There's a tendency, whenever people want to learn about a particular topic, to seek the teachers, the experts, to learn from. Setting aside the often difficult task of determining who's the right expert to listen to, it's a more complicated process than it may seem. (Spoiler alert: There's a great tip at the end of this article, to tell you how to best learn who to listen to.)
I was a student, as a youngster, in another era. In those days, teachers didn't just focus on forcing you to memorize names and dates (although there was more than enough of that to ruin many a pre-exam evening). The really good ones – those who I still remember half a century later – were those that weren't content to teach what to think... they were more interested in teaching how to think.
Don't make the mistake of believing that made their job any easier. On the contrary, teaching by rote would have been a lot easier. But it would have betrayed their notion of real teaching.
And as big a pain as it was to memorize the birthdates of every human being since the discovery of fire, some things just can't be learned by memorization. So as students, our job was made more difficult, as well. But I think the results made it well worthwhile.
Paying it Forward
I built the first website my employer ever had back in the mid-1990s. Had I had even the slightest clue what I was doing, I would have been ashamed of the result, even then. Now, harakiri would be called for. But when they decided they wanted more functionality than I was able to manage (which wasn't much) and brought in an expert to do it, I got to look over her shoulder.
I was lucky. Most people don't like having to deal with someone looking over their shoulder, asking an endless stream of questions, while they're trying to work. Susan was different, though. She probably would have made a fantastic teacher, as she really enjoyed teaching not only the how, but the why. She introduced me to Lycos, Infoseek, and AltaVista and started me on the road to learning how to be found by search engines.
One could argue that she created a monster. Not me, though. She opened a new world for me... one beyond a simple Open Directory – one I've enjoyed working in ever since. It's a good thing, too, because as we all know, the how to be found techniques evolve constantly.
Susan truly was an "expert". She loaned me books on code that had her handwritten corrections of the author's content in the margins. She was as close to being a magician as I ever had an opportunity to work with. And most importantly, she taught me how to think.
I'm far from being an expert, but I've managed to learn a little in the last 20 years and I think it's my responsibility to help others learn, too. Often, in the process, I'll discover something I'd never thought of before, so I'm a student, as well.
I can't pay Susan back for what she taught me. But I can pay it forward, by helping someone else learn to think for themselves.
Every Expert was Once a Beginner
Like I said, I'm no expert. At best, I'm competent as some things. I have opinions on most things, of course, but some of them are probably wrong. That's probably why I'm a bit anal about qualifying my statements as opinions, when I can't back them up with facts.
Strangely (or maybe not), I've found that the most effective way to get someone to think something through is to tell them "I can't substantiate this, but what I've seen makes me think that X may be true", and tell them why I think that. It's amazing how often a "noob" can see naked data in a different way that often makes sense.
In the SEO and SEM world, there's no shortage of self-proclaimed experts, gurus and ninjas. I look at them the same way I would at a woman that proclaims herself to be the most beautiful woman on Earth... full of herself and little else.
I think the real test is what other experts say about someone. If someone whose professional opinion I respect says that so-and-so is a real guru, that carries some weight.
But even those proven experts out there had to start somewhere. At some point, they knew zip about their current profession. They may have studied, been mentored or experimented their way to where they are, but I think all of them will admit that somewhere along the line, they were aided by someone else, directly or indirectly. And some of those folks are in a constant process of paying it forward.
There have been many that have helped me learn my trade. As a young journalist, I dreaded the tirades of my editor when I turned in my pieces. He raked me over the coals more times than I care to remember, but I learned from him. And when I was the editor, I passed on what he taught me. Paying it forward.
Likewise, when I set out to learn SEO, I benefited from the wisdom of a number of people in the industry who like to pay it forward. Several of them, I have almost daily contact with, some of them, I follow on their blogs. All of them have taught me, and I can't pay any of them back.
The key, of course, is not to teach people what to think – what they really need to learn is how to think. That makes it harder for both of you, but like I said, it's worthwhile... also for both of you.
A Great Tip
Oh, I almost forgot that I promised you a valuable tip on how to know which "experts" to believe. It's really pretty simple:
Learn to think for yourself.
Meet Your Favorite Search Engine Watch Contributors
Many of SEW's leading expert contributors will be at ClickZ Live, the new online and digital marketing event kicking off in New York (March 31-April 3). Hear from the likes of: Thom Craver, Josh Braaten, Lisa Barone, Simon Heseltine, Josh McCoy, Lisa Raehsler, Greg Jarboe, Dan Cristo, Joseph Kerschbaum, John Gagnon, Eric Enge and more!