The origin of the term SEO is hard to track. The leading SEO online publication, Search Engine Land, has one anecdotal description from the mid-90s. The rock group Jefferson Starship was then unhappy with the way its website appeared nowhere near the first page on the popular search engines. It was so early in the evolution of the mainstream Internet then, that there was no SEO in existence for them to turn to; yet this rock group realized that something could be done about it.
The web developer that they put in charge of the project, a company named Cybernautics, decided to fix the problem by plastering the band’s name thousands of times over on their website, in microscopic print. This had the desired effect, right away catapulting the site to the top.
Search engine optimization got its start when hundreds of website builders and other Internet professionals all realized, independently of one another, that changes could be made to websites and elsewhere to get on top of search results pages. Unfortunately, things quickly got out of hand from this point on.
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The Beginning of Search Engine Optimization
For the first 15 years of the mainstream Internet, anyone could start a website, stuff it with a few keywords, link it to a few dubious websites, and expect to have a good time on the search engines. Not even Google had a way to tell when a website used keywords and links for legitimate purposes, or when it just overused them for manipulative purposes.
If it were not for manipulative SEO…
At first, search engines used very simple technology. However, manipulative SEO quickly made them unusable. In an attempt to rescue search, Google came up with PageRank in 1998, its first algorithm. While it wasn’t a huge advance, it made search functional again, for a while. Its premise was that it was possible to determine how relevant and useful a website was by studying how many other websites linked to it. The more other websites linked to a site, the more important Google knew it had to be.
PageRank was one of the first major changes to search engine technology that manipulative SEO inspired. Shortly afterwards, MSN Search, and other search engines switched to off-page ranking factors like PageRank too.
Google’s AdSense Program sets off more Manipulative SEO
Until the year 2003, website owners only wanted their websites to appear at the top of search results so that they could command better prices for their banner ads or sell more products. When Google came up with its AdSense pay-per-click advertising program in the fall of that year, it gave people a clear reason to manipulate search engines and improve their search engine results. If a site appeared on top of a results page for a particular keyword search, it was likely people would enter it and click on clickable ads all around, delivering money to the website owner.
The appearance of AdSense set off a tidal wave of search engine manipulation. Millions of people became casual website entrepreneurs for the AdSense money to be had. They tried every trick in the book to get to the top of Google creating entire networks of websites, cross-linking them, and convincing the search engines that they were well-linked.
Google Begins to Pile on the Updates
The year 2003 was a big one for Google in another way: it began to fight back, bringing in one update after another to battle search engine manipulators. There was the Boston update, the Cassandra update, Dominic, Esmeralda, Fritz, and most important of all, Florida.
All these updates were aimed at helping Google gain some understanding of the context in which each word on each website was used. Google put together a list of commercial keywords and phrases, and paid particular attention when they were used on a page. If a keyword seemed to turn up more often than necessary on a website, Google dropped its ranking.
One of the technologies that Google introduced was called stemming — with stemming, not only did Google look for the exact word that a searcher asked for, it looked at every variation of the word, and also close synonyms. This made it harder for search engine optimizers to manipulate search engines with exact-match keywords. Google also directly went after low-level affiliate websites, purging its search results of them.
2005 was Another Big Year
Nofollow, one of the biggest algorithm updates 2005, was done simultaneously on Google, Microsoft and Yahoo. It made sure that outbound links were cleaned up, and made free of spam. The Allegra update further cleaned up bad links, and Bourbon, Gilligan and Jagger refined it even more. The Big Daddy update that came at the end of 2005 changed the way Google handled URLs. Among other things, Big Daddy looked at link relevance. If a website had links coming in from sites unrelated to its industry, it was devalued. This update made it even harder for web spammers to use manipulative SEO to get ahead.
2011 – Google Completely Changes
As hard as Google tried to evaluate the relevance of links and keywords on websites with its all updates since 2003, it didn’t pull off very much. SEO manipulators and affiliate marketers were still easily able to create $25 websites, put in a half-dozen poorly written $5 articles directly targeting a handful of keywords , get hundreds of links from link farms and content farms, and get to the top of related searches. Anyone could churn out a couple of websites each day, and easily make $5,000 a month in AdSense revenue. This type of manipulative SEO was poisoning the web and destroying search.
2011 was the year that everything changed for Google. To target these manipulators, it rolled out the Panda update. It destroyed made-for-AdSense websites overnight. Hundreds of thousands of such websites went out of business. Penguin, that came later that year, powerfully came down on bad linking practices.
Black-hat SEO has Shaped Search
If it weren’t for manipulative search optimizers, Google would probably be nowhere near as well-developed today as it is now. The future of SEO now belongs to creative and original search engine thinkers. If there’s anything that you can learn about the future of search engine optimization from its past, it’s these ideas:
- SEO is no longer about tricking search engines into putting your site on top of searches. It has evolved to the point that manipulation today is likely to be far more expensive than doing the right thing — coming up with a good website, and building it well.
- You need to focus on your audience. While the search engines may penalize you or demote you, if you have an army of dedicated followers who like what you do with your website, you won’t ever fall too far behind.
- As long as there are search engines, there will be SEO. It’s important to keep yourself up-to-date. If it don’t, you will never know about important new requirements. For instance, starting 2015, Google will have access to every Twitter feed on earth. This means that paying attention to your company’s Twitter presence will get you head. Keeping up with every search engine rule pays.
Over time, search engines will become so smart, optimization will be indistinguishable from the best marketing and product building practices.