take our quiz! If you think you’re already well down the road to being a professional SEO, or even now call yourself one, try out our 20-question SEO quiz on Search Engine Land. Warning! It’s not for the faint of heart. This is a highly technical quiz, and it expects you to sometimes find the best answer out of several possible “right” answers.
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Mark Traphagen is Content Strategy Director for Perficient Digital (formerly Stone Temple Consulting). He has been named one of the most influential content and social media authors in numerous industry listings.