The Evolution Of SEO: Bridging The Gap Between The Past + Understanding The Present State Of Affairs
“Everything is relative in this world, where change alone endures.” – Leon Trotsky
The Internet exists as a universe of endless information, open through the doorways of search engines and unlocked with virtual keys made of keywords. Vast multitudes of data lay ready for consumption, with a couple strokes on your keyboard in mere milliseconds.
What was once a world with people starved of information is now one where we are drowning in it.
But I think, it is much better to have too much knowledge than too little!
The internet has come a long way and search engines are the gatekeepers that Internet marketers and anyone who desires to be found on the web must learn to court. Yes, you heard me right! Search engine optimization now requires intuition, a gentle knowing ability to give the SE’s what they want, when they want it so you can be rewarded with high rankings for your keywords. Not to mention the ability to figure out the cause of penalizations and traffic drops and attempt to reverse your transgressions!
In a post panda/penguin/hummingbird/ [+ all other terrifying Google algorithms named after adorable animals] world, any Internet Marketer worth his rankings knows that SEO is now an art form and not an exact science.
However, this wasn’t always the case!
So, this leads to a short (probably very long) look at the history and evolution of SEO:
1990 – 1997: The Beginning
The great Google was born in 1998, but before the rise of Google, the first search engine was born in 1990, named “Archie”- This was basically a FTP site that allowed people to find and access different files. Archie being derived from the more familiar word, “archive.”
Other early search engines included the VLib, Excite, World Wide Web Wanderer, ALIWEB, Primitive Web Search, Infoseek, Altavista, Galaxy, Webcrawler, the popular Yahoo Directory, Lycos, LookSmart, Hotbot and Ask Jeeves.
Search Engine Optimization – Interest Points From The Early Days:
- The first step in SEO that these early Search engines developed and implemented was allowing webmasters to use page titles, meta data, meta descriptions and page urls/file names. These were the first SEO factors to be used to sort through web pages and present them to users.
- Yahoo directory was launched in 1994: Here webmasters could submit their website for consideration for a $300 fee. This directory still exists in 2014 and is one of the very few web directories that is highly regarded by Google and has a positive effect on website rankings. Don’t believe it?
“If a directory takes $50 and every single person who ever applies in the directory automatically gets in for that $50, there’s not as much editorial oversight as something like the Yahoo! Directory, where people do get rejected,” – Matt Cutts (leads the Webspam team at Google)
- In 1996, BackRub, the precursor to Google, was the first search engine to use backlinks as votes for a website – this technology was then used to develop Page Rank.
1998 – 2002: The Early Years Cont’d
Google was fully launched in 1998 and quickly became the top search engine. DMOZ was also launched in 1998.
In 1998, Google released the famous Page Rank (PR) tool which measured the link juice of websites from incoming links in order to rank them. This beckoned the start of the close relationship between links and successful SEO.
In the late 90’s and very early 2000’s, the SEO strategy of using meta tags to target specific keywords was a very successful tactic for easily gaining high rankings. However, as we all know, this strategy was quickly penalized in 2003.
In 2002, the first ever paid link network, known as “PR AD Network” was launched. This was the first link network ever created that brokered paid links between websites in order to manipulate Page Rank and Google rankings.
2003 – 2004: The Rise Of MFA (Made for Adsense) Websites
In 2003, Google launched Google Adsense which started the trend of Internet Marketers creating websites made specifically for adsense ads which became a huge issue for Google and users alike for years to come.
Text Link Ads was also launched in 2003 which allowed webmasters to buy and sell links (paid links) and became vastly popular in the following years which eventually led to Google heavily penalizing paid links in the future.
As you can see, link manipulation was a very popular SEO tactic in the 2000’s, with the creation of numerous link farms and paid link services including the famous Digital Point Co-op network (founded in 2004).
With more and more IM’s attempting to manipulate Google’s algorithm, the search engine started penalizing all earlier SEO strategies commonly practiced in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. In particular, websites with over optimized anchor text and keyword stuffing were targeted.
2005 – 2008: Fun, Easy Times For IMer’s Everywhere
The Internet is now awash with blog spam and rankings are oh so easy to manipulate and achieve. The Internet Marketers are rolling in the dollars, while search engines try to figure out what to do about it.
In order to reduce blog spam, Google introduces the “no follow” tag which is also supported by Yahoo and MSN. However, Internet Marketers then used this attribute to funnel Page Rank to specific pages they want to rank using the “do follow” attribute and “no follow” to other unimportant pages – This strategy was known as Page Rank Sculpting.
In 2005, Google also launched its now famous, Google Analytics, giving all webmasters the ability to easily analyse traffic and website data including unique visitors, traffic sources, organic traffic sources, long tail keywords, seo campaigns etc.
Google introduced what was known as the “Google Sandbox” which acted as an aging filter so that new websites wouldn’t be able to immediately gain high rankings. This was of course followed by what is known as the Google Dance where traffic and SERP positions fluctuated for a period before settling.
Google Algorithm Updates in 2005:
- “Jagger” Algorithm update: This was implemented to penalize unsolicited link exchanges.
- “Big Daddy” Update: This was an infrastructural update which enabled Google to process the quality and type of links between websites for more accurate ranking.
Other notable happenings:
- XML Sitemaps launched in 2006
- The famous, Text Link Ads service was officially banned in 2007 by Google.
- Launch of “Google Suggest” in 2008, allowing SEO’s to use this for keyword research.
2009 – 2010: Pre-Apocalypse Happy Times
In 2009, Freshness was the next big factor to be introduced. This lead to the Google Caffeine Update which allowed faster indexing of web pages to provide results that were “fresher” and up to date.
This included real-time search being introduced which showed Twitter results for searches until 2011, when the contractual agreement with Twitter ended.
By the end of 2010, Google had implemented over 500 algorithm updates! (Much to the distress of Internet Marketers worldwide of course).
2011: It’s the Beginning Of The End Folks!
2011 marked the date of one of the biggest and most destructive virtual natural disasters to hit the SEO landscape. Yes, you know what I’m talking about…. The dreaded Google Panda update. Millions of websites around the world were hit by drastic drop in rankings, website traffic and of course, income, almost overnight. The Panda algorithm, sought out websites that had what it deemed as low quality content with high SE rankings and hit these with huge penalties. The purpose of the Panda was to crackdown on content farms, especially article directories, websites with thin content as well as those with a high ad to content ratio.
The Panda filter almost mimics the Google Dance and is refreshed from time to time so that if a website was wrongfully penalized, this may be automatically reversed in the next Panda update. Thus, if the appropriate changes were made to a site that had been rightfully penalized, rankings would be restored either fully or at least to some degree after the next refresh or update.
Another interesting wrench that Google threw in to frustrate SEO’s even further, was the encryption of keyword data in 2011. Meaning, when website owners, looked at their site’s analytics, they could no longer see some of the specific keywords bringing in traffic to their website. These unspecified keywords were labelled as “(not provided)”- and were usually the ones that provided a high percentage of traffic – bummer right?!
2012: Is SEO Dead?
The apocalypse part II known as the Google Penguin was released. After the Panda declared war on content, the Penguin was deployed to target link building – the pillar of SEO and the life blood of organic traffic. With more and more Internet Marketers and website owners using and abusing the power of links by implementing unscrupulous black hat tactics, the Penguin was brought in to serve “justice,” – well that was the intention, I think.
Some of the link tactics penalized include:
Blog networks, paid links, article spinning and submission (Build my Rank/ blog blueprint etc), links with over optimized anchor text, low quality links (profile links, blog forum post links, directory links) and just about every other shady link building trick in the book to name a few.
The Google Disavow tool was also introduced in 2012 so that you can now “disavow” or discredit external links pointing to your website. This can help you get out of a link penalty and is useful if a competitor decides to send spam links to your websites to get you penalized.
2013: Nope, Not The End Of SEO – Time To Embrace Change For The Better
The Google Hummingbird algorithm was introduced in 2013, and is thankfully not as destructive as its predecessors. The main goal of this algorithm is to provide better search results that are tailored according to human language and interaction. Meaning, this algorithm is meant to understand the actual words, context and meaning of terms in a given search query and give results according to that “understanding.”
Pretty cool stuff right?
In other news, the Google Panda and Penguin algorithm continue to be run and updated very frequently ensuring Internet Marketers and website owners are kept on their tippy toes. SEO is no longer a free for all it once was pre-2011 and making a living from niche websites is more of a skilled game of chess than a fun game of monopoly and counting dollars.
2014 + The Great Beyond: A Challenge For The Brave
So far for 2014, there hasn’t been any major SEO upsets except for the now typical updates of the Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird. Who knows exactly what other fuzzy animals await us?
However, Google has been *very* clear on what it wants from us:
Mega-AmazeBalls-Content-SuperfraglisticUserExperience-Social Media-Phenomining-SuperDuperGodzillaLikeBrandability… and not forgetting… a flawless squeaky clean link profile *badoom ching!*
Basically, the Search Engine gods just want us to do what is right and treat our websites as a business that provides real value! And not just meant to make a quick buck with ads or sleazy products. In order to improve and evolve the Internet, we all need to step up our game and rise to the challenge of creating websites that are ranked according to their actual merit and not just based on highly optimized SEO tactics.
Does Google get it right every time and reward the best websites with high rankings? Definitely not, but that’s a whole other blog post. But the point is, that this change does not come over night – and based on previous SEO trends over the last 15 years, we’re in for a lot more changes and “apocalyptic” SEO events in the future