While still relatively young, SEO has gone through far more changes in its short time in existence than the average millennial has. From its start in the 1990s to today, SEO has grown from a simple tactic that webmasters used to manipulate search results to a massive $80 billion industry.
Thanks to advances in technology and search engine algorithms, the face of SEO is constantly changing. The tactics that were so successful in the past would surely get you penalized in today’s world. Understanding these trends, from where SEO started to where it currently is, can help you to better see where its future may lie.
In our comprehensive history of SEO, we’ll cover the practice of search engine optimization starting from the first website all the way to some future predictions. By the end, not only should you better understand SEO’s history, but you should better understand how to create ranking content for your website.
The Early History of SEO: The SEO of Yesterday
The 1990s: The Beginnings of SEO
According to most, SEO began in 1991 with the launch of the first website by Tim Berners-Lee. A couple of years later, the first browser — Mosaic — was released in 1993, and this is when the internet really started to gain popularity.
But you can’t really talk about the history of SEO without talking about the history of search engines, which really didn’t take off until around 1994. We’ll cover the most notable releases below:
- 1990 — Archie Query Form, the very first search engine iteration was released. It was mainly used for indexing FTB archives.
- 1993 — Very simple search engines are released. Although, without knowing the exact title of the page you’re looking for, finding anything was nearly impossible. These included World Wide Web Worm, JumpStation, and RBSE Spider
- 1994 — This is when the first ‘modern’ search engines emerged. Some names include Yahoo, Infoseek, and Lycos. Also in 1994, Webcrawler, the first search engine to index entire pages was released.
- 1995 — Excite, developed by some enterprising Stanford students is launched. AltaVista is also released, being the first to offer unlimited bandwidth.
- 1996 — The first iteration of Google, called BackRub at the time, was developed by Sergey Brin and Larry Page. BackRub used backlinks, page rank (based on outside mentions), and the authority of a site to rank its results. The natural language search engine, AskJeeves, is also released.
- 1998 — Google is officially launched. MSN Search also hits the world wide web.
- 1999 — The first search marketers conference takes place, at the time called Search Engine Strategies. This conference continued until 2016 under a variety of names.
During these early days, SEO was quite different than what you use today. On-page activities were the main focus of early SEO, and usually involved the overuse of keywords within a site’s content and meta tags, tactics we’d consider spamming by modern standards. Even the term ‘SEO’ wasn’t used, with early names including search engine placement, search engine ranking, search engine marketing (still used for paid search), and website promotion.
These were the wild west days of SEO, when spammy backlinks, keyword stuffing, hacking techniques, and excessive tagging dominated. As algorithms took months to update at the time, webmasters could get away with these tactics for quite a while without issue.
The advanced and constantly updating algorithms that we know today didn’t exist back then. Webmasters found success using all kinds of unscrupulous black hat techniques that would surely lead to penalties nowadays.
In the next decade, as search engines evolved, so did the techniques used by SEO specialists. This is largely thanks to the rise and advancement of Google and it’s constantly updating algorithms.
The Early 2000s (2000 to 2010): The Rise of Google
Currently holding 80% of the search engine market across the globe, it’s hard to remember a time that Google didn’t dominate web searches. The search engine has become so popular that it has grown into a verb, you don’t search for a term anymore, you Google it.
This rise to prominence grew from one simple idea, delivering the most useful results to users based on a website’s authority, or the number of links that are connected to it. After all, the more useful the content on a website is, the more likely others are to link to and reference it. Before the Google model, advertisers could pay for the top spots, but this led to a lousy user experience. Google set out to change all this by focusing on providing a user-focused search engine.
Google’s web crawler and PageRank algorithm took a variety of factors into account when ranking its search results, the same things that are important for modern SEO. These included both on-page and off-page factors, such as the relevance to a user’s search, number of quality backlinks, anchor text, and advertiser pay. This focus on user experience was key to the company’s success.
In the year 2000, Yahoo partnered with Google, using the company to power its search results. This massive blunder led to all of Yahoo’s results featuring the tag ‘Powered by Google,’ introducing the world to this new tech giant.
Google’s Effect on SEO
By changing the way sites were indexed, Google effectively altered the SEO industry. SEO became more user-focused and providing quality content and link building became the norm. Out of this sprang a whole new SEO industry — SEO link building.
This led to its own problems though, as enterprising webmasters began using black hat techniques to attain a high number of backlinks, such as link buying and links to non-relevant content. But, over time, Google got better at recognizing bad linking practices and penalized them with updates such as Jagger, Nofollow, and Big Daddy.
Throughout the decade (2000 to 2010), Google got better and better at indexing sites and providing relevant content to its users. Through a number of prominent updates, the company made it difficult for SEOs to employ shady techniques to manipulate their ranking.
Things like keyword stuffing and bad linking became less useful. After the Florida update, to rank well, webmasters needed to provide quality content that fell in-line with Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
Local SEO also began to take hold during this era. Around 2004, Google started to help users get more relevant search results based on their location. This included things like local maps, restaurants, and business hours of operation. The company also began providing more personalized results based upon its user’s search histories.
Web crawlers like Google became even more efficient with the 2006 release of XML Sitemaps. Sitemaps helped to inform a crawler about every URL that’s available across a website. This allowed search engines to better index a site and allowed webmasters to provide additional information, such as when the site was updated, how often it changed, and the importance of an individual URL.
Major Google Updates From 2000 to 2010
Below, we’ll list some of the more notable Google updates of this decade:
- Google Toolbar  — Gave SEOs the ability to see their PageRank score
- Florida Update  — Caused massive panic in the world of SEO by targeting spammy tactics such as keyword stuffing. This update forced webmasters to better adhere to Google’s Webmaster Guidelines
- Jagger Update  — Targeted duplicate content, unnatural link building, and technical factors
- Supplemental Index  — Pages that used unscrupulous SEO techniques risked being placed in the supplemental index rather than popping up on the main SERPs page
- Fritz  — Google began updating its index daily
- Nofollow Attribute  — Linked with MSN and Yahoo, Google released Nofollow Attribute to decrease spammed links and website comments (mainly blogs)
- Big Daddy Update [2005-2006] — Improved Google’s understanding of the worth and relationship between links and sites
- Google Analytics  — Tracks and reports website traffic
- Google Webmaster Tools  — Allowed you to check indexing status, view crawling errors, see the searches your site showed up for, among other things. Now known as Google Search Console
- Universal Search  — Blended results of news, video, and images into its web search results
- Google Suggest  — Suggested search options based on a user’s historical data
- Vince  — Update that seemed to strongly favor big brands by putting greater weight on trust in the algorithm
2010 and Beyond: A User-Focused Web
With the popularity of Google, search engines and webmasters were now forced to focus on user experience rather than the shifty techniques that dominated early SEO. Through ever-evolving technology, search engines became incredibly adept at picking up dishonest SEO tactics and punishing them accordingly. Things like over-optimization, bad linking practices, and content quality were becoming strictly enforced.
An example of a major company that was publicly humiliated and penalized for using black hat SEO techniques is Overstock.com. In 2011, Overstock was penalized for violating Google’s policies by using some dishonest linking practices. The company had been ranking in the top results for popular search terms such as ‘Laptop Computers’ and ‘Vacuum Cleaners’ but dropped to the fifth or sixth page overnight.
This was due to the linking practices that Overstock had been utilizing. The company had created a program where they exchanged high-authority .edu backlinks for free products and discounts to students and educators. Google took notice of this attempt to manipulate its algorithm and punished the company for its misdeeds. Any paid link could be seen as manipulation by this time and using them could result in penalties.
Panda and Penguin Algorithms
Early in this decade, Google’s Panda and Penguin updates were first introduced. These two changes, which were regularly updated, forever altered the face of SEO. Panda, the first of these updates (released in 2011), was created to reduce low-quality content while rewarding interesting and unique content. This was largely a way to reduce the prevalence of content farms which were crowding Google’s results pages with low-quality and irrelevant content.
Panda accomplished this by assigning a ‘quality classification’ to a page’s content. These quality classifications were modeled after human quality ratings and affected a page’s ranking. Websites had to adapt by generally improving the user experience of their pages. This largely involved revamping low-quality content and replacing it with high-quality content, getting rid of above the fold ads, and using fewer filler words.
In 2012, the Penguin update was released. First known as the webspam algorithm update, Penguin was created to target bad linking practices. This included links that were used to manipulate Google’s algorithm and link spam. After Penguin was released, the volume of links in a page’s content played less of a role in determining its rank.
While Panda mainly affected on-page factors, Penguin had more of a focus on off-page factors. The two updates worked together to help Google eliminate low-quality content from its top search results. So, in essence, Panda helped to fight the prevalence of high-ranking low-quality content and Penguin fought the use of black hat manipulative link building practices. Both of these updates were incorporated into Google’s core algorithm in 2016.
Local SEO, Social Media, and the Rise of Mobile
Local SEO also began to grow in importance around this time. With Google’s ‘Pigeon’ update (update name coined by SEL), Google set out to provide more useful and accurate local search results. This affected the rankings of local searches, forcing local businesses to adapt their SEO strategies.
With Pigeon, local searches were now incorporated into Google’s Knowledge Graph, providing local results directly into the web and map SERPs in the form of an infobox. The algorithm also helped to improve the parameters affecting rank based on the location of a user and his distance from something he’s searching for (such as ‘restaurants near me’).
Social media also began to take a larger role in SEO during this time. In 2010, both Bing and Google began displaying ‘social signals.’ These were Facebook posts, from one of your friends, that appeared along with your search results if you used terms that matched the post.
PageRank also began to take Twitter profiles that were often linked to into account. While Google denies social media’s impact on SEO, the correlation has been shown in multiple ranking factor studies.
Another important SEO advancement that took place during the decade of 2010 to 2020 was the rise of mobile. With 51% of users using mobile to consume their digital content, Google started to place more importance on this interface. In 2015, Google released its mobile update. With it, websites that weren’t mobile-friendly started receiving lower rankings. In 2016, having too many mobile pop-up ads on a page also began to be problematic.
Major Google Updates From 2010 to Current
The most important updates to take place between 2010 and 2020 include:
- Caffeine  — Improved search speed and site indexing
- Google Instant  — Expanded on Suggest to give users even faster results and displayed results as a search is being typed
- Panda  — Affected 12% of Google search results, targeted at low-quality content, content farms, sites with too many ads, etc.
- Penguin  — Targeted spam factors, including link schemes, spammy hyperlinks, and keyword stuffing
- Knowledge Graph  — Offered immediate answers in the form of boxes and panels when initiating a Google search
- Hummingbird  — Deals with natural language queries and conversational search with a focus on mobile searching
- Payday Loan algorithm update  — Targeted at search results that were often filled with spam, mainly payday loans and porn
- Pigeon  — Modified local search results
- Google Mobile Update  — Made it so non-mobile-friendly sites would get a lower ranking and eventually affected site with mobile popups (2016)
- AdWords Shake-up  — Some changes made to AdWords, which include four ad top blocks on commercial searches, removal of right-column ads. Affected both paid and organic search results
- Interstitial Penalty  — Pop-ups and interstitials that negatively affected the experience of mobile users were penalized
- Google Jobs  — Googles job portal is released
- Mobile Speed Update  — Made a site’s speed a ranking factor for mobile results. Only affected the slowest mobile sites
- Medic Update  — A core Google update that predominantly affected health and wellness sites
- BERT  — Google algorithm updated to support the natural language processing model known as BERT
The Current State of SEO: The SEO of Today
The trend of providing quality, relevant, and user-focused content is still the predominant practice of today. And when it comes to ranking this content, Google’s algorithm is changing at an ever-increasing rate. Nowadays, getting away with the black hat techniques that were all too common in past decades isn’t nearly as easy. This has forced today’s SEOs to better adhere to Google’s Guidelines and provide content that adds value for their users.
Current search engines have also grown quite advanced when it comes to providing personalized content for its users. The type of device being used, a user’s search history, and their location all play a role in delivering highly personalized search results.
But this has lead to increased concerns among internet users. Many see this as a violation of their privacy, leading to the popularity of search engines like DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t track or sell its user’s browsing info and history.
The use of voice search has also grown in popularity thanks to Alexa, Siri, and Google Voice Search. This has forced modern webmasters to integrate voice search optimization into their SEO strategies. This has made things like understanding your type of customer, their device behavior, and using conversational keywords a larger consideration for targeting these users.
Mobile also continues to grow in popularity. In recent years, Google has released a number of updates specifically targeted at mobile users. Now, things like mobile site speed, mobile ads, and mobile optimization all play a role in your site’s ranking.
And unlike the SEO of the past, today, both on-page and off-page factors are incredibly important. This means that in addition to the standard keyword targeting, content quality, meta descriptions, alt-text, and headers, you need quality backlinks as well if you hope to rank in today’s world.
Earning backlinks may seem like a daunting task, but with a solid backlink strategy, it isn’t too difficult. Some proven methods to increase the number of pages linked to your site include:
- Guest Posts — Try to find guest blogging opportunities on other websites and take advantage of them to link back to your website.
- Quality Content — I know I sound like a broken record here, but creating high-quality content that people would want to link to is one of the best methods of earning backlinks.
- Broken Link Building — If you can find a broken link in another page’s content that is meant to direct a user to a page that’s similar to the content that you’re trying to build backlinks to, let the webmaster know. This is beneficial to both of you, as they learn of a broken link that can now easily be fixed, and you earn a backlink.
- Cold Outreach — Simply find a piece of content that is related to the content you’re trying to build links to and contact the author asking for a link. You may need to reach out to a lot of websites, but this method has proven to be successful.
- Listicles — Find listicles that are relevant to your content. By listicles, I’m talking about ‘The Top Ten’ or ‘The Best’ types of articles. Reach out to the authors of these articles and explain why it would be a good idea to include you.
Today’s White Hat and Black Hat SEO Techniques
With Google’s ever-evolving algorithm, it’s more important than ever to avoid using black hat techniques and stick to Google approved white hat tactics. Ignoring this can lead to penalties that can be incredibly difficult to recover from.
The white hat techniques you should be using:
- Quality Content — Once again, creating quality content is the primary white hat tactic you should be focusing on. Quality content includes things like proper keyword density, the relevance of the topic, links with appropriate anchor text, and its age.
- Keywords — Conduct proper keyword research before you decide the target keywords you’ll be ranking for. Remember to stick to relevant keywords/long-tail keywords, at an optimal density, and used in a natural way within your content.
- User Intent— Make sure to keep the intent of your users in mind with all of your content. Figure out the questions your users are looking to have answered when searching for your keywords, and use your content to answer them.
- Mobile Optimization — Mobile searches now make up more than half of all search engine queries. Due to this, your ranking can suffer if your site doesn’t take mobile users into consideration.
- Content Marketing — To properly market your content, you should try to be published on authoritative sites, take advantage of social media, develop an email marketing strategy, and have plenty of backlinks.
The black hat techniques you need to avoid:
- Keyword Stuffing — This is where you place your target keywords throughout your content in an unnatural sounding way. Another strategy is to use hidden keywords that are the same color as your background so users won’t notice but a crawler will.
- Cloaking — This is a tactic where you show one piece of content to search engines and an entirely different piece of content to your users. This is done to rank for keywords that aren’t relevant to the content that is actually displayed.
- Clickbait — This tactic involves making an enticing title that encourages users to click on it, but displaying content that’s not related to this title. This will up your bounce rate and hurt your rankings.
- Duplicate Content — Also known as plagiarism, this is where you copy another site’s content and put it on your own site.
- Link Buying — This tactic is fairly common, and involves paying for backlinks to your site. The problem here is often these backlinks come from spammy or irrelevant sites and could hurt your rankings.
Ranking Factors of the Present
Some of the most important ranking factors to consider are:
- Content quality
- Purpose of the page
- Length of content
- Information regarding the website and the content creator
- Relevant long-tail keywords and keyword density
- User interaction factors such as bounce rate, time spent on the page, etc.
- Expertise, authority, and trustworthiness (E-A-T)
- Number of backlinks and the authority of the sites linked to the page
The Future of SEO: The SEO of Tomorrow
While it’s impossible to predict the future of SEO, we can analyze current trends and deliver some pretty reliable predictions of where it’ll be heading. One of these predictions is that artificial intelligence will keep evolving, playing a larger role in how search engines operate.
Neural network-based techniques like BERT and machine learning algorithms like RankBrain will give search engines a better understanding of how people search and the best way to rank pages.
This could have a massive impact on SEO as search engines get more adept at delivering the best possible content to their users with technologies that are difficult to optimize for. This will mean SEOs will have to get even better at writing content that’s useful and relevant for their users if they hope to stay afloat.
Another prediction, which is almost certainly true based on current trends, is that voice search will become far more important. As smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Max continue to grow in popularity, and smart speaker technology gets integrated into more and more devices, such as soundbars, voice search is bound to become a more common phenomenon. This could lead to less of a reliance on links as a ranking factor in later years.
In the near future, keywords and links will probably have less of an impact on ranking, with a greater priority given to semantics and topics. Due to technology advancements and topic modeling, Google is getting better at understanding a user’s intent.
This means the search engine won’t need to rely as heavily on a user’s search terms to deliver relevant results. Once again, the best way for SEOs to overcome this is with high-quality content that is relevant to their users (noticing a trend yet?).
Regardless of what the future holds, as an SEO, your main focus should be delivering the content that your users want. The shady techniques of the past just won’t hold up over the coming users. The future of the internet is user-focused.
From the early days of keyword stuffing and easy manipulation of the results page to AI-driven search engines that are becoming more and more difficult to fool, SEO has seen a lot of change over the years. This is largely thanks to Google, as its user-focused searching helped change the way search engines functioned. As time goes on, Bill Gate’s quote “content is king” rings truer than ever. High-quality content rules the web and that isn’t changing anytime soon.
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