SEOs Don't Need an Information Retrieval Degree

In grade school a common technique for winning an argument was to declare that you were smarter and therefore you were right. Yeah, it wasn't a particularly profound way to win people over, but hey you can't expect all that much from a grade schooler during a 15 minute recess. Unfortunately, it seems that some people didn't quite move on from that style and make frequent use of I have a degree and therefore I'm right. This is silly.

Now I don't want to get into pointing fingers, because that would be unprofessional. Errr… that's a lie. I really do want to name names because deep down inside there's still a little grade schooler in me too. But I'll resist and instead let you know that there's a hint somewhere on this page of who inspired this post. OK, poking fun of people aside, I'd like to examine whether a formal education in informational retrieval (IR) really does make you a better search engine optimizer. Why information retrieval? Because that's the topic name that these “I'm smarter than you people” most often use.

So what is information retrieval? Unlike search engine optimization which is as uninformative as phrases get, you can accurately infer the meaning of information retrieval.

“Information retrieval (IR) is the science of searching for information in documents, searching for documents themselves, searching for metadata which describe documents, or searching within databases, whether relational stand-alone databases or hypertextually-networked databases such as the World Wide Web.”
— Wikipedia

Don't be fooled by that overly simplistic definition. The human brain makes us incredibly effective at information gathering and delivery, but trying to automate what our brains do is incredibly complex. This is why Google hires so many PhD's.

So effective information retrieval is difficult; the theory behind it is complex; and the amount of research is large. Does any of that mean that you can't be a good SEO unless you've cracked open a textbook? Does a formal education in information retrieval even help you become a better SEO?

Before I answer those questions, let me give you my credentials. Or rather, let me tell you that I've never studied information retrieval. My background is in computer science. I've spent most of my career writing software or managing software projects. Without an information retrieval background, some people will undoubtedly say that I shouldn't write what I don't know about. Ha ha, that's a good one. Imagine how many fewer blogs there'd be if people only wrote about the areas they're experts in. I have an opinion, this is my column, and so I'm sharing that opinion.

Do You NEED An Information Retrieval Background?

If people have an academic interest they should pursue that interest. Having said that, I don't believe SEO requires any particular background. I happen to have a technical background, but others have started from the marketing side. Still others don't have a web-related background at all with some getting into SEO accidentally. I even heard about a guy that started down the SEO road while in the hospital and not able to work due to injury.

I've worked with two people who take IR quite seriously. Both are smart and articulate, but only one actually impressed when it came to real-world SEO. A large number of non-IR-loving SEO's I've worked with are also smart and articulate. What's more, these other SEO's have demonstrated an ability to succeed at SEO whether for client sites or their own projects. How'd they do that without the right education? They're motivated to learn what they need to learn. SEO, like many web-related activities, has a low barrier of entry where hard-working, smart people can step in a do a good job without knowing the nitty-gritty details of building a search engine. Rather than focus on what goes into making a search engine, they focus on what comes out.

Does IR Help With SEO?

An IR background may give a beginner the upper hand. That is, if you take two people trying to do SEO for the first time you're probably better off listening to the one with the degree. That lead will only last for so long. I quickly found out that my computer science degree gave me a leg up in the interview process and with learning new things quickly, but I eventually started to bump into people that could run circles around me who had completely unrelated backgrounds. That's just the nature of many things technology — the best education comes from keeping up with the latest news and trying new things.

Is There Any Benefit to Understanding IR?

The one area where I think having a solid grasp of IR would help is in understanding why a particular technique works or doesn't work. Some people really need to know why something works, while others are quite happy just to know what works. For example, I don't know how my car works (search engine), but I do know that pressing on the gas gives me the desired response (SEO). This situation is acceptable because I know I can go to a mechanic (Google engineers) when my car needs servicing. But no matter how good that mechanic is, he won't make me a better driver. It's still up to me to make sure I get to my destination successfully.

One problem with relying too much on an information retrieval education is that the search engines aren't going to avoid a technique that makes their results better just because it goes against theory. Google is known to make hand edits which are hardly algorithmic and knowing what's going to trigger a manual edit isn't going to come from a textbook.

So to all of you information retrieval experts out there, share your ideas (if you want to), but don't wave your degree in everyone else's face. It doesn't help your case and is likely to hurt it instead. Besides, my Computer Science degree is better than anything you've got. Oops… there's that grade schooler again 🙂

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  1. Marios Alexandrou


    Most people in SEO/SEM came to the field from unrelated areas. I'd say most don't have a technical background, but have developed the necessary skills.

    If I were you, I'd narrow down the geography for the job market applicable to you and then send out a few resumes to recruiters to measure the interest in your skills. Look for feedback on your resume -- in many cases it's all in the presentation e.g. if your writing skills are good, highlight them or if your training has made you good with people, highlight that.

  2. Related to the topic of IR and SEO/SEM and hoping to spawn another topic of discussion. I do not have an IR degree, but I do have a college degree (BA) in education and psychology, as well as several technical certifications that "prove" my knowledge of web programming and design, database design and maintenance, basic networking, and MS Office applications.

    The only problem with these certifications is that the vast majority of my experience with these technologies is as a teacher of these technologies. Don't get me wrong--I know the concepts very well, and I have been a successful teacher for a well-respected computer training center for eight years. Unfortunately, though, my hands on experience is limited to a few contracting gigs for some intranet sites.

    The reason for my rambling on about the results of my studies is that I am looking for some advice from the experts on the feasibility of a career change to SEO/SEM. I enjoy teaching, but I am tired of the meager salary that comes with it, and I am ready to do what I have been teaching. I also do not want to reduce myself to an entry-level programmer position and spend my days in the corner of the building coding all day. I'm a people-person, and the concepts of SEO and SEM have always fascinated me. Any suggestions from the experts? If it matters, I am currently living in the Kansas City area, but I am planning to move my family to Southern Maine (close to Portland) in the coming months.

  3. Marios Alexandrou

    Hi Jaan,

    The hint is in the code of this page. I'm not revealing any more :-)

  4. So whats the hint?

  5. I believe the more education, the better. Although it is not a requirement or necessity, I don't think it could hurt! I am a current college student and I have to say what I have been learning in my courses has helped me out tremendously when working in the real world!

  6. Marios Alexandrou


    I agree. Nothing bad with a formal education. In fact, those that follow that path are often the sources of new, practical ideas from their academic research.

  7. I don't think any formal education would *hurt* someone starting in SEO, but SEO is such a interdisciplinary profession that no one degree will give you everything you need to know. Sure you need to know how to do research, but you should also know the technology behind the web, marketing ideas, copywriting, etc etc.

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