A brief History of SEO

People began optimizing sites for search engines in the mid-1990s – a few short years after search engines were born. It didn’t take long for people to realize that a number one ranking for a popular search phrase would translate into high amounts of extremely targeted and relevant traffic. According to industry analyst Danny Sullivan, the phrase search engine optimization probably came into use in 1997.

Site owners started to recognize the value of having their sites highly ranked and visible in search engine results. This value created an opportunity for both white hat and black hat SEO practitioners. Initially black hat SEO dominated the industry. Through the years, there has been a progression from black hat to white hat. This isn’t because we’ve become more honorable and honest. It’s because initially black hat techniques worked very well.

Early versions of search algorithms relied on webmaster-provided information such as the keyword meta tag, or index files in engines like ALIWEB. These tags proved an easy way to convince search engines that your website was about whatever you wanted to think your website was about. It was possible to create 1,000 websites, and have each website link to each other. This was an easy way to get 1,000 websites each with 1,000 backlinks. It didn’t matter what the websites were about. You were guaranteed traffic. If you wrote meta tags on one of the websites above that have 1,000 links, you could tailor the traffic to whatever niche you wanted.

By relying so much on these two factors, search engines were easy to fool. It wasn’t long before Google realized that evil webmasters were using these tools to get porn websites ranked for all sorts of wholesome searches. I’d like to believe that the breaking point came when Larry Page’s wife searched for “apple pie” and ended up at a site about “Debby does Dallas”. My guess is that this story is false. But it’s still a good story. Search engines got serious about removing spam from their indexes soon after this fateful search.

By 2004, search engines had incorporated a wide range of undisclosed factors in their ranking algorithms to reduce the impact of link manipulation. Google says it ranks sites using more than 200 different signals, but in actuality, they probably use many, many more.

In 2005, Google began personalizing search results for each user. Depending on their history of previous searches, Google crafted results for logged in users. This subtle shift has the potential to be a game changer in the industry. Let’s assume that one website is #1 in Google for the search phrase “cars”. Now, let’s also assume that they have fabulous SEO, but their website really isn’t very good. In this case, many people would click on the listing by the simple fact that it’s #1 in Google for this search phrase. However, because the website itself isn’t very good, most people would click the “back button” and try the second link. Let’s assume that the 2nd website is much better and answers 90% of the users questions about cars. This 90% of users read all the pages on the website and never type “cars” into Google again.

In this example, Google would realize that the first website isn’t very good, and would move the first website down in its rankings. The 2ND website would move up, and claim the top spot. If you think about it, the best way to determine if your website is relevant to a search, is to see if people kept looking at different websites after looking at yours.

From now on, traditional SEO will get into the top 10 on Google. But, to get to #1 for a popular search phrase, you will usually need low bounce rates, and you need to make sure that when people get to your website, they find what they’re looking for (and stop clicking of the listings in the SERP). This is called personalized search and it is of great concern to many SEO companies. Personally, I think “personalized search” is the holy grail of algorithms to rank websites. It’s virtually impossible to fool and will continue to change the SEO industry.


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