A brief history of search engine optimization (SEO)

5 min read

By Katie Kuchta

Google Search

How long since you let your fingers go walking through the Yellow Pages? Or cracked open an encyclopedia? Or called the library looking for help with homework?

If you’re like most of the online world, your answer is “a long time”—or “never.”

Search engines have made those activities as outmoded as buggy whips, hoop skirts, and door-to-door brush salesmen.

Today, we have everything at our fingertips within a smart device or a sleek desktop computer. We rely less on personal suggestions and more on what the internet suggests to us. And one company, in particular, has been the thought leader in this technology-dependent era: Google.

The Mountain View, Calif., tech giant’s search engine has become the hub of and primary source for information. This information flow has turned into one of today’s most important marketing channels.

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of improving a website through a variety of tactics and constant modifications to appear in search results. The goal? To enhance the experience for the website user and to improve that site’s performance in the search results. SEO ultimately drives traffic (and business) to the website. It’s easy to think of SEO as a new thing, but it’s actually been a part of the digital age since the beginning.

1991: Welcome to the World Wide Web

It all started when Tim Berners-Lee shared his invention of the first-ever browser, World Wide Web, most often referred to as the “Web.” In August 1991, web pioneers released a code library (libWWW) for participants to be able to create their own web browsers and servers.

1994: Eric Ward pioneers link building

Link building began before Google had any considerable hand in increasing search rankings. It was then, as it is today, an important factor in marketing for a website. But back then, the internet was not that complex. Eric Ward was earning his nickname “LinkMoses” for his pioneering realization that the web meant nothing unless there was a way for people to find a specific URL. In 1994, Yahoo founder Jerry Yang created a new category on his fledgling company’s directory, just for Ward—“web promotion.” A young entrepreneur named Jeff Bezos hired Ward as a consultant to help launch Bezos’ new business—Amazon.com. Today, link building is one of the most important and one of the top three Google ranking factors.

1995: Browsers get GUI, search engines are born

Browser wars began, kicked off by the December 1994 launch of Netscape, the first commercially successful web browser. This was followed in 1995 by the introduction of Microsoft’s entry into the browser field, Internet Explorer. Those browsers have graphical user interfaces (GUI) and they can incorporate both text and graphical images into a single page. This innovation greatly boosted the web’s popularity and growth. Search engines as we know them today existed then, but they varied in quality due to their limited speed and range. One called Alta Vista, established in 1995, became popular because it combined a fast and broad (for its time) search. But it couldn’t really keep up. The internet was growing faster than the search engines’ abilities to index it. In terms of online search, it was the era of curated directories, dominated by Yahoo. Yahoo didn’t know it then, but it would become a dinosaur.

1997: The earliest use of the term “Search Engine Optimization’

The very first use of the term SEO is a reference from a web marketing agency, which offered “search engine optimization” as a service in February 1997.

1998: Google Search is born

Sergey Brin and Larry Page
Sergey Brin and Larry Page

If Larry Page and Sergey Brin had never met at Stanford University, where would the world of search be today? In September 1998, three years after they met, they launched Google—the name a takeoff on the word “googol,” the term for the number 1 followed by 100 zeros.

What started as an academic exercise to determine the importance of pages on the world wide web in 1998 is now one of the largest tech companies in the world.

Today, Google is the most popular search engine, with nearly 5.6 billion searches per day. From the user’s perspective, how does Google know to show what I’m looking for in a search query? And on the other side, how does a website appear in the search results of Google? This is where search engine optimization comes in. Google’s algorithm is extremely complex and the company continues to make updates to the search engine, both big and small.

Once marketers (and now SEOs—the optimizers themselves) began to understand how Google reads and ranks websites, they started finding ways to manipulate the search engine result page. They were able to boost their rankings in the search results, without Google filtering for the quality or relevance of the website.

Google caught on to this and came out with a rulebook for creating a great website called the Webmaster Guidelines. These guidelines become known as “white hat” SEO tactics. It’s a list on how to play by the rules, and avoid penalties (such as having a website removed or demoted in listings).

2003: Black Hat tactics and Google’s first big algorithm update: Florida

A lot of sketchy behavior began to get web pages to rank faster for targeted keywords. This practice of tactics that go against the guidelines is known as “black hat SEO.” Black hat SEO tactics include things like stuffing pages with keywords, duplicating content, and hiding text and links. Reacting to the foul play, Google issued its first major update to the algorithm, codenamed “Florida.” Named after the hurricane of a whirlwind that changed search, it fought against websites practicing black hat tactics. It also punished these types of websites by removing a majority of affiliate websites that were ranking for commercial terms.

2011: Google’s Panda 1.0 algorithm update

Google continued to update its algorithm to create a better experience for users. By 2011, it reacted against a massive marketing trend that had polluted search results. These “content farms” raised a massive crop of low-quality content, and for a while, the tactic worked. Marketers created multiple pages within a short amount of time.

The pages adhered to the then-current guidelines—barely. As Google’s Matt Cutts put it, content farm pages did “the bare minimum without being spam.” One such farm, Demand Media, saw its market value soar to $2 billion after a red-hot initial public offering. But then, Google applied an algorithmic pesticide.

Panda targeted these pages with low quality and thin content and reduced the results. It also rewarded pages that have unique and high-quality content. Demand Media, and the companies that relied on large volumes of low-quality content, took an epic fall.

2012: Google’s Penguin 1.0 algorithm update

If Florida fired Google’s opening salvo against black-hat SEO tactics, and Panda scorched the earth under content farms. And then Penguin launched a refined, selective assault on low-quality web pages.

The Penguin update dove further into the link-building schemes that many SEOs practiced. Many received penalties for ranking thin content with many links pointing back to it. Penguin was a way to discover the value of links, and to see if those incoming links were coming from highly authoritative and relevant websites. (Penguin did not originally take into account the external links on a website, only the ones pointing back to it.)

2013: Hummingbird helps Google decipher intent, go local

Panda and Penguin, while influential, were smaller, add-on updates to Google’s search engine. In contrast, the Hummingbird update reached across the entire algorithm (similar to the “Florida” update in scope). It helped to show results with a better or more true intent of searches by translating semantic search. Today, semantic search is how most search queries are read. It looks further into what the user is looking for rather than just reading their query. The Hummingbird update also helped websites intended for local results and showed more of a directory in the local organic results.

2015: Google’s introduces RankBrain

RankBrain was Google’s first algorithm update using artificial intelligence (AI). Its purpose was to help understand new queries as they come up and to determine what the user’s intent is.

RankBrain makes updates to the algorithm on its own and watches users’ satisfaction more closely by measuring how they interact with the results that are shown. Luckily, to optimize for this update, it’s all about the user—and using language in your content that reads naturally as if a human wrote it (and hopefully they did!).

Now: Google’s top ranking factors

google search

Today, Google continues to dominate search engine space, with nine out of ten queries going through its algorithm. It also continues to constantly update its algorithm.

What does that mean for SEOs and marketers trying to rank their websites in the SERPs? History shows one consistent result: Tricks work only for a while. Companies that succeed online are keenly aware of algorithm updates as they happen. But they keep their eyes on the long-term goal of making sure their websites provide what their audience wants. Aligning with users’ intent means having high quality, fresh, and relevant content, highly authoritative backlinks, and using natural language optimized for RankBrain—and whatever the next algorithmic tweak brings.

Katie KuchtaKatie Kuchta is the Marketing Manager for the growth-stage start-up, LawnStarter Lawn Care

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