Posted by Katie Kuchta
How long has it been since you ran your fingers through the yellow pages? Or open an encyclopedia? Or called the library to get help with homework?
If you are like most of the online world, your answer is “a long time” – or “never”.
Search engines have made these activities as obsolete as buggy whips, hoop skirts, and door-to-door brush vendors.
Today we have everything at hand in one smart device or slim desktop computer. We rely less on personal suggestions than on the suggestions of the internet. One company in particular was a thought leader in this technology-dependent era: Google.
Tech giant Mountain View, California’s search engine has become the hub and primary source of information. This flow of information has become one of the most important marketing channels of today.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the process of improving a website through a variety of tactics and constant changes that show up in search results. The goal? Improving the user experience for the website user and improving the performance of this website in search results. SEO ultimately drives the traffic (and business) to the website. It’s easy to think of SEO as a new thing, but it has been part of the digital age from the start.
1991: Welcome to the World Wide Web
It all started when Tim Berners-Lee shared his invention of the very first browser, the World Wide Web, most commonly referred to as the “Web”. In August 1991, Web Pioneers released a code library (libWWW) that participants can use to create their own web browsers and servers.
1994: Eric Ward pioneered link building
Link building began before Google played a sizable role in increasing search rankings. Then as now it was an important marketing factor for a website. But the internet wasn’t that complex back then. Eric Ward was nicknamed “LinkMoses” for his groundbreaking realization that the web meant nothing unless there was a way for people to find a specific URL. In 1994, Yahoo founder Jerry Yang created a new category in his fledgling company directory, just for Ward – “Web Promotion”. A young entrepreneur named Jeff Bezos hired Ward as a consultant to start Bezos’ new business – Amazon.com. Today, link building is one of the most important and one of the three most important Google ranking factors.
1995: Browsers get GUI, search engines are born
The browser wars began with the launch of Netscape, the first commercially successful web browser, in December 1994. In 1995, Microsoft introduced the Internet Explorer browser field. These browsers have graphical user interfaces (GUI) and can combine both text and graphic images on one page. This innovation has greatly increased the popularity and growth of the web. Back then there were search engines as we know them today, but their quality varied due to their limited speed and range. Founded in 1995, Alta Vista became popular because it combined quick and comprehensive search (for its time). But it couldn’t really keep up. The Internet grew faster than the search engines’ ability to index it. In terms of online search, it was the curated directory era that was dominated by Yahoo! Yahoo didn’t know then, but it was going to be a dinosaur.
1997: The earliest use of the term “search engine optimization”
The very first use of the term SEO is a reference from a web marketing agency that offered “Search Engine Optimization” as a service in February 1997.
1998: Google search is born
Sergey Brin and Larry Page
If Larry Page and Sergey Brin had never met at Stanford University, where would the world of search be today? In September 1998, three years after their meeting, they started Google – the name is the starting signal for the word “googol”, the name for the number 1, followed by 100 zeros.
What began in 1998 as an academic exercise to determine the importance of pages on the World Wide Web is now one of the largest technology companies in the world.
Today, Google is the most popular search engine with nearly 5.6 billion searches per day. How does Google know from a user’s perspective to show what I’m looking for in a search query? And on the other hand, how does a website appear in Google’s search results? This is where search engine optimization comes into play. The Google algorithm is extremely complex and the company continues to update large and small search engines.
Once marketers (and now SEOs – the optimizers themselves) began to understand how Google reads and rates websites, they found ways to manipulate the search engine’s results page. They were able to improve their rankings in the search results without Google filtering on the quality or relevance of the website.
Google recognized this and came up with a set of rules for creating a great website called “Webmaster Guidelines”. These guidelines are known as “white hat” SEO tactics. It is a list of how to abide by the rules and avoid penalties (e.g. removing or demoting a website on lists).
2003: Black Hat tactics and Google’s first major algorithm update: Florida
Lots of sketchy behaviors resulted in websites ranking faster for targeted keywords. This policy-breach tactic is known as “Black Hat SEO”. Black Hat’s SEO tactics include things like filling pages with keywords, duplicating content, and hiding text and links. In response to the foul, Google released the first major update to the algorithm, codenamed “Florida”. Named for the hurricane hurricane that changed the search, it battled websites that practiced black hat tactics. These types of websites have also been penalized by removing the majority of the affiliate websites that were rated for commercial terms.
2011: Update of the Google Panda 1.0 algorithm
Google has continued to update its algorithm for better user experience. By 2011, it was responding to a massive marketing trend that had polluted search results. These “content farms” produced a huge amount of low quality content, and for a while the tactic worked. Marketers have created multiple pages in a short amount of time.
The sides adhered to the then current guidelines – hardly. As Google’s Matt Cutts put it, content farm sites “did the bare minimum without being spam”. One such farm, Demand Media, surged in market value to $ 2 billion after a red-hot IPO. But then Google applied an algorithmic pesticide.
Panda targeted these low quality, thin content pages and scaled back the results. Pages have also been rewarded that have unique and high quality content. Demand media and the companies that relied on large amounts of low quality content saw an epic decline.
2012: Update of Google’s Penguin 1.0 algorithm
When Florida fired Google’s opening salvo against black hat SEO tactics and Panda scorched the earth under content farms. And then Penguin launched a nifty, selective attack on low quality websites.
The Penguin update went further into the link building schemes that many SEOs practiced. Many received penalties for ranking thin content that had many links to it. Penguin was a way to gauge the value of links and determine if those inbound links were from highly authoritative and relevant websites. (Penguin originally did not consider the external links on a website, only those that point to them.)
2013: Kolibri helps Google decipher intent and get local
Panda and Penguin, while influential, were minor add-on updates to the Google search engine. In contrast, the Hummingbird update reached the entire algorithm (similar to the scope of the “Florida” update). It helped show results with better or truer search intent by translating semantic search. Semantic search is where most search queries are read today. It examines what the user is looking for, rather than just reading his query. The Hummingbird update also helped websites that were meant for local results, showing more of a directory in the local organic results.
2015: Google introduces RankBrain
RankBrain was Google’s first algorithm update with artificial intelligence (AI). The goal was to better understand new queries and determine what the user was intending to do.
RankBrain itself updates the algorithm and keeps a closer look at user satisfaction by measuring how they interact with the results displayed. Fortunately, optimizing for this update is all about the user – and using a language in your content that, of course, reads as if a human had written it (and hopefully, too!).
Now: Google’s top ranking factors
Today, Google continues to dominate the search engine space. Nine out of ten queries run through the algorithm. In addition, the algorithm is constantly updated.
What does this mean for SEOs and marketers trying to get their websites in the SERPs? History shows a consistent result: tricks only work for a while. Companies that thrive online are very much aware of algorithm updates. But they keep their long-term goal in mind of making sure their sites deliver what their audience wants. To align with user intent, you need to have high quality, fresh and relevant content, highly authoritative backlinks, and natural language optimized for RankBrain – and whatever the next algorithmic optimization entails.
Katie Kuchta is Marketing Manager for the start-up LawnStarter Lawn Care in the growth phase.