How to Study SEO in College: An Open Letter To Students

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 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.

Use the Internet as often as you can. 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.

Another way you can learn a ton about SEO in college is to read SEO or internet marketing blogs. 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.

Also, if you’re going to pursue a career in SEO, learn the vocabulary for it. 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 standout 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.

It also doesn’t hurt to sign up for, say, every social networking site you can get your hands on. 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.

Read thisthis and this.

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 plays a huge role in successful SEO, 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.

Your friend,

-Trevin
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

 

 

  • http://webpagefx.com Karie

    You hit the nail on the head! Just don’t totally neglect that GPA 🙂

  • http://www.senuke.co Areeb

    I disagree with you on video games helping at all. My friends are great at video games. I suck. The difference. I spend my time online reading and absorbing information dealing with marketing and SEO, I hardly ever play video games. Also a way I get a lot of information is by “liking” great sites like Yoast or SEO Book on Facebook. That way you get all of their updates. I also regularly visit forums that deal with black hat SEO. Not because I use black hat techniques but because people there usually have a unique outlook on how SEO works. Try to keep up on algorithm changes with Google. Again, black hat forums are great for this. I know enough coding to get by but I do see it overly necessary to know too much coding. Most of what you need is available. Why re-invent the wheel? Just my two cents. I have been an internet marketer for 12 years.

  • http://www.breakfasthut.com Nick

    Hey Man,

    I didn’t really know what i wanted to do at university (graduated 3 months ago). I was studying Pharmacology and Neuroscience but my passion lay in computers. I did pretty much exactly what you did. I worked, i worked hard, sure i didn’t work too hard at my degree but i started 2 companies, built a load of websites, connections and learned to design/code/network (also made enough to buy myself a macbook pro and a legitimate… yes, legitimate, copy of adobe master suite.) I am now working as an SEO Specialist 3 months out of uni, i absolutely love the job and the skills i learned at uni (well, not in lectures, neuroscience doesn’t help much here) help me every day.

    I hope your post inspires others to do what we did. I feel the education system is incredibly flawed when preparing you for many, many, professions.

    – Nick

  • http://www.webpagefx.com/blog Trevin Shirey

    @Areeb

    Thanks for the comment! As for video games, I think it depends a lot on which ones you are playing…and it definitely doesn’t matter if you are good or not. I played a lot of WoW and Counterstrike in college. Both helped me learn how online communities work, how people interact online, etc. Learned a little bit about servers and code too. Agree on all of your other points…there are a ton of great resources out there to learn SEO!

    @Nick

    Glad somebody else went through something similar to me! Agree on the education system…it’s crucial to not let that dictate your path in life.

  • http://mattrhysdavies.com Matt Rhys-Davies

    Excellent article.

    Learning theory is all well and good, but until you go out and do it; try, fail, try again, fail again, try etc – you’re never really share of the differences between theory and practice, what will work and won’t

    Great advice.

  • http://capturexposed.wordpress.com Adam

    This is a home run post. Yes, it is great advice for someone seeking to learn SEO or Internet Marketing, but for me the bigger issue of higher education is showcased. Higher Ed is so far behind and I wonder if it is even attempting to catch up. I graduated in 2009 with a Marketing degree and so far all the work I’ve done was based on skills I learned because I was into the web and its possibilities. College is important but I wonder where the true value lies. I’m not sure if you wanted to question education or not, but thanks for writing this and I hope it makes its way around campuses. Cheers.

  • http://www.webpagefx.com/blog Trevin Shirey

    @ Matt

    Thanks for the kind words. I definitely agree…failing is a crucial part of learning. Appreciate the comment!

    @ Adam

    Yeah I definitely can relate and I’m glad that I was able to drive that broader point on education across in the post as well. Degrees are so common these days that what you learn independently and outside of class is going to be one of the difference makers. The web changes so quickly and everything about higher eduction is slow moving. Only a handful of universities do a great job of staying on top of things institutionally. Thanks for your thoughts!

  • http://hariskr.com Haris Krijestorac

    While you don’t need to let your education dictate your career path, there still great value in having an education, even in the marketing world. I would humbly advise college students to not get too focused into SEO or any other particular ‘area’ of marketing, even ‘internet marketing’. You’ll neglect the other valuable things that education has to offer.

    As Randy Pausch said in the Last Lecture, most learning is indirect
    http://bit.ly/s3mEAT

  • http://www.marcussortijas.com Marcus

    What fantastic, thoughtful post. Awesome writing, Trevin! I think the most important lesson here is to be curious, and always be learning. Similar to you, most of the important knowledge that I now apply every day wasn’t learned in class. I learned from books, blogs, and starting my own projects.

    I was fortunate to get a degree in English Creative Writing and later a Web Design Certificate. Both have helped a lot in the fundamental skills for how to create good content. But other crucial skills like how to network, how to promote, and how to SELL were all self-taught. Read everything you can about a topic. Then execute, execute, execute.

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  • http://wellontop.com/ Sean Weigold Ferguson

    I taught myself SEO and related disciplines in college, and was able to obtain an internship with a Fortune 100 company soon thereafter.

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  • http://www.solutionsbylee.com Peter Lee

    I definitely agree with what you say. Instead of sitting on facebook you could be accually learning something from the forums. Another thing you can do while your in college is ask your professor to explain how to do things like rewrite urls or teach yourself new skills while your at it. One thing you can do is, when i was in college i challenged myself to write software assignments that i could use in the future for references instead of something basic like generating outputs. great article read.

  • http://www.dustinchristensen.net dustin

    Thanks for the tips – I kind of followed the same path, got a journalism degree and when the journalism jobs were few and far between, I found a job w/ an online marketing company. Luckily, in college I spent more time working on side projects than I did actual schoolwork, so it was great to come out of school and have some book-knowledge and some practical online marketing knowledge.

    I would also say that for anyone interested in SEO/online marketing while going to school, take as many writing/journalism/business classes as possible. A lot of SEOs are smart when it comes to linkbuilding/research but may not have the communication skills to discuss this successfully with clients, coworkers, etc.

    A lot of companies want to hire an SEO that knows his or her stuff, but are also looking for those who can write well and communicate clearly. Because SEO and online marketing change so often you want to be well-rounded and able to adapt to new work situations/responsibilities, and communication is at the center of a lot of this type of work, so I think it’s beneficial to pursue a degree that focuses on communication/writing in some form or another.

  • http://typenights.com Rednights

    They teach this stuff in college? Eck. Take away from the post is to def apply to some sort of internship. That and do it yourself, go make a blog about something you’re interested in .. (movie,tv,clothes, etc) and see if you get ranked in something .. how it works .. setting it up and etc. Basic coding .. html/css is standard these days .. kids teach themselves that before stepping foot in college …

  • http://livingseolife.com livingseolife

    We always on the look for young talented people with a good knowledge of IT/Marketing. Think 5 years forward how many internet marketing professional will be there and how profession like this will make our life way easier (working from home). This is the time to encourage young generation to follow the right path!

  • Racheal

    This is a thoughtful and motivational post – thanks Trevin. However, if we all skip school and “don’t let classes get in the way of our learning,” why are we going to school in the first place? I think your insights elucidate exactly what’s wrong with most degree programs offered by universities today. Yes, we should be blazing our own path in this world, but post-secondary institutions need to offer a business model that assists students in this process rather than detracting them from it.

  • http://www.webpagefx.com/blog Trevin Shirey

    @ Rachael

    Thanks for the comment! 🙂

    I certainly don’t advocate skipping all your classes…that will only get you in trouble. But there were certainly times were I learned more on days that I didn’t go to class than I did sitting through a lecture on something I was forced to learn about.

    I agree that it’s a symptom of a bigger problem in the education world. Liberal arts schools are supposed to help expand students horizons but they seem to have the opposite effect much of the time.

  • http://pointblankseo.com/ Jon Cooper

    It should read “An Open Letter to College (and High School!) Students:…” 🙂

    Favorite part: Create websites. I’ve learned a ton from them. I wouldn’t be anywhere close to the link builder I am without my own blog & a few niche sites to mess around with!

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  • http://www.ebizroi.com/ Rick Noel

    Great post Trevin. Though it has been 15 years since graduation, I have often wondered why there is no formal SEO or Internet marketing degree which would be a great addition to any business or technical degree. It would also be a great second career for someone who is unemployed and needing to learn a new marketable high demand skill. Internet marketing and SEO tie together so many disciplines that it would great addition to any business or technical curriculum. I bet that schools like Full Sail or ITT will be the first to formalize this kind of program if it doesn’t already formally exist. My CS and finance degrees give me a basis, but you are right that immersion is the best way to learn SEO which suits my style. Your advice is spot on and those reading it will do well to consider it as such. Thanks for sharing.

  • Spook SEO

    I love this article so much! Even if SEO degree doesnt exist it doesnt mean we should stop learning about it. I love reading this article because the author speaks from the heart. If you love spending your time with the internet it could be a start in your SEO career. I do hope some school will offer this kind of degree because nowadays internet marketing has become a career and a lot will benefit with it.

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