Most people don’t know this about me, but I have a master’s degree in Counseling Psychology, and I even had a private practice for a few years. While I think I was pretty good at it, I wasn’t cut out to listen to people’s problems every day (and maintain a professional demeanor). Throughout that short career I was always bothered by industry certifications and their dual-relationship with state and federal politics.
I recently read about a survey meant to see if a third-party certification for SEO is feasible. I can only hope the answer is no, and I’m going to tell you why.
Industry certifications are corrupt
In the counseling world, organizations like the American Counseling Association (ACA) actively lobby for their interests, both on a state and federal level. Lobbying right next to them is the organization National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) which was created by ACA. While their lobbying efforts are under the guise of sensible public policy, they are really there for self-serving purposes. Their collective goal is to control how state and federal government approach the licensure (and business) of psychotherapy, and to set the standard for testing, which conveniently includes the NCC certification.
For most states you have to pass the NCE to become licensed. The NCE also happens to be the same exam you take to get your NCC certificate, which is administered by the NBCC, which was created by the ACA. While I doubt that poor SEO practices will ever lead to a licensure requirement, the idea of an SEO certification still irks me.
Similar to psychology (although many psychologists will disagree with me on this), SEO is an ever changing art and pseudo-science. If you look at counseling, there are many theories and approaches – some of which are in complete conflict with each other. The dirty little secret in counseling is that most popular theories and approaches are no better or worse than the others. Success depends on the skill of the counselor, and if the counseling approach fits the personality and needs of the client. The same is true with SEO. There are approaches and techniques that will only work well for certain sites, or can only be successfully executed by certain people. Those techniques may offer more or less risk, but the end result is results.
A certification for SEO would require an exclusive board to decide what is good SEO and what is bad SEO. How will these people be chosen? What will make their SEO strategies better than someone who wasn’t accepted to be on their board? How will they decide what is ethical, or even moral? Once this board is created, who will control it? Would there eventually come a time where people couldn’t get an SEO related job without paying for the SEOE?
For me, the simple mention of certification conjures up politics, unfair influence, and corruption.
Community Regulation Trumps Certification
People are going to do stupid things, regardless of whether or not they are certified. Trained and certified counselors will have inappropriate relationships with their clients, teachers will have sex with their students, lawyers will break the law, and plumbers will do a crappy job of fixing my toilet (I’m still pissed). But what happens when those things occur – particularly in the open? The community calls them out.
In the counseling world there are grievance boards where clients and colleagues can report malfeasance. In the SEO world there are blogs, social media, traditional (online) media, and of course, Matt Cutts (aka Captain Anti-Spam of Team America Google). In the counseling world you might get away with making a few mistakes, but in the SEO world, the community will publicly crap on your face if you cross the line. Your site will also feel the pain of second order change (when the rules of the system change) if your SERPs tank.
The SEO community does an excellent job of openly discussing and constructively criticizing ideas and approaches. Even the brave souls that dare question the SEO education constantly flowing from SEOmoz do a good job of keeping them straight.
In the time it will take for a committee to agree on what goes into an SEO exam, the exam will be irrelevant. Search continues to evolve at a whiplash-inducing pace, and SEO must evolve along with it.
There are certainly fundamentals in SEO: make your content accessible to search engines, use HTML techniques and copy that naturally include target keywords, and get sites to link to you. Resources like Google’s Search Engine Optimization Start Guide (PDF) and SEOmoz’s The Beginners Guide to SEO are perfect for learning these fundamentals. However, once you gain real experience in SEO, you’ll learn that those guidelines only get you so far.
Like counseling, there are many voices in SEO that represent themselves as experts, and they all have different theories on how to approach a campaign. There is no one person – and certainly no one SEO certification – that can tell you everything you need to know. There are things you have to find out for yourself. And like counseling, no counselor has exactly the same approach or technique as another counselor. They approach their clients knowing that every person is unique, and through discovery and practice they find the best therapy for each individual. The technique that works may be one that that the certification board has no clue of.