Calgary Website Design, SEO, Business Plan Writing, Public Relations, Sales Training, Business and Marketing Consulting

Learning SEO at a School – The Good and Bad

Learning SEO at a School - The Good and Bad

This blog article is in response to a Twitter user who asked me to elaborate on this tweet, “#Calgary SEO Classes. Only the first 10 google results count…”

Basically, the problem is a strategic one. Imagine a class of eleven students learning how to optimize their website (SEO / Search Engine Optimization) to appear on the first page of Google for some specified search term or phrase.

Now understand that in SEO we are only concerned with appearing on the first page of Google for any desired search term and, the preference is to be first, second, or third. Each successive lower ranking on Google equals fewer website visits (except for the ninth and tenth spot where the tenth spot gets more visits than the ninth spot).

With this we know there are only ten spots up for grabs. What happens when eleven people want to rank for the same search terms? Well, one of them loses. Considering that there are about 10 people in Calgary who are good at SEO and maybe 200 people in Canada who really know how to get something ranked well then, schools are taking students money knowing that for some of those students it won’t matter how much they learn in the class, they are a tiny fish in a world of sharks.

We rank websites on about 1000 search terms (across all website for all clients). There is little chance that someone paying $600 will (1) know more about SEO that an SEO professional – especially since most SEOs know more that his/her instructor and (2) resource investment in SEO can be $20,000 a year or more to support whatan SEO expert is doing.

This strategic dilemma is different than teaching say, marketing. Entering a red ocean (being a recent graduate with a marketing degree) is not as harsh as being educated in something that is not only a red ocean but also limited to only ten spots.

  1. Hey David,

    First of all, thanks much for taking the time to elaborate on your tweet by writing this up. I respect the time and effort you put into providing an answer for those who read what you’ve written on social media – that’s awesome. I greatly respect your marketing experience and I’m sure there are many things you could teach me based on the volume of work you’ve done. I’d love to get coffee with you – so please do not see this as a personal attack or think me arrogant for disagreeing.

    Secondly, let me preface this conversation by saying that I’m a full time SEO specialist here in Calgary. This is quite literally all I do during my 9 – 5. That’s why I wanted to chime in on this conversation; it’s totally pertinent to my job and I feel I can contribute meaningfully.

    I’d like to point out that in many ways, we agree, namely:
    1. I don’t think that at this point in history classes or sessions are the best way to learn SEO.
    2. I don’t think paying $600 for a single course is worth your time, especially given all the awesome free resources for learning SEO out there such as the SEOMoz Beginner’s guide and the countless SEO bloggers.

    But I disagree with your analogy of “eleven students in a class” and how there are only “ten spots”.

    This simply isn’t true. With the way that Google has changed recently, results are incredibly mixed now. You can have local listings, sponsored ads, video, shopping, news and more all show up for the exact same query. In fact, for many queries I now see as many as 20 results! The days of the hard and fast “top 10 results” are gone. As an example, go Google “safety consultants” and count just how much real estate there is on that first page.

    People also search much differently: image search, video search, shopping search and so on.

    It’s possible I am misreading you as well (so take this with a grain of salt) but your argument almost seems to assert that it’s worthless for newcomers to enter SEO niches where there are already 10 people who know what they’re doing or have bigger budgets.

    Let’s say, for example, a group of real estate agents in Calgary all decide they want to learn SEO. Now while it’s true that they can’t necessarily all rank for “Calgary Realtor”, there are quite literally THOUSANDS of iterations of phrases they could target that would help to improve their business. If they can’t win on the head phrases – those juicy-seeming short phrases, there is still immense value in knowing how to apply SEO in order to carve out a niche within your niche. For example, one realtor might focus on “Duplex for Sale” type phrases while another could take an innovative approach and target individual communities and their related keywords. There simply isn’t a single niche I can think of where the lucrative phrases are so limited that a capable SEO can’t find a chink in the armor and somewhere to get their clients traction. A little creativity goes a long way.

    Let me also say that I’ve run campaigns on shoestring budgets that ousted major competitors with bigger budgets, simply because we did things the right way or maximized the resources we DID have. I can certainly agree that in most cases a bigger budget means more capacity to rank; but that shouldn’t be the only thing that dissuades someone from starting out in SEO.

    With all due respect, you do NOT need to have $20,000 worth of SEO assets to be great at SEO. In fact the basic tenants of SEO could be taught in literally 5 minutes. You can be great at SEO with nothing more than excel, an understanding of regular expressions and a head full of current knowledge.

    There are enough people who know just a enough SEO to be dangerous, especially given how broken Google’s algorithm is.

    What separates the truly capable professionals is how they apply that knowledge and most importantly how current and up to date they keep that education. I can tell you that many of the people in Calgary saying they do SEO for clients employ old school tactics like keyword stuffing, awkward text, cloaking, bland H1 header tags and a heavy reliance on exact-match domain names to rank. I wouldn’t hire a single one of them; it’s a shame that many Calgary businesses do.

    Lastly, the idea of “only the top 10 matters” is quite toxic. Many people who profess to know SEO completely ignore the fact that what matters is NOT ranking, it’s what happens when the client actually clicks through to your site. The fact of the matter is that SEO is not about getting people to your website. It’s about getting qualified people to your website, but then selling to them when they arrive. You see examples of this horrible “only top 10 matters” everywhere – terrible website copywriting hideous site design, no clear calls to action, volumes of text written for the sole reason of trying to get that crucial ranking.

    But SEO is much more holistic than that. In this day and age. You can drive traffic to a site through all kinds of relevant methods: paid ads (which is obviously a separate discipline), referring sites, strategic relationships and so on – and more important than ANY ranking is what happens once people actually click through.

    Anyways, I’m rambling a bit here and I apologize! My points are simply that it’s not just the top 10 that matter; that FAR more than 10 people can compete in any niche (even a very tight local niche) and that the amount of money invested in SEO doesn’t absolutely mean that one person will be better than another.

  2. Hi Joel,
    Thank you for visiting my blog. I like your passion. This response is like one of the many crazy long responses I would have written when I was your age too. So it made me smile.

    I agree with your disagreement. You are right, 11 students for 10 spots can still make sense. What I was hoping, and maybe I should have made it clearer, was that those 11 students are only 11 out of thousands of students who are now learning SEO. That comment was to get people thinking about saturation points (paying for a class in a business investment so students should know what they are paying for).

    As for, “what matters is NOT ranking, it’s what happens when the client actually clicks through to your site.” I agree to an extent, you can have a great sales pitch but if it’s on page 100 then it’s a waste of a sales pitch.

    I also disagree with, “The fact of the matter is that SEO is not about getting people to your website. It’s about getting qualified people to your website, but then selling to them when they arrive.” SEO is a tool as much as selling/psychology/consumer behaviour/statistics come together to create a great tool. When applied with SEO then selling/psychology/consumer behaviour/statistics will create a terrific internet marketing model but, as it stands, SEO in its pure form is about traffic generation.

    If any of my readers make it this far (all two of you 😉 Joel is right in what he is saying. We actually don’t disagree on any points. I wrote a tweet, that was expanded on in a very short blog post. That blog post could have been 1000 words but I kept it short. Joel’s elaboration on my point is very good but there were points where Joel could have further elaborated (as per my disagreements of his points). The point you should take away from all this is that there is a LOT to know about SEO and Marketing – especially how they are so tightly intertwined. You can read all you want about it but to really learn then I suggest you lay down a few hundred dollars start a small business and test your knowledge in the real world – and get in touch with Joel or I if you need some advice.



    • David – your response is very appreciated!

      I agree but also disagree with your point on saturation points. Yes, there’s a lot of people claiming to do SEO out there. But there is still HUGE potential in the SEO industry for new players. A lot of the old dogs are not learning the new tricks. They’re not keeping current and they’re not innovating. “SEO’s” are a dime a dozen, competent SEO’s are few and far between. There are too many SEO’s relying on links in their client’s footers, doorway pages, etc. to rank and who still somehow believe that meta-keywords tags are actually important. Again, I’m sure you can tell who these guys are by Googling “Calgary SEO” and looking at the results. There’s people who are there who shouldn’t be.

      I’d also argue that if 11,000 people are learning SEO and going into business, you should probably learn it too. At least the basic tenants. Otherwise you’re being left behind. If SEO become standard knowledge and you don’t have it – what then? Knowledge is always power. Learning is always beneficial.

      Lastly, anyone who thinks their SEO job is finished when someone clicks on their result in the SERPs is seriously kidding themselves. People comparison shop. People evaluate your competence and your product based on what they see when they arrive. I don’t care if you’re #1, if your website looks like it was vomited out by an article spinner then no discerning customer is going to buy from you no matter HOW well you rank. For example (since I know you’re an experienced marketer) – it doesn’t matter HOW awesome your marketing push is if your product sucks when people use it. Case in point: Ford Edsel.

      I can say with conviction that I know of sites who rank #5 who continuously outsell competitors who always rank #1 based on shady SEO practices. You can’t see SEO as just a means to getting people to your site. Your SEO needs to work in concert with everything else you’re doing, from site design to your copy or it’s like flushing money down the toilet.

      • “I’d also argue that if 11,000 people are learning SEO and going into business, you should probably learn it too.”
        Joel, people don’t become successful by doing what everyone else is doing. Look at your best clients, they don’t care about SEO, they want to see their bottom line improve. Because X-person is learning SEO doesn’t mean that Y-person should follow. What’s the economic cost of learning a new skill?

        On the point, for example, “who still somehow believe that meta-keywords tags are actually important”, tTo say something is not important is to say we know Google’s algorythm. What if Google doesn’t care about meta-keywords but still cares about sites/search engines/spiders that do care about meta-keywords?

        If you drill down I’m not a marketer or an SEO guy; I’m a businessman. I don’t care about how but I do care about how much. I don’t care if the tactic is black, white, or pink but I do care about the bottom line.

        CEOs don’t care about “shady SEO practices” or what ever adjective you use. They will ask, “If I give you $X how many more are you getting me?”

        Joel, don’t get caught up in trying to be a White Knight to some abstract business function – be a White Knight to your clients. Build a name for yourself as the go-to-guy in Calgary. In the end, the group of lame-o’s who blog about ethical seo won’t be cutting you a cheque.

  3. “Joel, people don’t become successful by doing what everyone else is doing.” – Alright, fair enough. But what I’m saying is that if every competitor you have is leveraging SEO better than you are, you should probably catch up or risk being left behind.

    “What if Google doesn’t care about meta-keywords but still cares about sites/search engines/spiders that do care about meta-keywords?”

    Google has flat out said that they do not utilize meta-keyword data. This one is cut and dried and has been for ages. I’d refer you to for more information, specifically, “the keywords attribute”. It is accepted by the vast majority of the SEO community that meta keywords do not carry any weight.

    “I don’t care about how but I do care about how much. I don’t care if the tactic is black, white, or pink but I do care about the bottom line.”

    And that’s true of most business people, you’re absolutely right. But I bet the folks at JC Penney cared a WHOLE LOT after online sales plummeted thanks to being outed for shady SEO tactics and subsequently having all of their rankings drop. If all you’re focused on is the short term dollar amount, you’re missing the forest for the trees.

    Businesses DO care about their reputation. Their reputation is their brand. GoDaddy’s reputation was recently tarnished and it cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars in business. At the end of the day, if shady SEO tactics stand to damage your reputation, don’t you think that’s something a serious business owner would care about?

    To be clear, I’m a “do what works” kind of guy. We present clients with all alternatives and let them know what the risks are. Then they choose. We let them know what works faster and what’s more sustainable, but the end choice is always their own.

    Anyone who doesn’t do that runs a serious risk. I’m not trying to be a “White Knight”, I’m simply saying that it’s important to do what is sustainable. Just because businesses don’t understand SEO, how it works or why it matters doesn’t mean SEO’s should have carte blanche to roll the dice with their clients’ money. Education is part of the process.

    I suppose our attitudes are different here, which is not to say either of us is wrong.

    • I never said businesses don’t care about their reputation. Their reputation and brand only serve them so long as the company makes a profit. Other than say, the obvious things like not killing the environment or robbing old ladies, the only thing that matters is profit; everything else is just a variable in making a profit.

      I don’t believe much of what Google says, and I know the articles referring to Matt Cutts and keywords.

      I fully agree with your points. We just have different perspectives of looking at things.

      Now let’s stop wasting time and get to making some money! 😉

  4. Let me also say that I’ve totally appreciated this conversation and I think we agree more than we disagree! It’s been nice to talk nitty gritty with someone and though it was never in question it’s obvious you know your business – please never feel like I’ve been questioning that!

  5. It’s nearly impossible to find experienced people in this particular subject, but you seem like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks

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