Ask the Professors: How is SEO Being Taught in Colleges and Universities?

Now that SEO is becoming such an important industry and such an important part of running a business, it’s only a matter of time before colleges and universities start taking it seriously as a field of study. For now it seems that most schools teach SEO as a small unit under a larger major, such as marketing or communications, but that doesn’t mean that professors aren’t seeing SEO classes on the horizon.

We talked with different professors from different schools and different disciplines about this very subject and asked them the following questions:

What value do you see in teaching SEO to students? Is there any specific aspect of SEO or online marketing that you find most important for students to learn now, in school, rather than later in a job setting?

If SEO is not taught at your University, do you anticipate it will be (or should be) introduced in the near future?

Below are some of their answers. Let us know in the comments below if you have taken a great course in SEO at your college or University, and tell us your thoughts on the future of SEO in schools in general.

calebCaleb T. Carr, Assistant Professor, School of Communication, Illinois State University

In my courses I don’t directly “teach” SEO. A lot of my focus in online communication is on the later rather than the former–looking at how being online changes/affects communicative practices, rather than focusing on the “online,” which (as you’re well aware) is a very mercurial idea.

That said, I absolutely think it has a place being taught in higher education, particularly in computer science, business (i.e., marketing and advertising), information studies, and other fields. It may well be taught currently–I cannot speak to the entire curriculum of Illinois State. However, given the challenges of keeping up-to-speed with the always changing nature of SEO, at least in my world the best I hope to do is make students aware of it, understand the most fundamental, basic premises of how optimization works and why it matters, but leave the details and the under-workings of that complex system to their own studies. It’s an area I hope those students who go on to need to know about SEO get just enough to know to go to their boss and say, “making sure we’re found online when sought is important. You should send me to a conference/training/retreat to learn much more about the latest in this highly-changing and important field so that I may bring the newest in techniques back to [our company] and make us all many cash dollars.”

estherEsther Swilley, Associate Professor, L.L. McAninch Chair of Business Administration, Department of Marketing, Kansas State University

I teach SEO to students as a part of the overall understanding of marketing and the Internet.  I try to stress to them that this is a vital tool to marketers, but it is not the only tool, and should be seen in that context.

I try to give students an understanding of as many online marketing tools as I can so that they will be prepared for their careers.  However, as you know, things change.  What I teach today may be extinct tomorrow, however, having an understanding of all marketing tools available gives students the opportunity to recognize them when needed in the working world.  SEO is vital, but so is content.  And, SEO is important, not only online, but for mobile marketing as well.

chistopherChristopher Jennings, Ed.D, Associate Professor, Department of Journalism and Technical Communications, Metropolitan State University of Denver
Website and Interactive Media optimization is necessary throughout the production process. Whether the focus is on analyzing the audience in the early stages to conducting UX testing in the iterative process – SEO and the data analysis fit into the equation as well. Whereas, we learn much about our audience through the analysis phase and this data helps determine how to optimize search engines towards the correct audience. Thus building and directing a project to the right people who will respond to it. Web analytics and optimization results provide data to support UX testing efforts which continuously build a better product in the development cycle.

The most important aspect for students to know at a Bachelor’s Degree Level is to be able to define what SEO means and where if fits into the process. The student will learn more by doing it, naturally. Analytics and other data is critical for students to identify and define at school. The student would be on their way to mastering SEO or online marketing on the job and at a Graduate Degree level. A Doctoral level of this subject would have the student study short-term and long-term effects of SEO. In addition, Doctoral students would be incorporating new technologies such as eye tracking to assist in website optimization and better searches for the audience. Customized delivery is the future, because it is already here to stay. We will only improve it and academic institutions will be a huge part of the growth while educating many levels of students along the way.

If a University is not teaching SEO in some way, shape or form right now – the University is 10 years behind.

darrinDarrin C. Duber-Smith, MS, MBA, Senior Lecturer, Metropolitan State University Denver

Any discussion of Internet Marketing or Brand Management must include a discussion on SEO, both paid and organic. It does little good in 2014 for a marketer to assume the cost of developing and maintaining a website without taking the necessary strategic and tactical steps to drive meaningful traffic.

These skills should absolutely be taught at the university level within the School/College of Business where it belongs. It should also be taught by a current practitioner and not some Ivory Tower academic who has never held a marketing position or at least hasn’t done so recently. Business schools now have semi-permanent, non-tenure track faculty on every staff and so there should be no excuse but to use skilled, qualified faculty for this purpose.

At Metropolitan State University of Denver SEO is currently being taught, but it is a fairly recent development.

johnJohn Bertino, SEO Instructor at University of San Diego

There is tremendous value in educating today’s marketing students about SEO as well as search engine theories and concepts in general.  As students gain a better understanding of how search engine’s actually work, they’ll also understand how SEO plays into many – perhaps most – of their digital marketing efforts.  There are actually many offline marketing and SEO tie-ins as well!

SEO is a multifaceted discipline and SEO theory is a diversified subject.  The simple consideration of “what will a search engine think of this” precludes that marketers consider a variety of marketing factors from content, to social, to UX/Design and Development.  There’s just about no marketer that doesn’t deal in at least one of these areas on a routine basis.

So yes, a foundational understanding of SEO is critical to students joining today’s workforce and I’m pleased to be part of the USD’s continuing education program for marketers.  We’re actually rolling out a second SEO course this winter.

davidDavid A. Schweidel, Associate Professor of Marketing, Goizueta Business School, Emory University

With marketing dollars pouring into digital marketing efforts, it’s important for students to develop an understanding of the digital marketing tools that are available. It’s not just a question of the marketing tactics, but it’s also important that they know how those tactics can be evaluated. SEO, paid search, display, social advertising –these are all different tools available to organizations, but they don’t work in isolation. Nor does digital marketing work independently of “traditional marketing.” I think it’s thinking through how different forms of digital and traditional marketing work together that is best done in the classroom rather than on the job, where there’s a need to meet established business objectives under tight deadlines.

IMG_5572Mary E. Shoemaker, PH.D, Widener University School of Business Administration, Management and Marketing Department

For many companies, online marketing has become a significant part of their marketing strategy. At the same time, the companies may have few employees knowledgeable about getting their websites in front of customers.  Students need to understand that getting the customer to your website is crucial and search engines are usually how customers find your site. An aspect emphasized in the classroom is that understanding what the customer is thinking about and hoping to find is key to online success. A marketing class tends to reinforce the importance of the customer’s thoughts and processes. Building a “cool” or flashy, technical website without incorporating Search Engine Optimization is a mistake. SEO can be very complex and dynamic, so marketing students will need to continue to learn on the job.  However, for students, knowing the value of SEO, some of the ways to optimize a website, and how to select keywords, allows them as new employees to contribute almost immediately to their companies.

Google has created a competition called the Google Online Marketing Challenge (GOMC) that makes learning about keyword selection interesting.  Students are given $250 worth of free Adwords credit to use on a local business’s website.  They create online ads and select keywords to reach the online marketing goals identified by the business.  Students learn about the business and its marketing goals and use Google Analytics metrics to assess their performance.   Monitoring their impressions and click-thru rates and proclaiming their successes in class can be very intense!

We use the GOMC in Marketing 409 Customer Relationship Management at Widener University.

angelaAngela Y. Lee, Mechthild Esser Nemmers Professor of Marketing, Kellogg School of Management (Northwestern)

Being fluent with SEO allows companies to understand in real time what their customers are thinking, how they are feeling, and what they plan to do next.  This should be part of the toolkit that our students have when they graduate.


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