It seems that up until recently SEO was a term reserved for the ultra tech-savvy. Being able to predict how search engines will process results is something the marketing world is driven to understand right now. But the history of SEO dates all the way back to when search engines were invented. And it hasn’t stopped evolving since.
The SEO Timeline
1997: The primitive search engines of the late 90’s handled search results much differently than Google does today. Websites registered to exist on directories that simply had lists of websites that existed on the internet. Early search engines would simply take requests and scan that list for any relevant links to give the user back. Ranking wasn’t so much a focus of the search engine, but web creators were definitely anxious to get their content showing above their competitors. Website builders were starting to develop ways to get their content to be seen by more people.
1998: By 1998, more search engines were starting to pop up- but they were all powered by the same directory. One of these search engines, Goto.com, had launched the first sponsored link and paid search options to websites. This changed the landscape of how businesses would be seen in search results forever!
2000: One of the many search engines of the time, Yahoo, partnered with a little-known company called Google to power their results. All Yahoo search results had a “powered by Google” badge slapped on, driving users away from Yahoo and into the arms of Google. Google was changing the landscape of how searched were conducted by utilizing crawlers instead of basic analytic techniques. Instead of simply analyzing content for a match in search, Google was analyzing how each page related to one another, and how many pages online were talking about one another. Essentially if you had enough pages with your link on it, Google assumed you had useful information. This obviously left room for spam to run wild, but that becomes tamed in future updates.
2003: Google introduced its AdSense program in 2003, giving websites a way to make some money by showing advertisements on their page. This new program meant new websites would be linked together like they hadn’t been in the past, which changed up the page ranking system. More people were able to monetize and backlink sites to one another, meaning Google was going to have to find more ways to dichotomize search results.
2004: In this year, Google turned its search engine into the more familiar form we know today. The search engine was starting to prioritize results based on the user who was searching. Geolocations, search history, and personalized interests were now being used to decide which links would be most relevant to the person looking. This also meant that people had to start being decisive in their web targeting in order to appear in the results of the most interested users.
2006: 2006 may have brought the largest shifts in the history of SEO. For starters, XML maps became the standard for how webmasters and search engines communicated. They were a universally supported measure to ensure that search engines were able to crawl every link on your site for indexing purposes. Further, Google introduced Analytics and Webmaster Tools to give website builders more control of how their website appeared in search results.
2007: Another huge shift came once Google changed their end-user experience. Previously, Google had been a list of relevant links (some paid for, some not). But now, Google was expanding its search platform into news, video, and images. This meant new metadata would have to be introduced to those types of information in order to make them searchable and relevant in the SEO world.
2011: This era in the SEO timeline gives way to great expansion and great restrictions on search results. In one corner, we see the rise of social media beginning to play a role in getting websites ranked higher. People can now direct their friends and relatives to visit their websites, which in turn drives traffic and increases page ranking.
However- Google also released its Panda update in a bid to cut down on spam sites. This algorithm change also ended up taking traffic away from other sites as well but was the only method of the time to combat the rampant spam issue in the search results. Another algorithm, Penguin, was later introduced to try more nuanced tactics in spam take-down. Penguin was more finely tuned to combat algorithm targeting tactics like keyword stuffing and an overabundance of high-volume, exact match anchor text.
2013: If it seems we’re talking about Google a lot, it’s because we are. Throughout the SEO timeline, Google has been the main force of change behind each evolution. In this year, Google made searches work more like the way people speak. The new algorithm was designed to understand language the way people do through contextual and conversational searching.
2015/16: The closer to today we get, the more we see the focus of SEO shift towards mobile users. 2015 was the first year that mobile internet usage surpassed desktop, meaning search engines were going to have to understand the needs of a totally new market. The 2015 algorithm update pushed to gives mobile users an experience that utilized the device they were using by connecting them to mobile-friendly site and apps. In 2016 we see this focus intensify when Google rolled out Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) to load content quickly on mobile devices.
Today: With this long history of change under our belt, search engine optimizers are now starting to see more clearly what factors directly affect page ranking. Google doesn’t outright tell anyone how to rank higher because, as we’ve seen, there is a high risk of people playing the system. Instead, search engines aim to give users the most timely, relevant results that they can validate the legitimacy of.
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Excerpted from Loren Baker of Search Engine Journal: https://www.searchenginejournal.com/seo-101/seo-history/