The year was 1991 and the first-ever website made its debut, changing the world forever. Though it was hardly captivating in its content and often referred to by its full name, “the world wide web,” it was the start of something magnificent. 

Just as the universe expands, so too does the internet, from that very first boring page to the 1,218,423,991 websites recorded as of May 2021.

And, as it grows, the way we engage with it, also evolves. Commodities, information, algorithms, marketing strategies, resources, and rapidly increasing technological and cultural advances make it necessary to consistently re-evaluate our relationship to the world wide web. 

Needless to say, the ability to search for specific topics is a crucial resource in today’s world. Search engine optimization (SEO) is a big part of what helps users go from query to quality result in less than seconds. 

How useful would the internet be if you couldn’t effectively find what you were looking for? And, the search engines know it.

SEO in A Nutshell

To understand why SEO has become so important, it’s crucial to understand what it is exactly. Especially because it influences every aspect of the internet, the effectiveness of your searches, how websites are structured, and even your branding. And, it constantly iterates.

Contrary to what the name suggests, it’s not necessarily about the search engines anymore, it’s about the people using them. Search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo know that if users can’t find what they are looking for, they are as good as useless.

Understanding what people are looking for online, their age, where they are located, what kinds of devices they are using, how to answer their questions, and what kinds of content they prefer, all factor in. 

Like all aspects of marketing, good SEO relies on knowing your customer. The primary difference is the added complication of providing these answers in a way that search engine crawlers can find and understand. Building the bridge between potential customers and the service or goods they are looking for. 

The History of The Internet

In 1994 the first online search engine, Yahoo, launched. Setting the tone for early search engines, it operated as an online directory where one would need to submit their websites in order to be listed, and which were then organized by topic.

A few other search engines hit the scene at nearly the same time; Lycos, Excite, and AltaVista helped provide significantly more competition than we see today. By 1999, there was a swarm of search engines, and other players supporting them, among them: Google—which was not yet itself a search engine, but rather a tool to optimize them.

In fact, it was 1997 when was registered. Originally owned by a company called Inktomi, they also happened to power Yahoo. 

Because of Google’s added PageRank algorithm and web crawler, Yahoo came out on top. Unfortunately, thanks to the little tag at the bottom of the search bar that read: Powered by Google, everyone knew exactly who to credit. 

This would end up being the worst business decision Yahoo ever made. Because of that little tag, Google eventually beat out Yahoo by a wide margin. (But, of course you should always give credit where it is due.)

It was also the beginning of SEO, and the first time the term was recorded.  

SEO makes it possible for us to type in complicated search queries and come up with accurate results. Essentially, SEO is about generating the most relevant results for our search queries, based on more than just keywords. It’s actually much more complicated than that, especially now.

The most known example of how SEO helped solve early search engine problems is the story about Jefferson Starship. The band’s manager noticed that they were competing with fan pages for first-page rankings. Frustrated that his band showed up on the fourth page of search results, he crammed the band’s name in the website’s copy a few more times, and voila! First page. Problem solved. What we didn’t know back then was that this seemingly simple solution would become its own problem. 

Enter: keyword stuffing

Too Much of a Good Thing

This is a notorious example and is credited with being the origin of keyword-stuffing but it isn’t actually likely that it was the first. Fairly quickly, the practice took on a life of its own and what was a relatively boring, utilitarian place on the internet became something of a real estate grab.

Websites started to compete with each other by cramming priority keywords anywhere they could. If you wanted to beat out your competitors in the rankings, it worked to use your keywords in unnaturally large quantities, literally stuffing them into sentences anywhere they (barely) fit. 

This led to frustrating experiences for users who clicked on websites that made it to the first page of search results, but didn’t answer their query―and worse! It was easy to feel taunted by the meaningless use of search keywords everywhere. It left users having to comb through numerous websites to find valuable content. 

Adding to the chaos, Google created an opportunity for websites to monetize open real estate on their website with its rollout of AdSense in 2000. Margin space? Cram an ad or 10 in there and make a few cents every time someone visits your website. Since it paid to have traffic, making that first page on Google search results became that much more coveted. 

man with monetary growth chart

The Rise of Content Farms

And so, in response to AdSense came content farms. These were shallow-content websites that always showed up first, but never really said anything. 

Usually, they were blanketed with pop-up ads selling items you wouldn’t think twice to look at and after a frustrating thirty seconds of clicking strategically placed x’s, you might catch a glimpse of the content beneath. Only to be disappointed that the content is just the same information you had already found elsewhere, or not even relevant to the search. 

Everyone wanted to be at the top and were willing to abandon quality, user experience, and reputation to get there. So, where were the digital marketing agencies or SEO experts to guide these wayward businesses? It took a few years for marketing agencies to adapt and jump in. For those that did, it was still an experimental space.

Florida, but Not the State

As with any product, quality can only wane for so long before consumers start looking elsewhere. In 2003, the first major SEO algorithm change happened, what is referred to as “Florida” in response to consumer frustration. 

Instead of slowly weaning marketers off of the spammy SEO practices it had been rewarding, Google shifted the algorithm abruptly. Keyword stuffing, hidden text, and hidden links were no longer a positive in the eyes of Google’s crawlers. 

At the time, some likened it to ripping the band-aid off, but the timing was less than perfect, happening right in the middle of the holiday season. It significantly disrupted traffic to online retailers resulting in some retailers going out of business. 

Though it was painful for most, and for some it was the end, Florida worked. It resulted in higher quality search results and ultimately strengthened consumer confidence in Google’s ability to pull up the right search results. 

Ultimately, Google agreed not to implement such a sudden, drastic change again, that is until 2011. 

Whack-A-Mole: SEO Style

Even still, the SEO whack-a-mole continued. New algorithms equaled new tactics to get back to the top. But, it wasn’t all bad. Search algorithms were getting smarter, adding geographical and personalized search, making results that much more relevant. 

It’s hard to remember now, but searching for a coffee shop didn’t always automatically bring up the most local options.  

two men on virtual call

Panda and Penguin: More Goole Updates

In a final move against content farms, Google launched two updates in 2011 and 2012, Panda and Penguin. Panda looked at a website’s actual content quality, and Penguin looked at whether a website was being promoted through bots or spiders, in other words: spam; or if it was being linked to reputable websites.

If a website was found to have quality content and links, it would be ranked higher, and if not, it would go down in rankings. This solidified the quality of website content being crucial for ranking.

With the emphasis on quality links, “link-building” was born. This took on the pace of keywords, with marketers trying to get as many links as possible to climb the rankings. Like many of these seemingly singular silver bullets to launch your site to the front page, this created yet another spam-tastrophe in the form of years of unwanted emails requesting links.

Yet again, page rankings dangle the carrot, and each tactic, while effective for some, leaves a mess in its wake for most. But, these are the growing pains of a new industry. 

Google Webmaster Tools

With the rollout of Google Webmaster Tools in 2015 paired with Google Analytics, businesses could see a clearer picture of what was happening and take a strategic approach to create the results they wanted, rather than continue the Black Hat tactics they’d come to rely on. 

And so, SEO continued to advance. With its increasing complexity business owners could no longer learn to apply simple tricks or quick and dirty tactics to get their website seen. Though tempting, the result was often the opposite of what was intended. In order to create the best possible results, a professional was needed.

For this reason, marketing agencies started dedicating departments to digital.  This evolved until marketing agencies started to specialize entirely in digital, with some specializing even more, working entirely to optimize SEO. (Ahem.)

two people having virtual coffee

The Internet Today

What started out as a relatively boring place, has rapidly become a superhighway of information, with millions of dependent businesses, news outlets, niche communities, shoppers, creators and entertainers, and resources. In short, it’s a pretty exciting place. 

The world wide web is now almost globally accessible, from every continent, and every country (with the exception of 13) and is central to daily life in many places around the world. 

SEO has evolved right alongside it, moving from being a spammy tactic to gain visibility to being a user-focused, quality-prioritizing strategy. Put simply, we believe great SEO, like all modern marketing, ultimately exists to create value for your customers by connecting people to the things they are looking for.

Categories: Digital Marketing