Should I be teaching SEO?

David Edmundson-Bird is the Director of Executive Programmes at MMU where he works to develop under-graduate and post-graduate qualifications. As well as this David, or @groovegenerator as you might know him, works with The Orchard Agency which aims to help graduates develop skills for the digital creative sector. David continues our series of guest blogs by looking at the skills gap in experience that the digital sector demands from their graduates.

“Good morning students. Today, we’re going to learn how to do SEO. Yes – that’s right, we’re going to learn how to make your web site generate quality visitors.

Okay – it’ll take about a day to learn this, t­­hen as a result you’ll all be great search engine marketers. Straightaway! Yes – that’s right, as soon as you leave the classroom today, you’ll be great SEO specialists. You’ll be able to walk out, get a job in an agency and then you’ll start doing great SEO from the minute you walk in.”

Hold on a minute. This isn’t some kind of SEO firm wet dream. This is a fictional account of the preferred scenario spelled out to me recently by a senior SEO executive in a local firm. “What I want from universities are people who can start in the firm on day 1 and start being productive SEO execs!

I’m using SEO today as a vehicle for my story, but you can consider any digital marketing tool or technique here.

Now I’ve got a few things I want you to think about, and it is about the role of Universities in the creation of the future workforce. I am passionate about the need for my University to develop curriculum that meets the need of the regional wealth creating industries, but it’s also important to recognise what a university is not for. And that’s when we start to think about what the role of companies are in this process.

The bit of a university that deals with degree qualifications isn’t a training house. Many of you will have been to University, spent three years in which you “discovered yourself”. Many people may have resented your opportunity, and some of you will have done it all free. What did you learn? It’s quite funny talking to creative directors, MDs, and other directors who ask what’s University for – and I ask them: what was it like for you? What did you learn?

Training can take a day. You can do an SEO course in a day at Econsultancy, with another “Advanced” day later on. So it takes 2 days to learn SEO then? It might, but it does not make you a Master when you come out. I hear stories of it taking several years of daily SEO experiences before you could be described as “accomplished.” Moreover, do you need to go to University to learn SEO or can you bypass University completely? Well – once upon a time, we did.

When I was a lad, half of my mates left school at 16 to do apprenticeships. That really doesn’t happen much now, but imagine a world where kids leave school at 16 to become SEO apprentices (I like Manchester firm Democracy PR’s view of “The PR Apprentice”). After a couple of years, you’ll get a proper SEO monkey (this is a term I have heard being bandied about recently by hardcore SEOers).  But what happens after that? Where does the experienced SEOer go after that?

My view is that the Vocational University is about educating people in the context of the industry they are entering. I can educate them about SEO, but I don’t train them to be an SEO expert. They will understand the context of SEO in relation to other digital marketing tools. They will understand customer behaviour, recognise the difference between behavioural and psychographic segmentation. They will know why things are done, and why things shouldn’t be done. They’ll be the kinds of people who can identify solutions to problems. They’ll be able to explain why they made those choices. They’ll know the good and the bad in different solutions. They’ll be critical of any choice available to them. They’ll be sceptical. They’ll be creative.

Does that sound like what you’re after?

Amazingly many of us are already doing that.

You could take someone like that and then give him or her that experience (the training will only take a day after all). But experience is key and that’s something a University cannot offer. Sure, we can promote placements, internships and day-a-week releases: but they have to be provided by the places where experience is gained: the workplace.

So – over to you folks. It’s either time to flood your local University with those experience opportunities, so that when you look at those graduates – they have everything you expect. Or maybe you feel that part can wait until they have joined you as an employee. Your call.

  • Written by on 21st October 2009 at 09:50
  • “Fluid Creativity is an award-winning, multi-service digital agency based in Manchester.”
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  • phillyharper

    As a University graduate, the one thing that really annoyed me about my course was the lack of solid skills I came out with.

    “But it's education for education's sake” was the response I was often met with, “it's about bettering yourself as a person.”

    That's all well and good, but the £16,000 I spent would have been better spent travelling the world for 3 years if “bettering myself” was the only goal. I went to University for better prospects, and when I left I was still fighting an uphill battle to find the work I wanted.

    It's a nice thought to have education for educations sake but the reality is that students spend three years getting drunk and throwing parties and only by their third year does the thought “what am I actually going to do with my degree?” cross their mind.

    I'd have to do some proper research on this, but I get the impression this is a common experience for many students.

    With the working world moving as fast as it does, I wonder if Universities are actually the best or most efficient way of getting people into the work force. There are too many courses covering too many useless topics. If you're serious about doing research, go to University, if you want to get on in the workplace, learn your skills elsewhere and save your money.

  • lee turner

    Universities need to engage with businesses more to ensure the gap is closed, enabling students to gain employment. Where as what we are currently seeing is that students have no commercial understanding or the skillsets to even look at them as a trainee, this is then getting worse when the student is expected to walk in a role and earn £35k.

    On the other hand, businesses need to offer work placements that will allow students to gain experience and be better placed when leaving university. As a business this is something we we are always doing even for people of a young age.

    Obviously this is only one view point and would love to hear what other people think

  • Nicola Thomas

    My University course provided me with a creative output, but most of the skills I use today I picked up outside of education. By the time we had those lessons on 'How to use Photoshop' and 'What is html' I already knew that half of what I was being told was complete rubbish, and probably something id never use in a job.

    I think Universities need to be relevant and realistic with their teaching and give students briefs they may come across in the industry. I dont think I was ever asked to set a document up for print or was told the difference between CMYK and RGB – which is sad, because I didnt get my education for free. Likewise, its good I had the motivation to learn these things away from uni, or I may still be stuck in some rubbish job!

    Id also agree with Lee, from my course year of over 50+ people – Id say only 5-10 are now working in the industry successfully. The quality of cv's ive seen is getting worse and I think we can only blame the lack of guidance from University lecturers and actual lack of skill from the applicant.

  • sadiebelle

    My Uni course was more creative led and the deadlines meant no one got used to industry expecations even work experience was more being a skivvy than getting to see what was expected.
    I thought I'd walk into a job out of Uni but realised I had none of the skills I should have and basically started from scratch self learning.
    A degree was good to get but does not have any relevance on my current career path and thousands in debt I could have gotten a lot more from an access course and working as an exec. I was lucky and decided to turn things around quickly but many of my classmates are working in shops and restauraunts as they can't get a job in the industry they studied for.

  • Stephen Chapman

    At the University of Manchester, courses are on the academic, rather than the vocational side, so they're not really set up for a move into this industry.
    Mentoring has been on-going for a number of years, but this year we've set up the Media Club to try and bridge the gap that David talks about.
    By involving industry experts as speakers and through online, we're hoping to build up networking & work placement opportunities and ultimately help with the students' career goals.
    It's an experiment, but something we're hoping will be a success…

  • Wayne Silcock

    Whilst we can discuss the gap between the university and a job in the industry until the cows come home, and bemoan both the lack of agency involvement in universities or vice versa, I think we are forgetting about the responsibility of the student for their own professional development.

    I was one of 3 students at university on my degree course known as “the mac geeks” (true story) as we spent the majority of our time, powerbooks open, learning new software and techniques rather than being out on the lash. Rather than wait for an opportunity to land in my lap, I was designing inlays for Ninja Tune and Fabric free of charge in the hope I could squeeze my way into the industry or get offered professional work.

    Students need to realise that Uni only takes you so far, and is there to motivate you to get up and discover opportunities for yourself, and provide an environment to facilitate learning, not spoon feed it.

  • chappers

    I have to say that Wayne's point resonates the most with me on this one. In other university subjects such as the Engineering or Science recent graduates are more likely to be in tune with technological developments as their lecturers will be the ones involved in that cutting edge research and development.

    The world of digital changes so rapidly (especially search) that I think it would be hard for anyone in academia to ensure that the minutae of the latest techniques and software are taught. Any steps that can be taken to establish a middle ground between University and Commercial employment are of course hugely welcomed and it seems that David is working extremely hard to push this. Hopefully more agencies/companies will reciprocate and offer placements or similar work experience but as Wayne says I think the closest thing we'll get to a magic bullet is students actively going out of their way to research and involve themselves in the industry.

  • Nicola Thomas

    sadly – I was one of those who called wayne a mac geek, but mostly because i wanted a mac. I did all my 'geeking' at home sat on my huge desktop pc, but i still did it.

    I think most students think life and a fab job is now handed to them on a plate, when in reality, its a long slog with lots of hard work and dedication, lots of free work and hours to build a portfolio. Then… you 'might' get an interview…

  • SirBigWig

    Interesting article and comments, especially the one about CV's getting worse. Clearly SEO cannot be taught like an academic subject, but there are a whole host of other skills that can, such as account management, presentation skills, communication, diplomacy, spelling, etc etc that appear to be missing from what potential employers say. However, I also think there is a limit to which these can be harnessed at University. The old adage of learning on the job rings true in my opinion. But, remember that some of these skills would never make it onto purely academic degrees such as history, politics, philosophy etc. So it is very tricky to integrate this kind of training, perhaps it should be done separately?

    Unfortunately the “degree” has been mis-sold to the public and students as the panacea, and some of those with a degree expect that by divine right they should be entitled to a higher than average starting salary, regardless of skills set. Also the government misguidedly wants 50% of 18 year olds to go onto University, which is ludicrous. Drop out rates are at an all time high, and graduate jobs are in short supply.

    I agree with the point that Universities need to engage more with commercial companies (something which MMU seem to do very well). I would also extend hugely the work placement year for students, commonplace with marketing and business degrees, in fact I would make it compulsory were it workable.

  • teacherinchina

    Teach whatever, you will learn more thn your students.Organizing your thoughts, materials… I enjoy teaching very much.