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A Brief History of SEO and Search

SEO is something that every company with an online presence has to wrangle with to some extent, and getting things right can be a real learning curve. It can seem complicated and otherly, sometimes like a kind of arcane art, but SEO wasn’t always like this. So let’s travel back in time to the rad…

A Brief History of SEO and Search

SEO is something that every company with an online presence has to wrangle with to some extent, and getting things right can be a real learning curve. It can seem complicated and otherly, sometimes like a kind of arcane art, but SEO wasn’t always like this.

So let’s travel back in time to the rad early 90s to the beginnings of SEO history. Cowabunga, dude.

The Early Years (1990 – 1996)

The world’s first search engine, Archie, was created in 1990 by McGill University student Alan Emtage (and it’s still online). Archie searched downloadable resources in FTP (file transfer protocol); this is back when the “internet” was little more than a worldwide collection of shared files. Archie would take your query and search the title text for each file in its index for that exact term. The world’s first website came a year later.

Unlike today’s search engines, search functions like Archie didn’t make allowances for typos and misspellings. If you spelt the search query wrong, then your search results would be wrong. There was no “Did you mean: …” in those days, so if you weren’t sure of the file name then you had to hope the tech gods had mercy on you.

When Tim Berners-Lee launched the first website in August of 1991, it spelt the beginning of the World Wide Web as we know it. As the web blossomed in the mid nineties as more and more websites went live every month, a need to index them into a cohesive, searchable structure became imperative.

1993 saw the birth of two major web search engines. Excite was developed by Stanford University students and went live that year. The World Wide Web Wanderer was released in 1993, and was more of a tool to measure the size of the web, rather than an index as such. The well known Yahoo! search engine was founded later in 1995.

Near the end of 1993, the first basic web crawling algorithms started being developed, which “crawled” the web looking for webpages to add to their index. This allowed search engines to rank sites for very basic relevancy; searchers almost always needed to use exact terms in order to come back with useful results.

The Awkward Adolescence (1996 – 2010)

In 1996, Stanford University students Larry Page and Sergey Brin started work on a project that prioritised sites based on the amount of links to other websites they had; they called it BackRub. The following year saw the launch of Ask Jeeves, a search engine that was based around letting its users type a query in natural language by using a full question or a sentence.

The year 1998 was a big year for search engines that we know today. Not only did Microsoft release their own MSN search engine (now rebranded as Bing), but Larry and Sergey from earlier launched their offering into the midst. Its new name? Google.

Up until this point, there were few rules for SEO; there were even ways that webmasters could force certain algorithms to rank them that differed from engine to engine. Google changed that, by using a system of ranking called “PageRank” to sort results by potential relevancy and links to other content on the web. Google looked at the frequency of keywords, metadata, and the structure of a website to determine how appropriate it is as a result to a given query. Though the other search engines had done this to varying degrees, Google’s attention to detail in their rankings really was a game changer.

Over the next few years, Google continued to dominate. Though many of the previous search engines were still around, Google really focused on developing fair ranking methods, by rolling out a number of updates that penalised websites who employed spammy tactics to get easy results with little useful information to show for it; things like link farming, link exchanging, and keyword stuffing were all made a thing of the past. Most of the groundwork for this was laid between 2003 and 2005, but Google continues to combat spammy tactics to this day. This new, honest outlook to search rankings forced many other engines to either follow suit or throw in the towel.

In 2000, Google started the first iteration of its AdWords (the ads you see on Google results pages) platform which initially flopped due to a poor pricing structure, but it was relaunched in 2002 with auction/best offer style pricing. AdSense (the Google-based ads you sometimes see on other websites) first saw the light of day in 2003. Not to be outdone, Yahoo! and Microsoft also got in on paid advertising with Yahoo! Search Marketing and Microsoft AdCenter.

As you can tell, Google got up to a lot during this period, all which added to their dominance of the search market, causing them to influence the industry further. The mid to late noughties saw Google increase their offering by introducing products and services unrelated to their search engine; such as their Android mobile platform, Chrome web browser, and Google Analytics. The “Did you mean” function appeared around 2008, and features an algorithm that is still learning from users to this day.

Search engines started to detect their users’ geographical location and search history to determine how relevant each result would be to that particular person. User locations also led to the beginnings of “local search,” where the user’s location feeds into results that provide contact details, maps and opening times for local amenities relating to the search – a service many of us take for granted nowadays.

Sophisticated Adulthood (2010 Onwards)

Around 2010 and the years that followed, ranking became less about easily repeatable tactics, and more about an overall approach to your online presence. Google’s influence on modern search and their focus on providing a great experience to their users has led to the complicated and multifaceted SEO that we know today.

We may have come from needing to type in the exact query term in order to get anywhere, but modern SEO couldn’t be more different. Nowadays, search optimisation uses a variety of functions and algorithms to make sure that the user gets to where they need to be in the shortest possible time, whether that destination is online or offline. Some may consider this to make things more complicated, but it’s all about getting the user where they want to be. Modern SEO can involve a lot of specialist work, but there are a few simple things you can start today to get your optimisation efforts off on the right foot.

  • Mobile – Google recently rolled out an algorithm update that means that mobile responsive websites receive slightly favourable rankings. Many who were unprepared for this termed it “Mobilegeddon.”
  • User Experience – Search engines monitor things like successful click throughs to websites and user retention. Sites that perform slowly or sluggishly usually result in the user clicking away and looking for that information elsewhere, so a slow website doesn’t just dissuade human viewers, it can harm your rankings too!
  • Social Media – The connection between social media and SEO is a complicated one, but put simply, if you’ve got plenty of high quality followers on the social media accounts associated with your website domain, and you’re sharing quality content, it can have a positive impact on your rankings.
  • Content Marketing – Content and SEO go hand in hand in a lot of ways; chiefly because quality, regularly updated content proves to search engines that your site is live and active, as well as featuring content that may include the answer a user is looking for. Well written informational content proves your authority to both users and search algorithms.

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I hope you enjoyed our little trip down the techie end of Memory Lane. Do you remember any of these phases of SEO history? Did you engage in any strange optimisation tactics from yesteryear? Do you have any tips for those wrangling with SEO as it is today? Please share your thoughts down in the comments.

Image Credit: Geralt at Pixabay

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