Search engine optimization (SEO) has transformed dramatically over the past 30 years as search engines and their ranking algorithms have grown more advanced. By examining key milestones in SEO’s history, we can better understand modern best practices and what the future may hold for SEO professionals.
In this comprehensive guide, we will cover:
The Early Days of SEO
Modern search engine optimization traces its origins back to the 1990s with the launch of early search engines like Yahoo!, Excite, Lycos, AltaVista, and others.
Emergence of Early Search Engines
In the early 1990s, the first mainstream search engines came on the scene, including:
- Yahoo! – Launched in 1994, pioneered concept of categorized web directory
- Excite – Focused crawling eliminated reliance on submissions to index pages
- Lycos – Utilized spidering and indexing to allow full-text searches
- AltaVista – First search engine allowing natural language queries
- Ask Jeeves – Used human editors for search results
These early engines relied mainly on matching user keyword queries to indexed webpage content and metadata. Optimizing for them was straightforward…
Basic Submission Practices
To have the best chance of ranking, early SEO focused simply on helping search engines find and crawl your website pages with tactics like:
- Submitting pages to search engine databases
- Adding keyword meta tags
- Having a site map of all URLs
- Ensuring keywords appeared in page copy
But as the web kept growing, more advanced ranking approaches became necessary.
In 1998 alone, the indexed web doubled from 300,000 to 600,000 sites according to Netcraft. Crawling capabilities couldn’t keep pace with content, demanding better signals of site quality.
The Rise of Google
A huge shift occurred with the launch of Google in 1998 and their PageRank algorithm for assessing website importance by analyzing incoming links.
Google’s PageRank approach revolutionized search quality by using the link structure of the web to determine value instead of just on-page keyword factors.
As Google engineer Amit Singhal explained…
“We try to determine importance of every web page based on what other pages link to it. Links transmit value and anchor text. More value flows thru links from more important pages.”
This made ranking manipulation much harder since factors were now external.
Google’s rising popularity due to superior search results forced websites to focus more on optimizing for terms people used and providing better on-site experiences.
Prioritizing User Experience
With Google cementing its place as the top search engine in the early 2000s, SEOs had no choice but to optimize specifically for their ranking factors and focus on elements like:
- Crafting compelling, keyword-optimized content
- Generating quality links from related sites
- Improving website speed and navigation
“Google’s revolutionary PageRank update forced SEOs to shift from keyword stuffing to overall quality sites providing strong user experiences.”
But some still attempted to game the system, forcing Google to take stronger action…
Fighting Link Spam and Keyword Stuffing
Despite advances in ranking approaches, some SEOs continued exploiting techniques like:
- Keyword stuffing content, titles & headings
- Footer link spam – hiding excessive links in page footers
- Link schemes – networks of sites all linking to each other
In response, Google released major updates like Florida and Brandy to target these persistent issues.
Florida and Brandy Updates
Released respectively in 2003 and 2005, the Florida and Brandy updates took aim at spam sites and keyword loading issues.
- Florida – First shift towards semantic search capabilities
- Brandy – Incorporated improved machine learning for better query understanding
These updates marked important steps in Google’s fight against manipulation – but many sites still pushed their luck.
Until the hammer dropped with Penguin…
The Penguin Update
In April 2012, websites abusing SEO were smashed by Google’s Penguin update. The Penguin filter was designed to catch and demote persistent spam maneuvers like:
- Hiding blocks of keywords with white text
- Creating pages with auto-generated thin content
- Aggressive link building schemes
Penguin crushed site’s abusing these tactics. SEO practices promoting real site value became essential.
“Getting hit by Penguin could destroy a site’s entire traffic source virtually overnight. It made over-optimization borderline suicidal.”
With link schemes no longer viable, creating robust and engaging content became the focus…
Shift Towards Quality Content
The failure of gimmicky SEO schemes was further reinforced by Google’s 2013 Hummingbird algorithm update.
With Hummingbird, Google placed more emphasis on:
- Natural language queries
- Semantic intent analysis
- Full context of search queries
In practice this required websites have in-depth, robust content focused on providing genuine value to users – not just targeting keywords.
After Hummingbird, stub pages lacked any hope of ranking without extensive, semantic content supporting comprehensive topics and user intents.
Many consider Hummingbird a huge leap forward in contextual analysis and the true beginning of modern search quality prioritizing satisfying user goals over tricks.
The necessity of useful content was also reflected in how search itself was evolving…
Mobilegeddon: Optimizing for Mobile
As smartphone adoption grew exponentially in the early 2010s, Google prioritized optimizing for these increasingly mobile users.
Responsive Web Design
In 2015, sites failing to adapt to mobile faced harsh rankings penalties from Google’s Mobilegeddon update, which emphasized core elements like:
- Fast loading, clean site design
- Easy navigation menus
- No broken functionality
Essentially over night, to maintain visibility, responsive web design was no longer optional. While also reinforcing the mandate around robust content.
By 2016, majority (60%) of all searches occurred on mobile.
And the push towards mobile-first only expanded with Google’s next major update…
In 2018, Google began rolling out mobile-first indexing making the mobile version the primary index used for rankings on all devices.
Over half (57%) of pages now indexed are mobile versions
The impacts of updates like Hummingbird and Mobilegeddon dramatically evolved SEO – but other data sources further added complexity…
Utilizing New Data Sources
As Google integrated more signals into rankings, SEO increasingly required tapping into these emerging data streams.
For example, Google incorporating user location data forced adaptation into optimizing for local SEO with tactics like:
- Targeting local keywords and queries
- Building location citations
- Creating unique, localized page content
Driving over 1 billion “near me” searches per year according to BrightLocal, local SEO now represents over 1/3rd of all searches.
Social Media Signals
Additionally, social media usage meant optimizing became more dependent factors like:
- Shareability of content
- Social engagement on posts
- Profile authority signals
With 3.6 billion global social media users per DataReportal, search engine integration with platforms like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn has deep impacts on rankings.
And machine learning brought about even more advanced integrations…
The Era of Machine Learning
The mid-2010s brought exponential leaps in machine learning, allowing Google to parse language, user behavior, and content with incredible precision.
Language processing models like Google’s BERT and RankBrain took search quality and SEO capability to new levels.
Google’s BERT Algorithm
Released in 2019 after years of development, BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) was a breakthrough in Google’s ability to deeply analyze search queries based on context.
- Better understood word meaning based on the surrounding text
- Vastly improved comprehending questions to provide answers
- Enabled feature additions like showing multiple perspectives
The SEO impact was an even stronger emphasis on comprehensive content with detailed context around topics. Generic pages had little hope in the BERT era.
RankBrain for Voice Search
A predecessor to BERT – Google’s RankBrain algorithm specifically improved rankings for voice search queries by natural language processing of spoken questions and commands.
With over 50% of searches projected to be voice by 2020 according to Comscore, RankBrain placed priority on things like:
- Use of conversational long-tail keywords
- Directly answering common questions
- Optimizing for local intents
“With the focus on conversational search, writing specifically for voice/featured snippet optimization became key for both mobile web and desktop queries.”
So with machine algorithms only growing more advanced, what’s on the horizon for SEO professionals?
Let’s look at what likely awaits in the near future…
What’s Next for SEO
SEO has rapidly evolved from basic web submissions to advanced integrations of AI, voice search, user data, and more. It’s come a long ways since the 90s “Wild West” days of keyword stuffing.
So where is SEO heading next? Two likely focuses stand out:
- Leveraging machine learning to tailor content specifically to individual interests and behavior
- Expanding best practices across mediums (video, voice, image, etc.) into holistic optimization
But while tactics adjust, SEO’s future seems clearly rooted in the same foundational principles that powered Google’s early success – namely…
Providing honest, high-quality experiences that satisfy user demand for valuable information. Align with those lasting goals, and SEO should remain sustainable regardless of algorithm shakeups.
So rather than chase every shift, perhaps our attention is best spent on equity of access to information and bringing quality content to those seeking it.
That’s ultimately what search engines were built to achieve.