Why SEO Isn’t Taught In College (And Why It Shouldn’t Be)

SMS Text



If you meet someone in search engine marketing (SEM) or search engine optimization (SEO) and ask them about their background, I’m willing to bet that they were self taught or that they “fell” into the industry.  The reality is that there is very little opportunity for higher educational opportunities for young people to learn search engine marketing.  Why? We’ve put together a list of 3 reasons why SEO isn’t taught in school and why it shouldn’t be:

1. The Nature of The Beast 

The beast in this case is Google, and it is a very fickle beast.  It’s estimated that Google changes their search engine ranking algorithms around once a day on average.  This means that over 365 times per year, the industry rules are changed. Google’s big updates (Panda and Penguin) create industry wide earthquakes over night! At this pace there is no way educational instructors could ever keep up a current standard for curricula.

2. A Creative Game

SEO is an complex industry, in that it is a business built on data and metrics, but a large portion of the actual work is creative.  As the industry moves away from focusing on link quantity and moves towards link quality, it will be imperative that SEO’s are doing top notch creative work (like content writing, blog posting, and outreach, for example).  There are very few standards to evaluate how different agencies get good links, which would make teaching SEO “best methods” very difficult, if not impossible. Each SEO has their own style, secrets, and methods, which can’t always be reproduced.

 3. A Bunch Of Tools

SEO, as a new and changing industry, has a competitive marketplace for analytic tools, programs, and software, where no particular company has emerged as the industry go-to. With so many different software options, it would be very difficult for professors to choose which platform to teach.  Who is to say that one program is better than another? In many ways, it all boils down to personal preference or a history of using one platform.

So how then can you learn SEO in college without taking a single SEO course? 

1. Study Marketing – SEO is generally a small part of a large marketing strategy, so it can help greatly to learn the rest of the puzzle by studying traditional marketing. A focus on learning marketing for small business would be ideal, as your first clients and experiences in the industry will likely be for small companies that are looking to stretch a limited budget.

2. Study Statistics – If you can learn how to work well with big data, analytics, and reporting tools, then you’ll be primed for a healthy career in SEO.  Basic statistics courses should teach you how to interact with large sets of data and how to read trends in the numbers. It is also imperative that you learn to use Microsoft Excel (or something similar) as it seems to be the industry standard for compiling data sets.

3. Study Journalism – Matt Cutts will be happy to have journalism students coming into the SEO world.  Fresh content is key, after all. Study up on grammar so that you really understand how to be effective (not “affective”) with your words. One thing that can instantly kill your relationship with a client is typos and poorly written content. Another good skill to develop is creative writing, because as an SEO, your end goal is to drive leads to your client. One of the best ways achieve this goal is with persuasive content. Learn how to use your words to describe, persuade, and shape the attitudes of potential customers.

4. Study Business – A large portion of people in the SEO industry work in small businesses, which means it can be very useful to understand the how small businesses work.  In 2011, SEOmoz (now MOZ) released a study that shows that the overwhelming majority of SEO agencies employ 1-5 employees.  If you can come into a small agency with a good understanding of business structure and growth, you can quickly become a very valuable asset to the company.

5. Study Design – Good SEO involves web design, branding, logo design, and advertising, so developing a keen eye for design can be hugely beneficial. Spend some serious time learning the Adobe Creative Suite and getting comfortable with making creative decisions. It is a huge bonus if you can graduate with a portfolio of design work (even if it is just spec work) that you can show to future employers (and even future clients).

6. Read SEO Books – Teach yourself SEO like many of us have. Find and read every book possible and be hungry to learn — if you’re still interested in search engine marketing after a few thick books, then I’m sure you’ll fit in well with the rest of us geeks. As I’ve mentioned before, SEO is a quickly changing business. To succeed in the industry, you must be willing to keep up to date with the newest information that is published. There are plenty of great SEO books out there, so I won’t waste my breath, but a good place to start is here.

7. Follow Industry Leaders – Many of the best and brightest minds in the SEO industry have personal blogs and social media profiles full of incredibly useful information. Some of my personal favorite bloggers include Matt Cutts (if you don’t know who he is, then Google him), Gary Vaynerchuck (a beast in social media), and the fellas at MOZ (particularly the White Board Friday segment). You can also follow industry sites like this one to get a wide variety of opinions and ideas from various experts in the industry.

8. Attend Conferences – There are countless conference opportunities hosted by leading search companies (such as Distilled) that can be perfect opportunities for learning and networking. I can’t stress how important it is to get out of the office and hit the streets to network.  After all, the handshake was the predecessor to the “friend request”.

John Leo Weber

John Leo Weber

Director of Digital Marketing at Geek Powered Studios
John Leo Weber is the Director of Digital Marketing at Geek Powered Studios in Austin TX. John crafts the digital strategy for all Geek Powered... Read Full Bio
John Leo Weber
John Leo Weber

Latest posts by John Leo Weber (see all)

Get the latest news from Search Engine Journal!
We value your privacy! See our policy here.
  • John -This is a brilliant article. Particularly true in my experience, if your description of the educational type that has fallen into this industry. The owner of the company for which I work and I both have backgrounds in business and technology (he took Microsoft Certification courses), I picked it up on the job. You article was very insightful, especially as regards the higher education component. My wife is a professor at University of Florida, and she daily laments that SEO/SEM isn’t a course she can take – she majors in English and was turned down for a copy-writing position with a major SEO firm in Tampa. Keep in touch: http://www.twitter.com/ACF_Cloud

    • Thanks James,

      I’m always interested to hear how my colleagues got their first job in the SEO industry. It can be tricky to land a position with no formal training!

  • Alicia Ebeling

    Mr Matuga,
    I think that you are right. I have a background in chemistry & there the answer is either right or it’s wrong. Black and white. There are no wrong, but…answers. Creativity is often looked-down upon when you are a student in the sciences. Most students who display some creativity in their test answers are rejected by their professors. Ambiguity is looked down upon and most scientific professors tend towards tests written out long-hand rather than the simple multiple choice scantrons so that to student is given credit for a derivation in spite of the fact the ANSWER itself may be wrong.
    I actually prefer that method of grading because I could have the formulation of a compound correctly , but end up w/ a cis- product, when the correct answer is a trans- product. In that way, the formulation is correct, I’d lose a few points on the very last step…
    The Scantron answer would be incorrect though, and I would lose full credit. A real bummer if there are only 25 questions total…

  • This is exactly why I love SEO – always changing so you need to read up and stay ahead of the game. The rate that SEO change would mean you’d have to forget half the stuff you were taught before the course even finished. Totally agree with 3 – well written content is the key to success

  • Arjan

    SEO is learn and adapt, measure and adapt, check and adapt. What is now good for SEO can be bad for SEO within a short notice (or without notice 🙂 ). I love it, selftaught! Have spent hours and hours reading everything I could find, implement strategies, measure them, and when failed, check what and why and improve all the time!

  • Got some bad news for you, John. Search engine optimization *IS* taught in college and has been for years, for both academic credit and as part of Continuing/Adult Education programs. The quality of the programs may vary but they are probably NOT going away.

  • That is the part of the SEO learn so basically starting with new factors because now a days SEO is totally changed for some of that point of view.

  • Great Article!

    A whole article written wisely. What i would say that to following experts blog and SEO books are the best way to be updated and to get to know more about SEO.

  • I believe that study, design, implementation & measure are the basic steps by which you can enhance your analytical SEO skills. The more you analyse the more you explore and the more you explore you will learn more every time about it. Also, SEO is always changing so you to stay up to date regarding the current trends happening in the search marketing industry which I love the most.


  • Gaurav Bali

    Great article John…..but i do think SEO should be considered as one of optional subject at Grad level, At least basics on which SEO works remains to be same & its ever changing tactics keeps the subject interested. Well, everyone has his/her own point of view for SEO, so it always been an issue “HOW”. Also, it comes to be an in-depth topic to discuss as Daniel said. Looking for more from you “Mr. Specialist”.

  • I agree with this post completely, there is no room for SEO in college. Yes, it may be taught now but if I asked the most influential leaders in SEO I bet a very small minority (if any) actually studied SEO at college. To me, SEO goes like this: You get thrown in at the deep end, you sink or you swim.

  • I’m gonna have to disagree with you there John. The majority of your article covers how to learn SEO. If something can be learned, surely it can be taught. And just because the field changes is no reason to keep it out of college curriculums. I wholeheartedly believe it should be core to any online marketing program. Further, the guiding principles of SEO haven’t changed all that much since its inception: specifically, SEO is all about providing clear and abundant signals to search bots that help the search engines understand and trust what your content is about. I don’t see that ever changing.

  • Philip

    I agree that today’s SEO has a lot to do with creativity. SEO’s has always to imagine new ways to create valuable content, sites,…

    I think that’s important as well to learn programming, at least to learn about front-end development and html markup, microdatas, … Tomorrow’s web will be semantic so every SEO should know how to optimize the markup !

  • Derek

    Great article John, I agree with most of it however I think there could be benefits of having a course or two as electives for say a marketing degree. I started out learning everything on my own which has worked out just fine so far.
    One additional thing I would add is to go out and build a website and try to get ranked for whatever it is your website is about. Regardless of how well your site ranks its great practice and forces you to learn and implement new techniques. Learning by doing is one of the best and quickest ways to learn something new.

  • Anjelica Awitan

    Well, we have lots of point of views. But I am completely agree with John (sorry Myron).
    Look Google’s search engine is changing everyday. And how is it possible that in College, professors will teach something today and change or revise it the next day and so on?
    Even me, myself I am an Engineering student but I learned SEO when I have started to be in the field. I learned a lot, at first it was broad but we just need to explore and understand how it works. It’s amazing that everyday we learned something new.
    I love this kind of articles. Like why I just can’t fly but can stroll. Whew!

  • Ryan Fahey

    I agree with what Myron said above. Having graduated from college this past December with a degree in marketing, I found the lack of discussion regarding seo, analytics, paid search and internet marketing as a whole to be a huge fault in the university’s program. There was a large gap between what was taught by my professors (traditional marketing, native advertising ect.) and what’s happening in the real world. Internet marketing is a KEY component to any organizations strategy, from small businesses to nationally recognized corporations, and needs to be recognized as such.

    As seo continues to shift towards a more traditional marketing/pr role, it’s more important than ever that it gets recognition at the collegiate level of study (I mean you are paying top dollar to be educated on what’s currently happening in your field). While you are right in the fact that things are constantly changing, I do see real value in a course teaching students industry standards and introducing platforms such as google adwords/analytics- things that aren’t going away anytime soon. I mean I did have to take a marketing research, sales forecasting and professional sales course… why not internet marketing?

  • Chris Bertrand

    I kinda agree, SEO shouldn’t be taught as a course but as it’s a massive part of how the web works it should be mentioned and best practices of web development should include SEO practices.

  • Some really good advice here, but what a long list of things to learn, and where is someone to get time to study all of this even when at school.

    It was great to read the bit about ‘study business’ as my back ground is as a Chartered Accountant and Business Analysis, and like many I fell into SEO as I had to start looking at website performance and including them into a business plan.

    I quite like the fact SEO is something you can’t learn at college, because if it ever happened, those of use who are self taught and good at what we do wouldn’t be wanted any more, or made to go and get a certificate to prove we can do the job.

    Tax laws change all the time, the course work and exams are only ever a year out, but the student has to show they understand current rules and changes that are coming. So it wouldn’t be that hard to create a moving course for SEO.

  • My son is getting ready to go to college in a year and he just asked me this question. He is fascinated by website promotion. As a freelance writer, I depend on the search engines and he knows I am always concerned about it. I explained to him the “rules” are constantly changing and a creative approach is the only way to go. I am always reading industry blogs and updates from Google to stay fresh and relevant. I am sharing this with my son so he understands what I was trying to explain to him a few days ago.

    • Jared, that’s great. Hope the article can help. If there’s one piece of advice I could give to your son or anyone interested in the business, it would be for him to develop a portfolio while he’s in school and has the resources and help available.

      It would look amazing to an employer if he came out of school and could show a website, some ads, or even logos he’s designed.

      Best of luck to your son,

      -John Leo Weber

  • I think with SEO changing so Dynamically its impossible to teach anyone. You should have hands on experience with SEO learn it. Importnat thing is Read as much as you can.

  • I’m more than a little shocked that somehow the criteria for what should or shouldn’t be a college class is whether or not the material is prone to change. As Christina points out above, tax code changes is an excellent example of subject matter that changes constantly. So are the fields of law, government, medicine, psychology, art, architecture, design, fashion and the list goes on.

    In so many fields of study, you learn the basics of the practical and the theoretical and then you are expected to continue learning as long as you continue to practice in your chosen profession. Also, let’s be honest … as far as web technologies are concerned, most aspects change frequently: social media, online marketing platforms, software development platforms, devices, coding techniques and languages, content management systems.

    We should just stop teaching all of that stuff because none of it will last very long so what’s the point?! Obviously that doesn’t make much sense.

  • SEO should be teachable school or colleges so Students can get knowledge of seo during their education. They can use effectively of google in their studies.