Search engine optimisation is the practice of increasing a website’s visibility. As the name suggests, SEO refers to a website’s visibility on search engines such as Google, Bing or Yahoo!. There are regional nuances, for example in Russia the primary search engine is Yandex, whereas in China it is Baidu. There are also a host of lesser known search engines including DuckDuckGo and Ecosia.
Ever since search engines have been around, people have been practising SEO. Being at the top of the search engine results pages (SERPs) can have a dramatic impact on traffic and conversions. SEO therefore offers an opportunity for businesses looking for a competitive advantage.
In a Forbes article, Danny Star noted that the term SEO has probably been around for over two decades. Though whilst SEO has grown to be synonymous with digital search engines, but the history stretches back to a more analog age.
The Yellow Pages are the most used example of businesses trying to increase their visibility. Not only did people take ads out, but also sometimes changed the name of their business. The Yellow Pages were alphabetically ordered, so a business starting with an A could be more visible at the top of the page. A common example is Aardvark plumbing or AAA taxis. All in the name of getting found before your competition!
One could argue that it stretches further back again. After all, over the years we have used lots of different methods of finding information. Just think about the term ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. Would that not qualify as attracting prospects whilst they search for a product? That may be too much of a stretch, but you get the point. People recognise the value in being prominent when people are searching.
The Early Days of SEO
And the early days of the internet. 1991 saw the first website and over the next few years, the first search engines. The likes of Netscape Navigator, Excite, Alta Vista and Yahoo! were created to try and organise the world wide web’s information. Things were pretty basic. Some search engines required the webmasters to submit their sites in order to be listed.
Most of the practices related to SEO are considered spammy nowadays. They revolved around the use of keywords and tags. The metrics surrounding them were also pretty linear. Search engines ranked websites primarily on the amount of matching keywords. As such, webmasters often employed what is now known as keyword stuffing. If you wanted to rank for ‘accountants in London’ your sole concern was to use that exact term more times than your competitors. The natural progression of this is the inclusion of substantial amounts of keywords. Some were smarter about it, hiding the keywords at the bottom of the page. Others took it a step further and made the text the same colour as the background, known as keyword cloaking.
We have to remember that the internet wasn’t as prevalent during the 90’s. In addition, search engines were less complex and it was easier to take advantage of the system. We can view this as a time in which people were feeling things out. There was still value in ranking at the top, but no where near the scale of opportunity in the digital age we now live in.
Ahh what a wonderful era for design!
Google takes over
At a time when search engines were essentially counting keywords and matching them to the searchers’ query, Google was founded. Sergey Brin and Larry Page, both Ph.D students at Stanford developed their search engine. They called it Backrub, but rebranded to Google which was incorporated in 1998.
Google still took into account metrics that other search engines were using, i.e keywords. The kicker was that Google also brought something different to the game. Their search engine looked at the relationships between websites through hyperlinks. The algorithm was named PageRank, after Larry Page.
Without boring you with the minutiae, PageRank was a real game changer. It meant that the search engine could use the interactions throughout the web to help rank pages. To explain briefly, if a website had more links it was viewed as more authoritative and would rank higher. If a website had a higher PageRank, the more influence it passed when linking to another website. From this, a website could be assigned a PageRank score between zero and ten, ten being the highest.
Armed with PageRank and other metrics, Google were able to provide better search results than the status quo. Through this, their rise to fame was fast.
Fast too, were SEOs ability to adapt to this new fangled system.
A Darker Period
We now enter the 2000’s, or the noughties, depending on your preference. The dotcom bubble comes and goes, but the irrefutable fact is the internet is booming. Whilst the dotcom bubble highlights the dangerous nature of speculation, it highlights the value of the internet. As a result, the investment in, and knowledge surrounding the potential of SEO grows. As more and more people use the internet, the value of ranking at the top of search results increases.
The problem is that whilst search engines are continually developing, they are still lagging behind manipulative SEOs. You might view them as too simplistic, their algorithms are not discerning enough.
Keyword stuffing is still rampant. Businesses are choosing their names according to how close the domain name fits with a main target search term. Even the eye-opening PageRank algorithm is taken advantage of. Without any further discerning factors, spammy SEOs build thousands of websites with the aim of providing a link. Individually these websites may have very low PR, there is a certain power in numbers. Spam has now evolved from on-page to now include off-page, or link spam. These link directories and link networks offer no value to the user, but they have an impact on rankings.
There are still developments in the world of SEO during this period. Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools (now renamed Search Console) were created for webmasters. Localised search starts to take hold through Google Maps. The more diligent SEOs recognise the power of content and technical SEO alongside link building.
Though it’s a time when spam is way too prevalent. Google do release updates such as Florida to combat it. The Vince update was released. They team up with Yahoo! and MSN to create the no follow attribute to limit the effectiveness of spam. The problem is, throughout this period, spam still works. It’s widespread.
A push towards quality
We’re now moving from the noughties into the teenies. Microsoft’s Bing entered the game in 2009 and Youtube has been up and running since 2006 and is now the second most popular search engine in the world. Google have taken steps towards improving the quality of search results, but things are about to go up a notch.
To set the scene, SEO has been growing in the general marketing consciousness for a while. It’s still viewed as a mysterious, dark art and left to do its own thing. Global search volumes have increased dramatically during the early 2000’s. In turn, whilst SEO is somewhat looked down upon, it’s delivering high value for businesses. It’s the wild west though. In very broad strokes, nobody cares, or wants to know what the SEOs are doing, as long as it is working. Spammy SEO is widespread. It’s effecting the quality of results and people are profiting from it.
Remember, spam is bad for a search engine. If they return spammy websites, instead of the best ones, users may start using other options. This results in a loss of ad revenue, which is their main source of income.
Back to the turn of the decade.
In relatively quick succession, Google release two of their most well known updates. The infamous Panda (February 2011) and Penguin (April 2012). These updates caused genuine chaos in the world of search. They sought out and penalised website engaging in manipulative, spammy SEO. Generally speaking, Panda targeted onsite spam (e.g keyword stuffing) and Penguin targeted link spam.
Lots of websites suffered. They could, and did, lose almost all of their rankings and traffic….literally overnight. Matt Cutts, the Head of Webspam at Google at the time becomes the effective judge, jury and executioner. The less scrupulous SEOs live in fear of each announcement from him (that’s speculation by the way, but probably true).
Google continues to roll out updates which push the SEO world towards a future based on quality. These range from updates to Panda and Penguin, to the EMD and Page Layout update. Over time this has the desired effect on the SEO world. Content marketing becomes a real focus, and the infuriating slogan ‘content is king’ is bandied around, even if it does hold value.
That’s not to say that many SEOs haven’t been engaging in white hat tactics this whole time. It simply highlights the prevalence of the darker, black hat (spam) world.
On top of Google’s fight against spam, the way the world communicates is changing at an incredible rate. Smartphones are accessible and growing in functionality. This has an impact on search as the SEO world approaches ‘Mobilegeddon‘ in 2015. Google also release Rankbrain in the same year. It increases Google’s ability to understand the intent behind queries, rather than just the keyword strings themselves.
From our perspective, the mid teenies represent a time when search engine optimisation grew in notoriety and complexity. The traditional media agencies were taking note of the power of search. Businesses and organisations were using search as part of their narrative. For example, billboards and tv ads would have “search ‘x'” on them. In addition, search was becoming more reputable thanks in part to Google’s suppression of spammy practices. Algorithms were more powerful and discerning, businesses were investing more into search. SEO as a practice required more strategic thought and overlap with other marketing channels.
It was good for the industry.
One could say that search engine optimisation was becoming more main stream. It was ridding itself of a darker past and moving into a highly scaleable, and profitable marketing channel.
A mobile first world
Nowadays, the way that brands interact with customers is unrecognisable when compared with 10 years ago. We live in a mobile first, multi device world. Google have rolled out their mobile-first index. This means that the way a website displays on mobile has precedence over the desktop version (with mobile search). Google Discover is part of Google’s plan to facilitate a query less search environment. Blending text, image and video content is critical to successful content creation. Voice search is prevalent through Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home.
SEO has come a long way from counting keywords on a page. Successful strategies have to incorporate a deep understanding of the buying journey, across multiple devices. E-commerce sites have to think about scaleability and programmatic. The fundamentals of E-A-T (expertise, authority and trustworthiness) are baked into everything. Acquisition modelling is critical in adapting campaigns to be as productive as possible.
It would be naive to think that we have somehow hit the apex. That we will forever exist in the current state of communication, and SEO. Having said that, SEO is better than it ever has been. Spam is no longer effective and the whole practice is far less linear than it times gone by.
Research is no longer purely based around keywords. It now looks at buying journeys, searcher intent and ownership of subjects.
Content is still a key ranking metric. However, SEOs now approach content from a content marketing perspective. How can it support the buying journey? Can it be interlinked with the social media strategy? Does it support a pillar content model, how effective will it be for link earning?
Link building has come a very long way. Link directories, comment spam and link networks have been actively shut down by the big G. Even attempts post-Penguin at spammy guest blogs were denounced by Matt Cutts himself. Bloggers are now legally obliged to state when they have received payment for an article or product review. The focus is on scaleable link earning or earning the guest post opportunity through value for the user.
Even the SERPs are different. The variety of results available to the user is considerable. Featured snippets and instant answers reduce the time needed to find an information. Image and video content is common place, alongside accordions of commonly asked questions.
All in the name of providing a more seamless search experience. Nobody is going to argue that search is less helpful than it was 10 years ago. As SEOs we have to continually adapt to these changes, but the key metrics remain constant. Clear information architecture, user experience, content and links sit at the core of SEO. The methods by which we execute these for success meander and evolve, as with any industry.