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Moving 5 Domains to 1: An SEO Case Study

Posted by Dr-Pete

People often ask me if they should change domain names, and I always shudder just a little. Changing domains is a huge, risky undertaking, and too many people rush into it seeing only the imaginary upside. The success of the change also depends wildly on the details, and it’s not the kind of question anyone should be asking casually on social media.

Recently, I decided that it was time to find a new permanent home for my personal and professional blogs, which had gradually spread out over 5 domains. I also felt my main domain was no longer relevant to my current situation, and it was time for a change. So, ultimately I ended up with a scenario that looked like this:

The top three sites were active, with UserEffect.com being my former consulting site and blog (and relatively well-trafficked). The bottom two sites were both inactive and were both essentially gag sites. My one-pager, AreYouARealDoctor.com, did previously rank well for “are you a real doctor”, so I wanted to try to recapture that.

I started migrating the 5 sites in mid-January, and I’ve been tracking the results. I thought it would be useful to see how this kind of change plays out, in all of the gory details. As it turns out, nothing is ever quite “textbook” when it comes to technical SEO.

Why Change Domains at All?

The rationale for picking a new domain could fill a month’s worth of posts, but I want to make one critical point – changing domains should be about your business goals first, and SEO second. I did not change domains to try to rank better for “Dr. Pete” – that’s a crap shoot at best. I changed domains because my old consulting brand (“User Effect”) no longer represented the kind of work I do and I’m much more known by my personal brand.

That business case was strong enough that I was willing to accept some losses. We went through a similar transition here
from SEOmoz.org to Moz.com. That was a difficult transition that cost us some SEO ground, especially short-term, but our core rationale was grounded in the business and where it’s headed. Don’t let an SEO pipe dream lead you into a risky decision.

Why did I pick a .co domain? I did it for the usual reason – the .com was taken. For a project of this type, where revenue wasn’t on the line, I didn’t have any particular concerns about .co. The evidence on how top-level domains (TLDs) impact ranking is tough to tease apart (so many other factors correlate with .com’s), and Google’s attitude tends to change over time, especially if new TLDs are abused. Anecdotally, though, I’ve seen plenty of .co’s rank, and I wasn’t concerned.

Step 1 – The Boring Stuff

It is absolutely shocking how many people build a new site, slap up some 301s, pull the switch, and hope for the best. It’s less shocking how many of those people end up in Q&A a week later, desperate and bleeding money.


Planning is hard work, and it’s boring – get over it.

You need to be intimately familiar with every page on your existing site(s), and, ideally, you should make a list. Not only do you have to plan for what will happen to each of these pages, but you’ll need that list to make sure everything works smoothly later.

In my case, I decided it might be time to do some housekeeping – the User Effect blog had hundreds of posts, many outdated and quite a few just not very good. So, I started with the easy data – recent traffic. I’m sure you’ve seen this Google Analytics report (Behavior > Site Content > All Pages):

Since I wanted to focus on recent activity, and none of the sites had much new content, I restricted myself to a 3-month window (Q4 of 2014). Of course, I looked much deeper than the top 10, but the principle was simple – I wanted to make sure the data matched my intuition and that I wasn’t cutting off anything important. This helped me prioritize the list.

Of course, from an SEO standpoint, I also didn’t want to lose content that had limited traffic but solid inbound links. So, I checked my “Top Pages” report in
Open Site Explorer:

Since the bulk of my main site was a blog, the top trafficked and top linked-to pages fortunately correlated pretty well. Again, this is only a way to prioritize. If you’re dealing with sites with thousands of pages, you need to work methodically through the site architecture.

I’m going to say something that makes some SEOs itchy – it’s ok not to move some pages to the new site. It’s even ok to let some pages 404. In Q4, UserEffect.com had traffic to 237 URLs. The top 10 pages accounted for 91.9% of that traffic. I strongly believe that moving domains is a good time to refocus a site and concentrate your visitors and link equity on your best content. More is not better in 2015.

Letting go of some pages also means that you’re not 301-redirecting a massive number of old URLs to a new home-page. This can look like a low-quality attempt to consolidate link-equity, and at large scale it can raise red flags with Google. Content worth keeping should exist on the new site, and your 301s should have well-matched targets.

In one case, I had a blog post that had a decent trickle of traffic due to ranking for “50,000 push-ups,” but the post itself was weak and the bounce rate was very high:

The post was basically just a placeholder announcing that I’d be attempting this challenge, but I never recapped anything after finishing it. So, in this case,
I rewrote the post.

Of course, this process was repeated across the 3 active sites. The 2 inactive sites only constituted a handful of total pages. In the case of AreYouARealDoctor.com, I decided to turn the previous one-pager
into a new page on the new site. That way, I had a very well-matched target for the 301-redirect, instead of simply mapping the old site to my new home-page.

I’m trying to prove a point – this is the amount of work I did for a handful of sites that were mostly inactive and producing no current business value. I don’t need consulting gigs and these sites produce no direct revenue, and yet I still considered this process worth the effort.

Step 2 – The Big Day

Eventually, you’re going to have to make the move, and in most cases, I prefer ripping off the bandage. Of course, doing something all at once doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be careful.

The biggest problem I see with domain switches (even if they’re 1-to-1) is that people rely on data that can take weeks to evaluate, like rankings and traffic, or directly checking Google’s index. By then, a lot of damage is already done. Here are some ways to find out quickly if you’ve got problems…

(1) Manually Check Pages

Remember that list you were supposed to make? It’s time to check it, or at least spot-check it. Someone needs to physically go to a browser and make sure that each major section of the site and each important individual page is resolving properly. It doesn’t matter how confident your IT department/guy/gal is – things go wrong.

(2) Manually Check Headers

Just because a page resolves, it doesn’t mean that your 301-redirects are working properly, or that you’re not firing some kind of 17-step redirect chain. Check your headers. There are tons of free tools, but lately I’m fond of
URI Valet. Guess what – I screwed up my primary 301-redirects. One of my registrar transfers wasn’t working, so I had to have a setting changed by customer service, and I inadvertently ended up with 302s (Pro tip: Don’t change registrars and domains in one step):

Don’t think that because you’re an “expert”, your plan is foolproof. Mistakes happen, and because I caught this one I was able to correct it fairly quickly.

(3) Submit Your New Site

You don’t need to submit your site to Google in 2015, but now that Google Webmaster Tools allows it, why not do it? The primary argument I hear is “well, it’s not necessary.” True, but direct submission has one advantage – it’s fast.

To be precise, Google Webmaster Tools separates the process into “Fetch” and “Submit to index” (you’ll find this under “Crawl” > “Fetch as Google”). Fetching will quickly tell you if Google can resolve a URL and retrieve the page contents, which alone is pretty useful. Once a page is fetched, you can submit it, and you should see something like this:

This isn’t really about getting indexed – it’s about getting nearly instantaneous feedback. If Google has any major problems with crawling your site, you’ll know quickly, at least at the macro level.

(4) Submit New XML Sitemaps

Finally, submit a new set of XML sitemaps in Google Webmaster Tools, and preferably tiered sitemaps. While it’s a few years old now, Rob Ousbey has a great post on the subject of
XML sitemap structure. The basic idea is that, if you divide your sitemap into logical sections, it’s going to be much easier to diagnosis what kinds of pages Google is indexing and where you’re running into trouble.

A couple of pro tips on sitemaps – first, keep your old sitemaps active temporarily. This is counterintuitive to some people, but unless Google can crawl your old URLs, they won’t see and process the 301-redirects and other signals. Let the old accounts stay open for a couple of months, and don’t cut off access to the domains you’re moving.

Second (I learned this one the hard way), make sure that your Google Webmaster Tools site verification still works. If you use file uploads or meta tags and don’t move those files/tags to the new site, GWT verification will fail and you won’t have access to your old accounts. I’d recommend using a more domain-independent solution, like verifying with Google Analytics. If you lose verification, don’t panic – your data won’t be instantly lost.

Step 3 – The Waiting Game

Once you’ve made the switch, the waiting begins, and this is where many people start to panic. Even executed perfectly, it can take Google weeks or even months to process all of your 301-redirects and reevaluate a new domain’s capacity to rank. You have to expect short term fluctuations in ranking and traffic.

During this period, you’ll want to watch a few things – your traffic, your rankings, your indexed pages (via GWT and the site: operator), and your errors (such as unexpected 404s). Traffic will recover the fastest, since direct traffic is immediately carried through redirects, but ranking and indexation will lag, and errors may take time to appear.

(1) Monitor Traffic

I’m hoping you know how to check your traffic, but actually trying to determine what your new levels should be and comparing any two days can be easier said than done. If you launch on a Friday, and then Saturday your traffic goes down on the new site, that’s hardly cause for panic – your traffic probably
always goes down on Saturday.

In this case, I redirected the individual sites over about a week, but I’m going to focus on UserEffect.com, as that was the major traffic generator. That site was redirected, in full on January 21st, and the Google Analytics data for January for the old site looked like this:

So far, so good – traffic bottomed out almost immediately. Of course, losing traffic is easy – the real question is what’s going on with the new domain. Here’s the graph for January for DrPete.co:

This one’s a bit trickier – the first spike, on January 16th, is when I redirected the first domain. The second spike, on January 22nd, is when I redirected UserEffect.com. Both spikes are meaningless – I announced these re-launches on social media and got a short-term traffic burst. What we really want to know is where traffic is leveling out.

Of course, there isn’t a lot of history here, but a typical day for UserEffect.com in January was about 1,000 pageviews. The traffic to DrPete.co after it leveled out was about half that (500 pageviews). It’s not a complete crisis, but we’re definitely looking at a short-term loss.

Obviously, I’m simplifying the process here – for a large, ecommerce site you’d want to track a wide range of metrics, including conversion metrics. Hopefully, though, this illustrates the core approach. So, what am I missing out on? In this day of [not provided], tracking down a loss can be tricky. Let’s look for clues in our other three areas…

(2) Monitor Indexation

You can get a broad sense of your indexed pages from Google Webmaster Tools, but this data often lags real-time and isn’t very granular. Despite its shortcomings, I still prefer
the site: operator. Generally, I monitor a domain daily – any one measurement has a lot of noise, but what you’re looking for is the trend over time. Here’s the indexed page count for DrPete.co:

The first set of pages was indexed fairly quickly, and then the second set started being indexed soon after UserEffect.com was redirected. All in all, we’re seeing a fairly steady upward trend, and that’s what we’re hoping to see. The number is also in the ballpark of sanity (compared to the actual page count) and roughly matched GWT data once it started being reported.

So, what happened to UserEffect.com’s index after the switch?

The timeframe here is shorter, since UserEffect.com was redirected last, but we see a gradual decline in indexation, as expected. Note that the index size plateaus around 60 pages – about 1/4 of the original size. This isn’t abnormal – low-traffic and unlinked pages (or those with deep links) are going to take a while to clear out. This is a long-term process. Don’t panic over the absolute numbers – what you want here is a downward trend on the old domain accompanied by a roughly equal upward trend on the new domain.

The fact that UserEffect.com didn’t bottom out is definitely worth monitoring, but this timespan is too short for the plateau to be a major concern. The next step would be to dig into these specific pages and look for a pattern.

(3) Monitor Rankings

The old domain is dropping out of the index, and the new domain is taking its place, but we still don’t know why the new site is taking a traffic hit. It’s time to dig into our core keyword rankings.

Historically, UserEffect.com had ranked well for keywords related to “split test calculator” (near #1) and “usability checklist” (in the top 3). While [not provided] makes keyword-level traffic analysis tricky, we also know that the split-test calculator is one of the top trafficked pages on the site, so let’s dig into that one. Here’s the ranking data from Moz Analytics for “split test calculator”:

The new site took over the #1 position from the old site at first, but then quickly dropped down to the #3/#4 ranking. That may not sound like a lot, but given this general keyword category was one of the site’s top traffic drivers, the CTR drop from #1 to #3/#4 could definitely be causing problems.

When you have a specific keyword you can diagnose, it’s worth taking a look at the live SERP, just to get some context. The day after relaunch, I captured this result for “dr. pete”:

Here, the new domain is ranking, but it’s showing the old title tag. This may not be cause for alarm – weird things often happen in the very short term – but in this case we know that I accidentally set up a 302-redirect. There’s some reason to believe that Google didn’t pass full link equity during that period when 301s weren’t implemented.

Let’s look at a domain where the 301s behaved properly. Before the site was inactive, AreYouARealDoctor.com ranked #1 for “are you a real doctor”. Since there was an inactive period, and I dropped the exact-match domain, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a corresponding ranking drop.

In reality, the new site was ranking #1 for “are you a real doctor” within 2 weeks of 301-redirecting the old domain. The graph is just a horizontal line at #1, so I’m not going to bother you with it, but here’s a current screenshot (incognito):

Early on, I also spot-checked this result, and it wasn’t showing the strange title tag crossover that UserEffect.com pages exhibited. So, it’s very likely that the 302-redirects caused some problems.

Of course, these are just a couple of keywords, but I hope it provides a starting point for you to understand how to methodically approach this problem. There’s no use crying over spilled milk, and I’m not going to fire myself, so let’s move on to checking any other errors that I might have missed.

(4) Check Errors (404s, etc.)

A good first stop for unexpected errors is the “Crawl Errors” report in Google Webmaster Tools (Crawl > Crawl Errors). This is going to take some digging, especially if you’ve deliberately 404’ed some content. Over the couple of weeks after re-launch, I spotted the following problems:

The old site had a “/blog” directory, but the new site put the blog right on the home-page and had no corresponding directory. Doh. Hey, do as I say, not as I do, ok? Obviously, this was a big blunder, as the old blog home-page was well-trafficked.

The other two errors here are smaller but easy to correct. MinimalTalent.com had a “/free” directory that housed downloads (mostly PDFs). I missed it, since my other sites used a different format. Luckily, this was easy to remap.

The last error is a weird looking URL, and there are other similar URLs in the 404 list. This is where site knowledge is critical. I custom-designed a URL shortener for UserEffect.com and, in some cases, people linked to those URLs. Since those URLs didn’t exist in the site architecture, I missed them. This is where digging deep into historical traffic reports and your top-linked pages is critical. In this case, the fix isn’t easy, and I have to decide whether the loss is worth the time.

What About the New EMD?

My goal here wasn’t to rank better for “Dr. Pete,” and finally unseat Dr. Pete’s Marinades, Dr. Pete the Sodastream flavor (yes, it’s hilarious – you can stop sending me your grocery store photos), and 172 dentists. Ok, it mostly wasn’t my goal. Of course, you might be wondering how switching to an EMD worked out.

In the short term, I’m afraid the answer is “not very well.” I didn’t track ranking for “Dr. Pete” and related phrases very often before the switch, but it appears that ranking actually fell in the short-term. Current estimates have me sitting around page 4, even though my combined link profile suggests a much stronger position. Here’s a look at the ranking history for “dr pete” since relaunch (from Moz Analytics):

There was an initial drop, after which the site evened out a bit. This less-than-impressive plateau could be due to the bad 302s during transition. It could be Google evaluating a new EMD and multiple redirects to that EMD. It could be that the prevalence of natural anchor text with “Dr. Pete” pointing to my site suddenly looked unnatural when my domain name switched to DrPete.co. It could just be that this is going to take time to shake out.

If there’s a lesson here (and, admittedly, it’s too soon to tell), it’s that you shouldn’t rush to buy an EMD in 2015 in the wild hope of instantly ranking for that target phrase. There are so many factors involved in ranking for even a moderately competitive term, and your domain is just one small part of the mix.

So, What Did We Learn?

I hope you learned that I should’ve taken my own advice and planned a bit more carefully. I admit that this was a side project and it didn’t get the attention it deserved. The problem is that, even when real money is at stake, people rush these things and hope for the best. There’s a real cheerleading mentality when it comes to change – people want to take action and only see the upside.

Ultimately, in a corporate or agency environment, you can’t be the one sour note among the cheering. You’ll be ignored, and possibly even fired. That’s not fair, but it’s reality. What you need to do is make sure the work gets done right and people go into the process with eyes wide open. There’s no room for shortcuts when you’re moving to a new domain.

That said, a domain change isn’t a death sentence, either. Done right, and with sensible goals in mind – balancing not just SEO but broader marketing and business objectives – a domain migration can be successful, even across multiple sites.

To sum up: Plan, plan, plan, monitor, monitor, monitor, and try not to panic.

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Reblogged 4 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

How We Fixed the Internet (Ok, an Answer Box)

Posted by Dr-Pete

Last year, Google expanded the Knowledge Graph to use data extracted (*cough* scraped) from the index to create answer boxes. Back in October, I wrote about a failed experiment. One of my posts, an odd dive
into Google’s revenue, was being answer-fied for the query “How much does Google make?”:

Objectively speaking, even I could concede that this wasn’t a very good answer in 2014. I posted it on Twitter, and
David Iwanow asked the inevitable question:

Enthusiasm may have gotten the best of us, a few more people got involved (like my former Moz colleague
Ruth Burr Reedy), and suddenly we were going to fix this once and for all:

There Was Just One Problem

I updated the post, carefully rewriting the first paragraph to reflect the new reality of Google’s revenue. I did my best to make the change user-friendly, adding valuable information but not disrupting the original post. I did, however, completely replace the old text that Google was scraping.

Within less than a day, Google had re-cached the content, and I just had to wait to see the new answer box. So, I waited, and waited… and waited. Two months later, still no change. Some days, the SERP showed no answer box at all (although I’ve since found these answer boxes are very dynamic), and I was starting to wonder if it was all a mistake.

Then, Something Happened

Last week, months after I had given up, I went to double-check this query for entirely different reasons, and I saw the following:

Google had finally updated the answer box with the new text, and they had even pulled an image from the post. It was a strange choice of images, but in fairness, it was a strange post.

Interestingly, Google also added the publication date of the post, perhaps recognizing that outdated answers aren’t always useful. Unfortunately, this doesn’t reflect the timing of the new content, but that’s understandable – Google doesn’t have easy access to that data.

It’s interesting to note that sometimes Google shows the image, and sometimes they don’t. This seems to be independent of whether the SERP is personalized or incognito. Here’s a capture of the image-free version, along with the #1 organic ranking:

You’ll notice that the #1 result is also my Moz post, and that result has an expanded meta description. So, the same URL is essentially double-dipping this SERP. This isn’t always the case – answers can be extracted from URLs that appear lower on page 1 (although almost always page 1, in my experience). Anecdotally, it’s also not always the case that these organic result ends up getting an expanded meta description.

However, it definitely seems that some of the quality signals driving organic ranking and expanded meta descriptions are also helping Google determine whether a query deserves a direct answer. Put simply, it’s not an accident that this post was chosen to answer this question.

What Does This Mean for You?

Let’s start with the obvious – Yes, the v2 answer boxes (driven by the index, not Freebase/WikiData)
can be updated. However, the update cycle is independent of the index’s refresh cycle. In other words, just because a post is re-cached, it doesn’t mean the answer box will update. Presumably, Google is creating a second Knowledge Graph, based on the index, and this data is only periodically updated.

It’s also entirely possible that updating could cause you to lose an answer box, if the new data weren’t a strong match to the question or the quality of the content came into question. Here’s an interesting question – on a query where a competitor has an answer box, could you change your own content enough to either replace them or knock out the answer box altogether? We are currently testing this question, but it may be a few more months before we have any answers.

Another question is what triggers this style of answer box in the first place? Eric Enge has an
in-depth look at 850,000 queries that’s well worth your time, and in many cases Google is still triggering on obvious questions (“how”, “what”, “where”, etc.). Nouns that could be interpreted as ambiguous also can trigger the new answer boxes. For example, a search for “ruby” is interpreted by Google as roughly meaning “What is Ruby?”:

This answer box also triggers “Related topics” that use content pulled from other sites but drive users to more Google searches. The small, gray links are the source sites. The much more visible, blue links are more Google searches.

Note that these also have to be questions (explicit or implied) that Google can’t answer with their curated Knowledge Graph (based on sources like Freebase and WikiData). So, for example, the question “When is Mother’s Day?” triggers an older-style answer:

Sites offering this data aren’t going to have a chance to get attribution, because Google essentially already owns the answer to this question as part of their core Knowledge Graph.

Do You Want to Be An Answer?

This is where things get tricky. At this point, we have no clear data on how these answer boxes impact CTR, and it’s likely that the impact depends a great deal on the context. I think we’re facing a certain degree of inevitability – if Google is going to list an answer, better it’s your answer then someone else’s, IMO. On the other hand, what if that answer is so complete that it renders your URL irrelevant? Consider, for example, the SERP for “how to make grilled cheese”:

Sorry, Food Network, but making a grilled cheese sandwich isn’t really that hard, and this answer box doesn’t leave much to the imagination. As these answers get more and more thorough, expect CTRs to fall.

For now, I’d argue that it’s better to have your link in the box than someone else’s, but that’s cold comfort in many cases. These new answer boxes represent what I feel is a dramatic shift in the relationship between Google and webmasters, and they may be tipping the balance. For now, we can’t do much but wait, see, and experiment.

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Reblogged 4 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

SEO Teaching: Should SEO Be Taught at Universities?

Posted by Carla_Dawson

SEO is a concept that has been around for years and some universities have incorporated it into the curricula. A while back, I posted
this question on Moz and noticed some very strong opinions on the idea that SEO should be part of formal education. Search Engine Journal also posted an article on the idea that SEO should not be taught in universities. We (I co-wrote this post with Aleksej Heinze, who also currently teaches SEO) obviously believe SEO should be taught in higher education and got together to discuss how it benefits the SEO industry and how SEO can be incorporated in higher education. Aleksej teaches SEO in the U.K.; I teach SEO in Argentina.

Before I get started with the pros and cons, I want to share with you some opinions from people in industry on the topic of SEO in universities.


Wil Reynolds (Founder – Seer Interactive)

1. Do you believe universities or higher education institutions should equip students with the skills to meet industry needs?

Yes, people take BIG loans to go to the university in the U.S.; we should at least make sure when they graduate they have the skills that are in…demand in the workplace.

2. Are SEO skills something you believe are lacking in industry?

Not sure. “SEO skills” is a broad phrase.

3. Do you think teaching SEO in universities gives credibility to the profession?

Not really, I think the profession has credibility. Teaching SEO in universities gives a student a great platform to learn and to be prepared for one of the industries that is in desperate need of talent.


4. Do you think teaching SEO in universities benefits the industry?

Yes, but I think SEO is too narrow, according to many definitions. If you think about it, SEO is as much about technical as it is about link building [or] keyword research. To teach the broad definition of SEO you’d need a pretty multi-disciplinary group to teach it. Maybe we’d just teach it as part of a digital marketing rotation.

Stephen Lock (Head of Content & Inbound Marketing, Linkdex.com)

1. Do you believe universities or higher education institutions should equip students with the skills to meet industry needs?

Yes, it makes sense that universities, where appropriate, offer courses that are based heavily on industry demands, especially if the course/institution has been marketed as…tailored for employers.

2. Are SEO skills something you believe are lacking in industry?

They definitely are. There is a real shortage, and due to the fast-moving nature of the field, knowledge is quickly outdated, meaning even experienced practitioners aren’t always great candidates.

3. Do you think teaching SEO in universities gives credibility to the profession?

I believe it does, although it is one of those fields where it’s common for people to…come from a broad range of backgrounds. The skills required are so diverse that it’s also understandable that people who have studied one field can adapt. From experience, employers are more interested in the person, their attitude and capacity to learn. However, SEO in universities can only be a good thing for the industry.

4. Do you think teaching SEO in universities benefits the industry?

Teaching SEO, I believe, would benefit the industry, as the skills shortage is so acute and it is so common for entry-level candidates to come from many different backgrounds. My final thoughts are that SEO is so broad as a discipline that calling it just SEO may not do it justice.


What we can see from these and other opinions we received for this article is views are still mixed since SEO education is not clearly defined. Where do you start with a subject area that touches such a broad range of disciplines, including technical, content and engagement? However, the vast majority of our respondents were
positive about the need to integrate SEO in higher education!

Pros to teaching SEO in universities

Eli Overbey wrote a great article on this topic
here, but me and Aleksej took some of the ideas one step further. Basically, we identified problems in industry and how teaching SEO in universities might help the industry.

How teaching SEO in universities may benefit the industry

Industry Problem How SEO in higher education might alive the problem?
Long sales cycles – Selling SEO is a lot about educating your potential client. Today’s student is tomorrow’s potential client.

Students who learn SEO formally (and not just on the job) are likely to have a broader understanding of its benefits, and therefore, be able to “sell” it more effectively to clients.
Lack of Credibility – Most SEOs learned SEO on the job, or through reading great books like “The Art of SEO” and reading great articles on the internet. However, few formal institutions recognize it as a valid marketing technique. SEO is not taught in many marketing related programs. Creating an educational standard for SEO increases the credibility of the field. Treating the discipline as if it was law, engineering, etc., would elevate SEO to a discipline seen as requiring a significant period of study before it can be practiced.
Everyone says they know SEO. Without a recognized standard for the field of SEO, anyone and everyone can say they know SEO.
Clients with bad experiences don’t trust SEO companies.
Showing clients you have a certified person on your team may alleviate this situation.
Long recruiting cycles. Recruiters currently have to give SEO tests to verify that the job candidate in front of them really knows SEO. A certification or a degree does not guarantee you know the subject (this is true for lots of fields), but it is an excellent filter and a great starting point.
SEO is constantly changing, making it hard to keep up. Law, medicine and most other subject areas are also constantly changing, and content and concepts are updated accordingly. The same can be true for SEO in universities.
Clients challenge your techniques (ex. “Why don’t you use the keyword meta tag?” or “Why are you using parallax scrolling when it is not SEO-friendly?”)  This happens in all industries and being able to reference an independent institution and a high-quality article will probably reduce discussion time.
There is a high demand for SEO skills. Below you will find articles that mention demand for SEO skills in industry. Universities are in the business of creating professionals and satisfying workforce demands.Higher education institutions are often criticized for their lack of relevant educational courses that will equip students with the skills to meet specific industry needs.

SEO is relevant today and will be well into the foreseeable future.

Cons to teaching SEO in universities

We do see some negatives to teaching SEO in universities, but we see them more as issues to be mitigated.
John Weber did a great job identifying the difficulties in teaching SEO in his article on searchenginejournal.com. We agree with several of the points in this article. However, we see them more as issues that can be alleviated through great program development.

Obstacles  Potential Solutions
Google makes changes to its algorithm constantly. This exact topic should be brought up in the classroom. Students get that what they learn in school is somewhat “academic” and may be slightly out-of-date, but is still useful.

(On a side note, laws change all the time, yet law is taught in school.) 
SEO is complex. It requires analytical and creative skills. Case studies are a great way to teach complex concepts and creativity. Law, perhaps, is similar to SEO in that it requires analytical and creative skills to be successful, and it is taught in universities.
No one absolutely knows “the magic formula.” This exact topic should be brought up in the classroom. This is true with many professions. Medicine is not an exact science and continuously evolves. Physicians often prescribe differing treatments for the same diagnosis. 

Current flaws in academia

We also see lots of flaws within the academic world regarding SEO, specifically the fact that if the subject is taught, it is mostly taught as an extension (vocational) course or optional part of an MBA program.

Here are some universities that offer SEO:

We feel SEO should be included as part of many other degree programs.

Please note that mentioning the concept and explaining it is not the same as teaching how to do SEO. In some cases, the concept should be mentioned and included, and in other cases, SEO should be fully taught. For example at Salford Business School, students are expected to plan, execute and evaluate live SEO campaigns and report on their results. This kind of SEO learning helps in job interviews where students can show their own artefacts and discuss what they have done and learned from their practical SEO experience.The academic world
has not incorporated the subject in a holistic manner.

How could SEO be incorporated into higher education?

Degree focus SEO Concept (not to be confused with course) to be incorporated in program Comments
Master of Business Administration (MBA) How to use SEO as a business strategy for long term sustainability of business? Not many MBA courses recognize SEO as a strategic tool for developing value for their business. Hence a number of businesses are missing growth opportunities in the online world.
Advertising How to use SEO with viral marketing and word of mouth as an advertising technique?

Is Inbound Marketing an advertising technique?
Television ads are no longer as effective as those created for YouTube with viral sharing in mind.
Web design/ computer science Designing for Search Engines – Is SEO part of web design? SEO is not taught in many web design or computer science schools. This has major issues/benefits for agencies that try to turn a non-SEO-friendly website into one that can be crawled by search engines.
Marketing Organic search engine results are an important marketing channel, and this concept does not have visibility in the educational system.

Many marketing programs talk about SEO as if it is something that’s useful to someone else. We are all individual brands who can learn and use SEO (e.g., integration of keyword research allows for better digital consumer profiling and learning about the digital personas to be engaged with in marketing mix).

Public Relations (PR) Synergies of online PR with content development strategies and long-term link building Many PR ignore the benefits of SEO and miss out on the mutual benefits that an integration of SEO and online PR could provide. 
Journalism Writing text for online readability and scanability (e.g., using headings, bullet points, etc.) Many journalism courses are still based on great headlines and catchy first paragraph, but these are great techniques when combined with SEO, too. Not thinking about the online audience means you miss a lot of reach with articles that are “thrown” onto the web without much consideration.

We argue for wider adoption of SEO at university teaching because of these three reasons:

Shaping the SEO industry

Starting with understanding SEO principles at the university-level, we are shaping the digital marketing professionals of the future. Recognizing the growing range of opportunities that digital marketing creates as a consequence of good SEO practices offers an invitation to the industry for new talent. Offering SEO at universities will not stop cowboy SEO practices, but at least it will reduce the use of such practices out of incompetence.

SEO is no longer a “dark art”

By demystifying the process of SEO, companies will be more likely to employ SEO professionals by recognizing and better appreciating the value they create. SEO is no longer perceived as a “black box” or “dark art” and individuals who might be supervising others will be more able to expect higher standards and discern whether someone is using unwelcome practices.

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Good SEO practices will make our industry sustainable

By integrating SEO into wider advertising, digital marketing, journalism, web design, PR and MBA courses, we are able to create a better long-term future for SEO as a profession. Having SEO skills applies to many disciplines, and business would be prepared to pay for these skills as soon as they recognise the return on investment that good SEO can create. By teaching SEO in higher education, SEO will appear more professional, which will lead to long-term sustainability.

Is there demand in the industry for SEO skills?

Universities have often been criticized for offering courses not relevant to industry needs. Students invest in higher education to broaden their horizons, but also to obtain skills that equip them better for their chosen profession. The underlying principle is that universities have to offer “universal knowledge and skills” to improve innovation and skills of the world we live in. So if an industry demands SEO skills, then perhaps it is time for higher education to respond? Here are some articles that show workforce demand related to SEO. 

2012 – Conductor –
Demand for SEO Professionals Has Never Been Greater [Study]

2013 – Bruce Clay –
Studies Reveal SEO Analysts are in High Demand

2013 – Search Engine Land –
SEO Talent In High Demand — How To Hire An SEO

Here are some great stats from the articles above.

  • Studies show a 112 percent year-over-year increase in demand for SEO professionals, with salaries as high as $94,000, as reported by Conductor, an SEO technology company based in New York.
  • Search Engine Land surveyed the SEO industry and found that 93 percent of respondents expected their SEO business to grow by the end of 2013. It makes sense, then, that 82 percent of respondents also reported plans to hire additional SEO staff this year.
  • Digital Journal proclaimed “there is no doubt that a career in an SEO agency as an SEO professional can be an exciting and rewarding one. Stress levels would match the lows found in other online positions, while the employment opportunities in such a fast growing business are obvious … Mid-level strategist and management roles can earn from $60,000, while senior marketing directors can expect to approach six-figure sums.”

First-hand experience – Aleksej Heinze

Salford Business School is currently leading a European project, a Joint European Masters in Digital and Social Media Marketing (
JEMSS). This project aims to develop the digital marketeers of the future. JEMSS is a partnership between five European Universities and two commercial organizations, one of which is a digital marketing recruitment agency based in Manchester, the UK.

As part of this project, an extensive consultation with digital agencies and in-house teams has been conducted across five European countries. This multi-stage research project started with a brainstorming session that included ten UK-based agencies in December 2013. They were looking at the top
10 digital marketing skills for international business. The key skill identified as part of this focus group was Search Engine Optimization.

The views from the UK-based agencies were also inline with the online survey results from students and potential students regarding digital marketing courses. The list of 25 skills was developed through the initial focus group with industry practitioners. We can clearly see that SEO tops the table of skills needed when developing knowledge and skills in the area of digital marketing. This online survey was completed by 712 respondents across several countries. We were interested to look at five countries taking part in the JEMSS project: Bulgaria, Greece, Lithuania, Poland and the UK. At least 50 respondents for each of these counties were collected to have a representative sample group.

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Do people want to learn SEO?

Looking at the generic searches related to learning SEO/SEO courses in various parts of the world we see some interesting trends:

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This Google Trends screenshot shows some of the main terms related to the popularity of SEO courses. We can see there is a major difference between “SEO training” and “SEO courses.” This can mean most people are seeing SEO as a vocational skill and not an academic course. It is also interesting to note that the location for those interested in “SEO courses” tends to be in India, the U.K. and the U.S. More research should be done in to identify additional hot spots throughout the world.

First hand experience – Carla Dawson

My students are eager to learn about SEO. Many of them make comments like “Carla, we have been waiting for this class” or “This is the best class [in the] program.” In the SEO class, I notice that students pay closer attention than they do in other classes. Multiple requests have been made by my students to “offer a second course or a seminar” so they can learn more about SEO. It almost seems as if the SEO course has more value than some of the other courses. In class, I get questions like “where can we learn more about SEO?” “What sources are reliable?” etc.

Conclusion

Long gone are the days gone where
universities were run by nuns and monks and the main courses included Latin, metaphysics and theology. Most universities are becoming businesses that develop educational products, research and sell them.

If you believe that universities or higher education institutions should equip students with the skills to meet specific industry needs, then perhaps SEO or better yet “Search Marketing” is ideal for universities?

SEO touches so many fields and in our opinion it should be incorporated in various degrees not just offered as an extension course. We would love to hear the communities opinion on this topic so please comment below!

This article was co-authored with Aleksej Heinze from the University of Salford Manchester . You can find more information about Aleksej here.

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