Get the Top Search Rank on Google! Search Engine Optimization and Certification
"Every system can be gamed." These words of wisdom were passed on to me by my brother-in-law, an oral surgeon who actually worked himself silly to enter his current profession. By this, he did not mean you can sit around and still triumph over hardworking stiffs. What he meant was simply that the application of a little pragmatic cleverness can make up for disadvantages in other areas.
Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is all about this sort of cleverness, and has actually been around in some form longer than the internet has. Take Mac the plumber, circa 1950. While the competition is giving their businesses names like "Right Price Plumbing" to catch people's eye, Mac gives his own shop the seemingly uninspired name of "Aardvark Plumbing."
What's going on here? Mac knows that most people looking for plumbers aren't going to consider every name in the phonebook. More likely, they're going to start at "A" and work their way down. This is, essentially, SEO — making sure potential customers see you first.
Of course, it's not quite as simple as throwing an extra "A" (or three) on the front of your name anymore. In 2015, Google and the other search providers are a little smarter than that. (Mostly Google, yes. It's Google's world, the rest of us are just living it.)
Search engines use specific algorithms to comb through a site and rank it according to how useful it is to the searcher. Those who understand said algorithms can design content that will draw in queries more easily, topping the list for a specific search term and performing admirably on select related terms. SEO is the art of convincing a search engine's internal system to place you at the top of its results.
Here, however, the search engine and the optimizer are at odds with each other. The search engine wants to be able to rank all unpromoted sites in an impartial way, offering the best data, or most pertinent links, first. Because of this, the criteria that Bing, Yahoo! and Google use to rank results are kept secret and are intentionally designed to make it very difficult for you to snooker them.
For instance, we know that Google uses the search history of the user to help rank the results, meaning that a site optimized for one user's search may not be optimized for another. They also use external measures that a webmaster should have limited control over, like how many other sites link to the site in question.
Clever — some might prefer to use the term "unscrupulous" — optimizers have found a way to use that to their advantage as well, leading to the creation of "link farms" where one could buy or trade for external links to their site.
Considering the ethical and technical ambiguities of SEO, it comes as no surprise that there aren't really any industry-recognized certifications for the ambitious optimizer. There are a few fairly respectable certs floating around (somewhat amusingly, a quick Google search will usually bring up the best ones), but the issue that plagues SEO is figuring out where to draw the line.
Are you within your ethical rights as long as you only manipulate on-site content? Is even some on-site content off limits? Or is it no-holds-barred optimization, and may the most clever optimizer win? Eventually the industry might come to some sort of consensus on this, but until then it's very unlikely that we'll see SEO certs gain significant popularity.
If you're still determined to certify, keep in mind that current SEO certification is more about learning your stuff than proving you know it. Google Analytics and Google Adwords certifications are solid SEO-related certifications, and while they may not be SEO in the strictest sense they are generally held in high regard.
Bruce Clay offers the SEOToolSet certification, which might be the most respectable cert that is also true SEO, but at almost $3,000 for a five-day course, it is a little on the steep side. For an excellent list of SEO certifications, you can check out Carl Larson's blog post on seattlesearchnetwork.org.