How to Study SEO in College: An Open Letter To Students
Dear College Student,
There is no such thing as an SEO degree. You can Google it and see some mostly shady results, but — as far as I know — nobody is walking around with a B.A. in SEO.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t go to college and study SEO, though. You just have to get a little creative. My degree reads “B.A. Communication Arts with a focus in journalism,” but I studied and learned Internet marketing during my 4 years in school.
How did I do it? I hustled. I was curious. I tried a bunch of different things and usually failed spectacularly. But I learned a ton.
It’s been a few years since I graduated from school and the SEO/Internet marketing fields are bigger than ever. If you want to study SEO in college, this is my advice to you.
Sure, you can read books and learn some about marketing offline, but the web is its own world and you’ve got to master the territory if you want to become a great online marketer. Sitting around on Facebook or simply spending time online isn’t enough, though. You have to become a power user of the web. How? Participate in forums, join Reddit or HN, actively comment on blogs, subscribe to online newspapers, meet photographers on Flickr, beta test new websites, play WoW or Minecraft and be an early adopter of everything. The more stuff you consume online, the better you understand how the web works. You learn how people interact with each other and what drives people to do certain things.
Without even knowing it, you’ll learn a bunch of key SEO and Internet marketing principles by becoming a power user. You’ll witness and help create viral content. You’ll pick up on new trends and see the future of the web before anybody else. You’ll see how bloggers encourage engagement and attract readers. All of these things will give you a huge advantage once you enter the SEO world.
SEO is a huge industry, and it changes rapidly. In order for the online SEO communities to discuss these changes and stay up to date on industry specifics, SEO experts share their thoughts and knowledge on their personal or company blogs. Subscribe to as many as you can and be knowledgeable about what is going on in the world of online marketing.
Know the difference between a 301 and a 404 status code. Knowing the technical jargon used in website optimization can make the transition from student to professional much easier. If nothing else, try to learn a few new SEO terms each week. If you learn enough of them, you can even amp up your resume with select terms when you apply for internships or a job.
It’s important to do more than consume though…you’ve got to create. If you really want to learn how to study SEO in school, start your own websites (yes, that is plural). Definitely start at least one blog because you will have to know how to write for the web if you want to be a great SEO someday. Write about something you are passionate about and see how much traffic you can drive to the blog. Install Google Analytics and monitor how much traffic is generated by referrals, search engines, etc. Be sure to email and interact with other bloggers in your niche. Let them know how much you loved one of their recent posts or that they were an inspiration to you.
I emailed the author of the first blog I ever read way back in 2006 when I decided to start blogging on my own. It’s funny to look back on it now and realize that is what got me started down this career path. I started three sports blogs, one tech blog and one photography blog when I was in college. All but one failed miserably. The one that survived, though, helped me build connections and get links from major newspapers, appear on TV and radio shows, meet a bunch of awesome people and even made enough money for me to afford NFL Sunday Ticket every year. Definitely start a blog!
While you are setting up your blog(s), you would be wise to learn how to code at least a little bit too. I learned a bit of MySQL and PHP while I was in school, but not a day has gone by since I graduated where I haven’t wished I knew more code. Take several CS classes while you are in school. The more code you know, the better. This will give you a huge advantage and make you stand out when you are applying for jobs. SEOs who know code are much more well-rounded than those who are clueless when talking with developers. Don’t make the same mistakes that I did.
While many people view social networking sites as resources that exist for entertainment purposes only, it’s important to understand that these sites are highly-useful SEO tools as well. By learning the mechanics of websites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Reddit, StumbleUpon, Digg, and Pinterest, you can turn yourself into an encyclopedia of SEO content generation techniques. Social sites can be very helpful in creating brand awareness and promoting a company’s products or services. Never underestimate the power of social media.
Most importantly, don’t let your classes get in the way of your learning. Your professors will hate me for saying it, but if you are going to a liberal arts school, there’s a good chance that you will forget what you ‘learned’ in many of your non-major classes anyway. I had classes in British literature, foreign language, calculus, and religion. I remember very little of what I learned in any of them. I thoroughly enjoyed and learned lifelong lessons in my communication and business classes, though, because that is where my passion lied. I spent more than a few nights slacking off on my liberal arts classes while I was blogging, attempting to code or reading new things online. As I’ve written before, I probably learned more in college from anonymous strangers online than I did from many of my tenured professors.
If you are lucky enough to have a few classes at your school about SEO or online marketing, take them. My school’s computer science department is about 10 years behind the curve, but I was fortunate to have a brilliant professor in the business department who taught both an eCommerce and eMarketing class. In eCommerce, we had a competition to see who could rank their page the highest for a made-up keyword. I got my butt kicked. We talked about what makes one eBay listing superior from another. Without even knowing it, I had done my first conversion analysis study.
Speaking of conversion analysis, you’ve got to take at least one design class too. I was and still am incompetent when it comes to design, but CSS knowledge and the psychological impact of design is great for an SEO to have in their toolbox. Also, sign up for several marketing and advertising classes. Everything you learn in those classes ties back into SEO.
And hey, if you do find that you have a knack for designing, great! While keyword research and web traffic analysis play a huge role in successful SEO, the design is a key player as well. Infographics can be a great way to educate online communities about your industry statistics or promote your business’s website, but they have to look incredibly professional and interesting. That’s where design comes in. Designers also have a huge role in making a company’s website user-friendly, a trait that can earn the website more visitors. When potential customers use a site that is easy to navigate and looks nice and clean, they want to come back to it.
And don’t limit your SEO learning to the college semester only. Instead of mowing grass or relaxing over the summer, get an internship. Remember those cool companies you stumbled across while you were browsing the web for hours on end? Apply for an internship at all of them. Email the CEO directly. Stand out. Hustle. I spent two summers doing a couple of unglamorous internships: managing the website for a local radio station and writing for a newspaper. Both were awesome experiences though. I learned a couple new CMSs, saw the (lack of) value many decision-makers placed in the web and got to see how small businesses operated from the ground floor.
Regardless of whether or not your passion is in SEO, follow where it leads you. If you love staying up all night just to hack together an awful piece of PHP code, and it makes you sleep through a British literature lecture at 8 a.m., do it. The skills you are passionate about enough to explore and learn by yourself are going to be the same ones you pursue and excel at during your career–not the ones that higher education forces you to study.
If you want to learn SEO in college, stay curious. Don’t let a college curriculum dictate what you can and can’t learn during your years at school. Fail often, learn often. Hustle.
Updated: 8/27/2013 – Added in a few new resources that better reflect the current state of SEO and the Internet marketing indsutry -ts
photo by david gandy