A Brief History of SEO

Posted by Chad Coleman
min read
April 20th, 2020

Search engine optimization, or SEO, has come a long way in a short amount of time.

Just 27 years ago, the first search engine was born.

Its “name” was Archie, short for archive, and it actually preceded the first ever website.

screenshot of search engine archie

It makes you wonder: if the point of a search engine is to find websites based on search terms, how does a search engine exist before the websites that it’s supposed to seek out?

The best answer I can give you is that the virtual world was a very different—and eerily empty—place back then.

Archie was the catalyst for a whole flood of search engines, with many launching between 1990 and 1999, including Yahoo, Google, MSN (now Bing), and Ask Jeeves (now Ask.com), all of which have miraculously survived until modern day.

Interestingly, when Stanford students Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded the exponentially prosperous search engine Google, it was actually called BackRub, simply because it employed backlinks for search.

Clearly, the name Google caught on much better as time went on.

The Black Hat SEO Era

woman wearing black hat

As with many things in life, once search engines picked up steam, people started to realize the monetary value in them—and thus, advertising on search engines began.

The minute that people started caring about their page rank on search engines was the minute that the practice of SEO was born.

The definition from Google itself (a search engine that websites optimize for) is: 

the process of maximizing the number of visitors to a particular website by ensuring that the site appears high on the list of results returned by a search engine.

So began the abhorrent and annoying practice of keyword stuffing, where people jam as many of the same keywords as is spatially possible in their web pages’ meta tags and content with the goal of artificially boosting their page ranking.

This, my friends, is a classic case of black hat SEO, which means it’s an aggressive SEO strategy that is frowned upon—especially by Google.

That’s why that particularly famous search engine, launched in 1998, decided to step up and create guidelines for usage.

As you can imagine, with how easy it was to manipulate page rankings with black hat SEO, many disregarded Google’s rules at first—and by at first, I mean for a solid two years after launch.

It really wasn’t until Google became the dominant search engine that people realized it was in their best interest to follow their rules and, well, play nice.

Google gave website owners no choice in the matter, with every update cracking down on spammy, black hat SEO practices more and more—all the while growing ever more popular itself.

The SEO game was changing, and rapidly.

The Dawn of the White Hat SEO Era

woman in white hat

One notable innovation during the internet frenzy also came from Google’s founders: PageRank. It’s a technology that filters search queries by content quality, not just keywords, which was certainly a first for the world of search engines.

I can practically hear the frustration of early digital marketers: “what?! You mean now I have to actually write good stuff, not just cram the right keywords into every nook and cranny?”

Yes, yes you do.

PageRank, knowingly or unknowingly, hurled us into the new era of SEO, where keywords are just a minor puzzle piece in the big picture.

This shift in SEO practices is commonly labeled as white hat SEO, which uses SEO strategies that focus on humans, not robots, and follow all of the guidelines set in place by the search engine.

Let’s fast forward a little to the year 2013, over two decades after the first search engine was launched. This year is very important in the history of SEO as it was the year that Google released a groundbreaking (and, at the time, stress-inducing) update called Hummingbird.

This update changed search yet again: now, conversational search was possible, where a user could type in an entire sentence or question and receive the right results based on the string of words—not just keyword phrases within the sentence.

Now, longtail keywords are important because Google deciphers user intent rather than simply mapping out individual keywords or phrases—it’s about meaning, not matching.  

This shift goes even further away from traditional SEO strategies. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that keywords are no longer important in SEO; it just means that we need to consider a whole host (as many as 200) of other factors, including content quality, backlinks, mobile-first user experience, and 301 redirects.

As of 2016, Google added another bot to its team: RankBrain, an artificial intelligence software that helps Google sort through and rank content via semantic search.

The more we use conversationally-structured queries, like when we ask Siri or Cortana to search the web for us, the more search engines will need to harmonize with users’ search format.

But Google already knows that—it’s quite the adaptive creature, after all.

Where We Are Now

person pointing on map

Today, SEO has become a tricky and thrilling game for marketers.

Not only do we need to keep up with every tiny algorithm change Google throws at us, but we also need to reimagine and re-optimize our web pages to get the ranking we hope for.

This means focusing less on keywords and more on relevant, comprehensive, naturally-written content that can be trusted.

It also means accounting for so many other factors in users’ search results too, like localization, device usage, cookies, personalization and search history, and much more.

So, while there are many moving parts in the SEO machine, we can do our best by focusing on quality over quantity and proving to Google that our websites are worthy of a boost—by means of the natural, ethical way of focusing on the users’ needs.

The easiest way to do the opposite is go forth using black hat SEO tactics, which will surely get you marked as spam by Google and bumped down the list—so don’t do that.

Now it's your turn

What are your predictions for the next big changes to SEO and Google’s algorithm?

Which ranking factors do you currently know of and optimize for?

Are there any other up-and-coming search engines that marketers will need to prepare to optimize web pages for (like DuckDuckGo)?

we’d love to hear your thoughts below!