how teaching ESL is like SEOI may be a typical digital marketer with a Twitter and Google+ feed full of awesome content from Social Media Examiner, Chris Brogan, Rand Fishkin, etc. I geek out over the latest ad campaigns on Instagram and love reading SEO case studies on Search Engine Land.

And even though Google Analytics is my best friend and I’m constantly on Pinterest, I have a life outside of the digital world. (I promise.)

This past year I was involved in a program teaching English as a second language (ESL). As it wraps up this week, I’m reflecting on many of the things I learned and the opportunities I had.

Of course, I thought about how it related to SEO and everything I do on a daily basis.

We speak different languages.

Just like my students who speak Mandarin, Arabic, or Spanish– my clients and the general public speak a different language than me. I can count on one hand how many people have understood what I meant when I introduced myself as an SEO Specialist. Often, I simply say that I work in ‘digital marketing’ to make it simple.

But, really. Just like clients don’t understand the meaning of “meta description,” “alt tag,” “link juice,” or “Penguin,” I don’t understand the technicalities of their industry. It takes time, energy, and creativity for any of us to truly understand the industry of a client. We read trade publications, industry blogs, stylebooks or sales handbooks so we can be a real extension of their internal marketing team.

I was an assistant in a beginner’s class for ESL this past year. Now, granted, I speak a decent amount of Spanish, so I could explain concepts and vocabulary to my Hispanic students. But the ones who spoke other languages? That was truly a challenge. Hand motions, drawings, and pictures were my crude methods of communication at the beginning. It’s the same with clients – some I may be familiar with their industry and I don’t need much help, but others – my understanding is on par with my ability to speak Chinese

We have to adjust strategies.

My class started out with seven students from Mexico, and one student from Honduras. Over eight months, many left, and others came. Now as we’re ending, I have at least five Chinese students, several from Guatemala, and still more from Mexico. We had to adjust our teaching strategy nearly every week depending on which students showed up and whether we had new students (almost a weekly occurrence). Some weeks we could zip through a lesson and everyone understood what was happening. Other weeks, a game or worksheet would be painfully slow and discouraging as communication failed.

Same with any SEO retainer. Often I start out thinking that one strategy will work really well, only to get two months in and realize that I have to adjust what I’m doing. Google’s guidelines and standards for SEO change nearly every month and if we don’t adjust and stay current, our client’s SEO performance will lag.

Not everyone can be a teacher.

I was never the ESL teacher. I’m not certified. And there’s a reason I have a marketing degree, and not an education degree. I loved being an assistant, working one-on-one with my students. The few times I had to explain things to the class, I didn’t enjoy it. Being an assistant gave me the advantage of forming relationships with my students and giving them my time to work on specific problems – and I loved it.

Again, there’s a reason that we have a dedicated account manager (shout out to all the awesome work Sarah does!) at Web Talent. She has a knack for explaining our strategy and needs to clients. It frees me up to focus on executing the client’s work instead of spending my time pulling reports and sending emails.

It’s an investment for the long-run.

I had ESL students tell me every week how badly they just wanted to speak English. I was often asked for extra tutoring or other recommendations. I felt terrible – but I didn’t have any extra time to give. It’s difficult to learn a language unless you are 100% immersed and going to classes 24/7. Still you aren’t going to be fluent or even comfortable in the language for several months. It requires patience and perseverance with the promise of results down the road.

SEO is a new industry. It’s also one that changes every few months. It’s hard enough for me to keep up with the changes, let alone expect anyone else to. To truly understand how SEO can help your business (or if it isn’t worth your money), it takes a lot of communication and patience. It doesn’t work like a billboard, a newspaper advertisement, and a “get to the top” mentality won’t get you very far.

It’s hard not to focus on short-term results, revenue, and traffic. But SEO is a process, and just like learning English, it takes months and sometimes years of hard, honest work and dedication to see really great results. After all, it’s just another part of building your brand and business. You can’t learn English overnight, and you can’t rank for your top keywords within days either.