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Why SEO certification is a horrible idea

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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.

Unavoidable Irrelevance

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.

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32 Responses to “Why SEO certification is a horrible idea”

  1. Laura Crest

    I get what you’re saying, but I have to most respectfully disagree about SEO Certification.

    A smart education from the right resource (i.e., Heather Lloyd-Martin) can go such a long way towards distinguishing oneself from the plethora of SEO spammers out there promising their prospects Page 1. It’s disgusting.

    A certification shows, if nothing else, that the person is serious and knowledgeable about the art & technique of SEO copywriting and practices only sound, white-hat SEO. In an industry so tainted by bad juju, I think such a quality control signature is invaluable.

  2. Couldn’t agree more with you. The whole idea of it seems like another way for someone to make money. It is completely useless. We don’t have a certification program for billboard advertising, this is no different. It’s just a form of marketing. People really need to start understanding that.

  3. Mike Halvorsen

    You have it dead on my friend. It’s a damn joke, just like any SEM organization (not naming names) that collects dues.

    There are several big name SEO’s in the industry that think the bashing and calling out is bad for our industry as a whole. I even got an email from a very well known public figure saying I should call off the hounds during the SEO Columbus fiasco. But in all honesty, we do a pretty damn good job at regulating ourselves. If we don’t do it, then no one else will and our industry will continue to get a bad rep if we allow the crap to continue.

    And I sure as shit do not want to see any organization who is motivated by money regulate us. It’s just not good for our industry.

    I’m happy to be a part of the SEO community. We have a lot of outspoken people who speak their minds.

  4. Terry Van Horne

    Ummm psychologist and SEO are different in one way… Psychologist has proof they have had some sort of “training” that sets a minimum requirement to hang a shingle. SEO none whatsover, and the industry feeling that it is “caveat emptor” … sorry I don’t need to know anything about the law to hire a lawyer… to expect peeps to learn something as complex as SEO is … well setting up the consumer to get shafted.

    I see a lot of assumption here.. and in regards to the SEMPO 3rd party certification/… certification is a little bit of a stretch… and there are def no $’s involved. if it is the same request I received as administrator of a similar Org. It isn’t a body looking to certify and collect $ benefit. Is actually a party that is well respected by Human Relations professionals in the US. This is a start and one we should be giving a chance before shooting it down immediately w/out full details!

  5. Le Juge SEO

    @Taylor Pratt
    SEO is a form of marketing but this is the only common point with billboard advertising. You don’t need certification in billboard advertising because it’s mainly based on creative abilities. SEO is a little more technical. Let’s not compare what’s not comparable.

    @Jon Henshaw
    The points you are raising make a lot of sense and I partially agree with it. Having said that I’d still vote for some sort of certification. Now you’re right, we’ll have to be careful that this certification is legit’, that the organization on top of the certification isn’t corrupted. As per the community regulation, it’s a certification not a union. I don’t see this as a tool to publicly crap at each other’s face.

    Our Job is STILL largely unknown from the public don’t you think it would be time to set up some sort of “standards”.

    I am like you and like many other SEO over the world, I studied Arts then I came to Internet, many SEO’s have exotic background and on one hand it’s a richness, but on another one it’s a problem, for recruitment as an example because we’re not seen at our real value and because so called “SEO experts” or “SEO gurus” are everywhere.

    I honestly think that a certification would resolve many problems but it’s no easy job to set one up, I mean properly. Almost an Utopia

  6. First and foremost: @Terry YOU better know SOMEthing about the law if you hire a lawyer. Or you’ll be paying for a lawyer who screws you. (I’ve seen this over and over again.)

    Everyone wants to look at the dark side of SEO when stories like this come out. I’ve found through my networking that there is a vast network of ethical SEOs (whether they be gray/black/ or white hatted).

    Additionally, I once asked why SEMPO didn’t certify SEOs, and the answer was something along the lines of these arguments. How can one small group of people determine what is “correct” SEO? Every site has different needs, different problems. We don’t require developers to be “certified” in coding, and yet they unknowingly screw over sites every day. We don’t require flash website developers to inform their clients that they will lose their google rankings when the new design is live. Why are we finding four or five or ten people to decide who’s allowed to work in marketing or not? Before we ask for CERTIFICATION, we should be teaching classes in colleges/universities. Making something “certified” doesn’t make it correct or right.

    This industry moves too quickly. How often will certification be required? In addition to all of your well-stated questions. I don’t mind standards of white or black hat and where the line is for guidelines, but I think Google’s been more clear about what they don’t like in recent years.

    I don’t know what the solution is, other than education. Of clients, of students, of the mainstream folks.

  7. One of the main problems is that truly independent certification would cost money. Therefore, the entity has to monetize or get funded. Whoever or whatever provides the money will then be in a position to potentially influence the certification process. Then it all falls apart. Perhaps an altruistic billionaire could solve the issue (Bill Gates)?

  8. After a decade of experience working with local licensed service providers, state regulations suck. Drain on resources. Once the industry self regulates, expect government regulations soon after.

    Seo is about content … how do you regulate that?

  9. Brent D. Payne

    Then by your own logic, if SEMPO doesn’t do it right then the industry will drive it out of existence.

    I say try it. Why not? Let’s see if we can actually become a more legitimate industry with . . . um, standards.

    My 2 cents . . .

  10. Terry Van Horne

    @JadeTLC,,,, ummm yeah I’ve hired more than my share of lawyers 😉 What I did not have to WONDER is if the lawyer had the basic knowledge to defend me… he passed the bar… The diplomas on the wall, the QC after their name was more than enough. What I did have to investigate was character and ability to get results.

    Everyone is assuming the worst… whatever happens… it can’t get any worse then it is… unless we choose the same route as industries like call centers did… you should know that biz is next to all done off shore… 1000’s of jobs just went pfft and the do not call list was implemented …. egregious gov’t intervention cuz a whole industry refused to pull their heads out of their collective asses. Been there and done that… don’t care to watch another industry die due to their own unwillingness to be held to ANY standards. Including plain old common sense.

  11. Wow… handclap to that, my friend.

    I couldn’t agree with you more.

    SEO media already has enough of an echo chamber.

    In particular, what I find offensive is that the owners of large agencies (or stakeholders in them) with large corporate clients have a tendency to make up all kinds of stories about SEO that simply aren’t true, or aren’t true for 98% of the industry. Since they are the most visible and vocal, their B.S. become the SEO dogma of the day.

    Certifications would only exacerbate the problem.

    The usual suspects would either nominate themselves as the board members. The smart ones would play humble, while their sheep nominated them. There are no core metrics to test someone’s expertise against in this field, so it would become another vehicle of industry b.s. and self serving.

    SEO certification would only benefit the truly unqualified and those that certify them.

    Everyone else can compete fair and square. And I mean that.

    If you can rank a site, you can make money.
    Even if you can’t get clients, you can be an affiliate.

    If you can’t rank a site, then a toilet paper certification is only going to help you waste other people’s money and lower trust across the industry.

    In this space, the heros should be those that are testing, building and ranking, not those that are philosophizing and rambling.

    My .02.

  12. “For me, the simple mention of certification conjures up politics, unfair influence, and corruption.”

    Couldn’t agree more! If this ever gets close to being a reality for SEO we all need to fight it as much as possible.

  13. Mike Glover

    WOW…great dsicussion here for sure.

    I am torn on this one. It would be nice to see our industry gain some credibility, however, like other have said above…our credibility should come from our work, not a piece of paper. Also, why should I (we) have to pay certification application fees, pay for study guides, pay testing and exam fees all so someone else can determine we are qualified to rank a web site?

    I have seen other industries go down this road (NICET). It only leads to the certifcation authority growing and getting rich and then lobbying state and federal law makers for legislation that would require certification.

    So I’m gonna lean towards a NOT NEEDED call as my 2 cents.

  14. Jon two points here ..

    1. I have been saying for years that certification couldn’t be successful without the backing of the engines directly and that will never happen. No way SEMPO can do it.

    2. Our industry is not as good as you say they are about policing themselves. It took the New York Times to call out JCP. Many people in our industry have known about paid linking at that scale and have said nothing of any significance about it until a 3rd party called it out. You and I included.

    I do agree certification can’t be done in this industry, not in its current state anyway.

  15. To me this is a piss poor comparison and I find it almost hard to believe that anyone with a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology could make it. But maybe it’s the Canuck (pinko health-care lover) in me that’s aghast – and you did say you weren’t cut out for the job…

    Councelors and psychotherapist work most often with emotionally vulnerable individuals, in emotionally intimate situations. Because of this, the profession and its professionals absolutely require third party oversight. You could argue that current regulatory bodies are infective and self-serving but that doesn’t mean it should not be regulated, or that reasons for regulation / ceritfication are the same as for any other profession. They’re not.

    As far as SEO regulation / certification goes, there’s no truly compelling reason for certification at the moment except as an ineffective response to black hat practices. And I agree that figuring out the how of regulation and certification in this constantly changing field would be more than challenging for reasons you’ve already mentioned.

    And why, truly is it necessary? We should expect our clients to exercise at least some responsibility for the choices they make in who they hire, as we would any other contractor.

    At the end of the day isn’t Google the defacto arbiter of acceptable practice?

    The symbiotic relationship between “the vast network of ethical SEOs” (thanks JADEDTLC) and Google is I believe the most effective and ethical regulator of SEO practice we have going now.

  16. Jon Henshaw

    Jill Maloney, the comparison was to the innate corruption of governing bodies for certifications on a state and/or federal level, and how they’re ultimately self-serving. I never suggested or stated that psychotherapy should not be regulated. Also, you may want to get your “aghast” looked at. I’m not a doctor, but if kept unchecked, it may develop into full on asshole.

  17. Holy cow! I really meant to qualify my opinion with the somewhat tongue-in-cheek ‘pinko health-care lover’ identification, but I guess you took my comment as an attack. I am sorry for that.
    I absolutely agree with the problem of governing bodies for certification often being ‘self-serving’. But again, I take issue with the comparison between psychotherapy and SEO because in one case, the clients involved are presumably emotionally vulnerable. There is a compelling reason for working out the difficulties of having legitimate, third party certification and oversight within that profession.
    I don’t see the same urgency, or need for similar oversight in SEO for reasons already stated.
    I agree with your opinion about SEO certification.

  18. Jon Henshaw

    Haha, good to know. That’s one of the things I hate about this type of communication…it’s sometimes difficult to express the tone and sense of a text based comment. I have a bit of a dark humor side to me, so unless you know me, many of my comments go misinterpreted too.

    Regarding the meat of your comment, we’re on the same page. The psychotherapy comparison was merely an instrument for making a point about about SEO Certification, but they’re certainly different beasts, and a true comparison would be apples to oranges.

  19. There’s so many SEO certifications or courses available to purchase online, and so far, every single one of them has been, quite simply a money making scheme by the site owners.

    I feel concerned more for the consumers or clients that see these fake certificates, then believe that they will be dealing with a reputable company.

    Its a shame there’s not an international standards body who could ratify or qualify SEO companies, unfortunately as yet, there are none.

    Great Post BTW.

  20. Bharati Ahuja

    To be a successful SEO you require more than just the knowledge of on-page and off-page techniques. I think you need to have a mix of psychology, technical bent of mind, a flair for marketing, some knowledge of accounts which help you in calculating the ROI, etc.

    Hence you need to have an overall knowledge which comes only with experience and learning from past mistakes done. Especially for SEO just a certification is not enough as you cannot call yourself as an SEO until you have achieved results and that takes time.

  21. Fascinating debate. I understand the argument against but also believe there needs to be some way for the industry to help prospective clients distinguish between those who are professional SEOs and those who just claim to be.

  22. In real estate the latest fad is “Green Certified”. What does a Realtor need to know about “built Green”. Some basic knowledge is probably a good idea but is a 16-40 hour certification really necessary?
    Well, maybe. If you are the instructor who can charge more to teach than do anything else. Same for SEO. “Them that knows, do. Them that don’t, teach.”

  23. I agree with Adrian that there should be more available to clients to help them distinguish professional SEOs from those that simply think they can. The only problem is that I can’t think of anything outside of blog posts, write ups and articles that already establish some guidelines when looking for a reputable SEO company. I’m sure that a smart client who did their homework could quickly see the difference between an honest, ethical SEO and a bad one. How many clients actually take the time to do this though?

  24. Ross Barefoot

    I agree with some of this assessment, but not the conclusion. I think it represents some “all or nothing” thinking. It’s not as if certification is good or bad. The important question is how it’s represented. By way of full disclosure, I’m a teacher with the Search Engine Academy and we do offer an “SEO” certification, so naturally I have a vested interest in seeing some value in certification. However I do think that there are points that could be made to round out your opinion.

    I start with the industry I started in, namely IT, which is saturated with certification. In the world of IT the overwhelming number of certs are not controlled by some corrupt (or at least corruptible) governing body, but typically by vendors who are assuring people that the person who is certified has gone through a certain level of training, period.

    I think that HR pros in the IT industry take this for what it’s worth: nothing more than a baseline measurement on a level of learning. That’s why job postings typically state a strong preference for a certain number of years of real world experience, and most hires are not based solely on a certificate.

    Also, the vendor certifications that are presented are not over-sold. For example a Cisco certification does not insure that the person who holds it knows a thing about Microsoft.

    Although I acknowledge that SEO is not an exact parallel, I think if a certification is represented as an indication that a person has made a certain commitment to training and education, and has assimilated a fair amount, and if it does NOT represent itself as proving that the holder is an “expert,” then it achieves a certain, measured goal.

  25. The Geek Rebellion

    I think you’re right on the money but I understand the call for certification. As a professional copywriter (mostly web content), I recieve a boatload requests for SEO material but EVERYONE wants to see some sort f fcertification before they’ll even look at your proposals.
    Other industries and fields of interest have drilled the necessity of certification into everybody’s skulls so far that if you don’t have a badge on your website or in your email signature people think you’re an amateur. The effect is so palpable that you (content creators) can actually feel it in your income.
    When you try to actually explain what goes into good SEO most clients simply glaze over or they get angry because they’re realying on teachings from ten years ago when you could stuff keywords to your hearts content and sit back on a fat pile hits like some greasy monarch of Internet commerce.
    Even people who understand that the search engine mechanics have changed still mindlessly rely on keyword density totally ignoring the necessity of link building and overall page rank.

    Worse yet, cleints will even attempt to base your pay on performance (I don’t take ANY of those jobs). you write 15 pages of content and if their site doesn’t rank in the top 10 they’re not going to pay you the fuill amount? What if they drop the ball on their end of the bargain and can’t produce a single worthy incoming link?
    Here’s an anology: Years ago, I was a meat cutter. But the shop I worked at only order white coats to fit the 90 pound, six-foot tall meat manager. I just had a shirt. Whenever anyone asked a question about a certain cut, I’d give them the correct answer. But — because I wasn’t wearing the white coat — they’d always ask to speak to “that guy in there.”
    He’d tell them the same thing I did and they’d go away happy with a smile ont heir face.
    Maybe I should just Photoshop up a badge and slap it on my website.

  26. SEO certification is in fact a horrible idea and the thought of it makes me puke. In any case, certification is for lazy people who don’t want to use their intelligence and discern (take a risk) who’s competent and who’s not. If some client asks for certification, you can be pretty he is not a business man or an entrepreneur, but a dumb sheep CEO or manager who dresses well and talks buzz words all day.