The history of SEO is intertwined with the history of the internet, so to tell this story right we need to start at the very beginning.
The internet was invented by a collaborative effort which dates back to the 60s. Great minds like Vinton Cerf, Robert Kahn, and Tim Berners-Lee laid strong foundations that we are still building on today. Experts debate about who did what and what it all means, but I’ll settle for clever people took a network that connected four universities and created an online ecosystem used by nearly 4 billion people – Wikipedia
Al Gore coined the term Information Superhighway, but he did not invent the internet. To be fair he did do more for the internet than any other elected official in history.
Anyway, in about 1993 coders were getting serious about these things they called websites, but people still needed a way to find them.
Que search engines.
The History of Search Engines
In the early days, the most popular search engine was Alta Vista. It began in 1995 and ruled the web for a few years before losing ground to Google and was finally purchased by Yahoo in 2003.
Alta Vista SEO could only crawl a web page for text and meta keyword tags. This made it incredibly easy to rank well. It was common practice to stuff a page with keywords and list irrelevant meta tags.
As the years went by and more content was created for the web search engines, particularly Google, started to updates to their algorithms and this dramatically changes how sites were ranked.
Optimising sites so they ranked well in accordance with Google’s algorithm is big business. Ever wondered how people make whole careers out of SEO?
Optify did a study of organic click-through rates by search engine position. 36.4% of clicks are given to the first rank on the search engine results page (SERP). 2nd position gets only 12.5% of clicks, and everything past 11th place gets under 2% of clicks.
That’s why when Google makes major changes to their algorithm like they first did in 2003 it matters.
The Florida update on November the 16th, 2003, rustled more than a few feathers.
No one I certain about what Google was trying to do with Florida. There are theories that they implemented a search term filter, but this seemed inconsistent with some highly optimized pages that never lost their ranking. Web Workshop is absolute masters of algorithm theories. Read their take on Florida for a deeper look at what changed and why.
I think that the peculiarity of Florida, and how we still don’t know exactly what it did, was a factor behind SEO’s overnight popularity. Florida was the first of many Google algorithm updates.
Florida was the beginning of the Google Dance. Hundreds of sites fell from their top rankings, businesses lost money, and there was a public outcry.
Love of hate algorithm changes Google shows users more relevant results than ever. This was always the dream of the two young guys from Stanford who set out to create Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page.
So yeah, with little regard for how marketers felt about them the algorithms changes have continued and increased in frequency year after year.
On February 24, 2011, the Panda algorithm affected over 12% of search results when it cracked down on thin content, content farms, sites pushing ads, and other quality issues. It was the first of many animals named updates to focus on the user’s experience.
Penguin came next, on the 24th of April 2012. It penalized poor quality content, links from spam site, and keyword stuffing. There were further implications for black hat SEO practices, and it affected 3.1% of English search queries. Since this update, it has become common SEO practice to monitoring who is linking to your site and actively remove spammy links.
Pirate was the copyright update that went after sites reported for infringement. Google has always been held responsible for inevitable social and economic change brought about by the internet, and their pirate algorithm changes and updates are often in light of media and legal attention. Old school media tycoons love implicating the search engine for online piracy and demanding it police the whole internet.
A great example is the headline grabbing open letter between News Corp and Google. Have a read. Both Google and News Corp make some good points in the back and forth.
Hummingbird was a massive update that changed SEO for the better. It focuses on searcher intent. Google used to retrieve results based on keywords that matched the user’s query exactly. Hummingbird talk the search engine about synonyms, and it gave birth to the longtail keyword.
Another bird themed update, Pigeon affected localized searches. On July 24, 2014, it changed how local businesses do on page and off page SEO. Ranking on local directories, listing a business correctly on Google Maps, and correctly targeting local keywords, was important overnight.
The update also boosted review sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, Urbanspoon, and Kayak. No one knows exactly how it works unless they work at Google in which case they are sworn to secrecy, but webmasters observed little changes like local results being neighborhood specific, and some outliers were excluded in dense urban areas.
In modern SEO, you need to be aware of these penalizing algorithms but remember all of these algorithms were brought out to improve the user’s experience. If you provide a quality experience for your user, you will naturally avoid all the pitfalls and penalties.
Google is placing more empathizes than ever on audience engagement with your site. Metrics like click-through-rates and the time spent on your site are as important as clever keyword research.
Recent algorithm changes like the Intrusive Interstitial Penalty which was rolled out after 5 months of warning in January this year punished pop-ups that damage the mobile user experience. This is just the most recent in a series of mobile experience updates.
In a bid to compete with the trending nature of social media, Google is placing more emphasis than ever on current content, and tools like Google Trends are driving this push.