Why Doesn’t Google Have an SEO Certification Program?
1. Google would have to provide training
A certification test is only meaningful if it is certifying that the one who passes it has an acceptable level of understanding of a prescribed curriculum. It would be absurd if you signed up for a college course with your grade totally dependent on a final exam, but were then told that there was no syllabus, nothing to read, not lectures, no way to prepare for the exam.
So fine, why doesn’t Google just put together such a curriculum? cost as one reason, and I’ll get to that in the second point below, but I think there is likely at least two more possible reasons he didn’t mention.
- Volatility of SEO: The algorithms that run paid search advertising are complex, but relatively static. Yes, Google does make changes to how AdWords works, or introduce new features, but those happen relatively infrequently. So updating the curriculum and exams is not a huge task. The search algorithms, on the other hand, change constantly. One Googler has been quoted as saying there are “thousands of updates to the algorithm each year.” Updating curriculum and exams would be a constant and labor-intensive job.
- The Secret Sauce: For any SEO certification program to be accurate and meaningful, Google might have to reveal more about their search algorithms and how they work than they are prepared to do. Just listen to public interviews of anyone from Google Search and compare them with interviews of AdWords representatives. While the AdWords folks are often able to give clear, straightforward answers to almost any question about their service, the Search reps often have to be more circumspect. It’s not that the Search employees are inherently less giving people. Rather, they understand how easily any information they provide could be misunderstood, or worse, used to game the system.
2. Google would have to charge SEOs for the exams
Putting resources into training materials, exam construction, and maintaining a certification database are all expenses with little ROI to Google. That’s why they charge a fee to take the AdWords exams. (Also, probably because charging a fee makes people take the exam more seriously.)
UPDATE (29 March 2016, 1:20pm EDT): I was informed by an alert reader that Google no longer charges a fee for taking AdWords exams, and confirmed that they indeed dropped the fee in 2013. Remember that AdWords and Search operate entirely separately within Google, with their own budgets. Also keep in mind that AdWords directly generates huge revenue (actually, the majority of Google’s revenue), while Search only generates revenue indirectly (via the AdWords ads it displays). So it is likely that it would indeed be difficult for Search to get budget for a certification program, since it could not be justified with a measurable return in revenue.
People will use AdWords whether or not there is a certification program for AdWords managers, so Google gains little by providing it. Mostly, it is a service for those managers. It gives them a plaque to hang on their wall and an icon to put on their websites that might give their clients more confidence about using them. So it’s legitimate for Google to charge for the service.
Google would have to charge for any SEO certification program in order to cover and justify the expense and person-hours that would go into it. And there’s the problem.
“Search doesn’t ask for money for anything.”
What do I mean by that? Search is still the single most important thing Google does, because it is (by far) the largest revenue generator for the company. People continue to use Google search because they trust it. They expect the search results to be totally unbiased, to be beyond any possible influence by anything other than the impersonal, objective algorithms.
For that reason, Google has always guarded the sanctity of the search results from even the appearance of untoward influence. For example, there has been a recurring accusation that big-money AdWords accounts get preference in the search results. Not only has Google repeatedly and vehemently denied this, even ex-Googlers who no longer have anything to hide have been just as strong in their insistence that there is an absolute wall of separation between AdWords and Search.
I believe them, for one simple reason: whatever revenue Google might gain by allowing paying advertisers to think their money might buy them preferential treatment in search would be pennies next to the billions Google would lose if it ever got out (as it inevitably would) that such was the case. Again, the entire value proposition of Google Search is founded on trust, on a sacred promise that the results are beyond any manipulation or influence.
So that is why Google won’t contemplate taking even the small fee that it might have to charge for an SEO certification program.
What About an SEO Industry Certification Program?
There have been any number of proposals for some kind of third-party, industry recognized program of SEO certification. One such attempt was the SEMPO Institute, launched in 2008 by the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization, but shut down in 2012.
Two current online SEO training and certification programs are one by MarketMotive and a forthcoming USC Davis course by our own Eric Enge: Become an SEO Expert. While both are excellent training opportunities, they still don’t fill the place of an industry-recognized SEO certification program.
Why has no such program emerged and been accepted by SEOs everywhere?
- There has been no industry-wide consensus on who should administer such a program.
- There is wide disagreement on what should be included and required of SEO certification.
- Such disagreement becomes even sharper when the topic of “ethical SEO” comes into play. Many think that SEO ethics needs to be part of any certification, as businesses are increasingly concerned about the damage that an unethical SEO could do, but there is much disagreement about where the line between ethical and unethical (or “white hat” and “black hat”) lies.
- Even on some of what most SEOs would consider fundamentals of SEO, there are dissenters. For example, recently one well-known SEO proclaimed that he believes Google is already working to eliminate link signals from search algorithms, but many other SEOs vehemently disagreed with him.
- Proving what actually are valid SEO practices is difficult because none of us has access to the algorithms. That doesn’t mean there aren’t practices which have been more than reasonably confirmed, whether by careful testing or confirmation from Googlers (or both), but there is still disagreement about much of SEO among very smart and reputable people.