The 5 Unconventional Keys to Teaching SEO

Teaching search engine optimization (SEO) is extremely difficult because of its tactical nature and inability to see quick results. Because of these things, it is also hard to simulate SEO in a controlled environment.

I have taught SEO for six years, with three of those in a traditional classroom environment. If there is one overarching theme I have learned, it is to avoid the classic teaching approach. Teaching SEO is not an array of concepts, integrations, and testing understanding. It is much more complex.

To break this point down further, I propose five keys to teaching SEO at any level. You can apply these to your students, employees, interns, or even your boss.

Spend more time exploring

I subscribe to the idea that teaching should not be a one-way street. That is, students should be exploring resources on their own to drive their understanding of topics. In the case of SEO, there are countless websites and programs that provide teaching resources. Additionally, many of these resources are used by businesses to audit and improve SEO performance.

Some of the most popular SEO websites with resources and tools include:

  • SEMrush
  • Moz
  • Yoast
  • Ahrefs
  • The HOTH

Consider integrating one of these into your course or lecture, so students have third-party experience. They will also be able to put the site on their resumes as a skill or certification, which carries a lot of weight when they lack work experience.

When looking at the summation of lecture time, I tend to keep the “teaching” part at 50%. I spend the rest of my time on resources above or even self-teaching through blogs and other sites. This allows students to learn about the newest SEO topics, such as the latest Google update or new terms like semantic SEO.

75% of teaching SEO time should be spent on off-site optimization

SEO has traditionally been taught in two parts: on-site and off-site. The on-site side is very rudimentary and can be turned into a checklist. But off-site SEO is vast and important to a sound strategy.

From competitive analysis to backlinking, the principles of off-site SEO can be abstract and difficult to master. They are also critical to professional success. According to Moz, link building is one of the top-weighted items when it comes to ranking factors. Additionally, competitive analysis is necessary for keyword development.

Off-site and on-site SEO can (and should) be considered completely different lectures if you are teaching SEO as part of a larger digital marketing course. But to spend enough time on off-site SEO means sacrificing some of the on-site SEO time on the larger strategy.

Include public relations when teaching SEO

One of the main pillars of SEO is backlinks and building domain authority for your website. These links do not build themselves, nor do they necessarily come easily. Instead, backlinking is an exercise in public relations, hunting for earned media opportunities.

There are dozens of blog posts about how to get backlinks, and companies will now promise backlinks from high-authority domains if you pay the right price. The bottom line: backlinks are critical to SEO.

Any student of SEO should be able to build a basic backlink profile without too much trouble, which is where public relations education is helpful. By spending at least one full lecture on public relations basics and how to pitch media, your students will immediately gain an understanding of the kind of work that must go into building high-authority links. Whether the pitches are written for major newspapers or simply responding to HARO inquiries, the ability to properly pitch a media company is a skill that most marketers will need, but few actually learn.

Keyword development is a group project, not a solo one

Looking for a group project in your SEO course but unsure where to insert it? Keyword brainstorms are great group projects.

Keyword development is rarely a solo job, as brainstorms will sometimes have dozens of minds sharing ideas. Thus, it will benefit your students to work on their keyword strategies with others. The preparation and presentation is a great professional development exercise. Plus, your students will likely enjoy the exercise in a group setting more than a solo one.

From competitive analysis to the final list of selected keywords, this group effort is something that can be effectively divided up among the group members while still allowing them to learn a core function of SEO. Just because one student does the competitive analysis and another handles the gap analysis does not mean they are failing to see the whole picture. Rather, they are understanding how agencies develop keyword lists and strategies.

Audit a business website… and provide them the results

Teaching SEO is hard to conduct exclusively in a classroom. Students need real-world experience to fully understand the diverse world of digital marketing.

By auditing a business’s website from an SEO perspective, students will see a wide range of performance, from the well-optimized site that brings in thousands of visitors per week to the site that has never heard of the term “search engine optimization.” Both are great teaching supplements and can help them understand the typical client with which agencies interact.

If you want to take it even further, require students to work with businesses that fail to rank well for any non-branded keywords. By performing a quick audit on SEMrush or a similar site, students can see where companies are failing from the search side. This will make their audit much more impactful and comprehensive… and every student or group should have a laundry list of improvements they can make on the site.


Nick Mattar teaches digital marketing at the undergrad and MBA level at Wayne State University in Detroit. He is also the founder and CEO of Digital Detroit LLC, a digital marketing training and consulting firm specializing in SEO, social media, email marketing, and online reputation management.

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