Search Engine Optimization: A Historical Overview

To fully understand what SEO is, we must first understand the roots of SEO.

12 Jun 2020
Seo Hisotrical Oerview

The SEO Brief

In the digital marketing world, the term SEO is widely used. And if you own a business, you’ve probably heard your team or agency hail it like it is the cornerstone of success. But do you really know what it is and where it came from? Surely, you can run a quick google search and read the Wikipedia definition for Search Engine Optimization (SEO). However, how much insight does “the process of affecting the visibility of a website or a web page in a search engine’s unpaid results” actually give you into what this practice is and how it came to be so crucial for business growth? Probably none.

To understand SEO, you may want to know about its past. So, take a few minutes of your time now, and get ready to dazzle at the next marketing board meeting.

The Evolution of Search Engine Optimization: A Timeline

How did SEO come to be? Did it show up suddenly or did it gradually gain traction and meaning as the internet grew? We can say, with some impunity, that SEO came along with the creation of the first website. And so, looking back, we can trace its history to the mid-’90s. While Search Engine Optimization mainly focuses on Google now, there are some milestones in the evolution of the practice that led us to where we stand today.

The anecdote goes that the manager for the rock band Jefferson Starship was upset.  The band’s official website was ranking on page 4 rather than position 1 on page 1. And thus SEO was born.

But as legend and facts intertwine, all evidence points to the fact that SEO originated around 1997. Ranking high on search engines at that time was not a widespread concept. So was the World Wide Web for most people.

Search engines have changed the way we look up information, services, do research, and even shop and socialize. The engines are the link between users and content (or websites).

And so, today, nobody wants just a share of the pie – but the very first slice – of the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs).

The Digital Stone Age

In the beginning, there was a search engine competition. The 1990s were marked by crawl-based engines and directories. Some of you may still remember the likes of AltaVista, Infoseek, Yahoo, and Ask Jeeves. The only way to improve your website visibility on these engines was via on-page activities. Such as relevant content, accurate HTML tags, links, etc. The main tip was to repeat keywords as much as possible through pages and meta tags. The more the better, and the higher chances to outrun the competition. This previously popular practice is now officially labeled as SPAM.

  • 1994: Yahoo was created by Stanford University students Jerry Wang and David Filo in a campus trailer. Webmasters had to manually submit their page to the Yahoo directory for indexing. AltaVista, Excite, and Lycos were also launched.
  • 1996: Stanford University students created Backrub, a search engine that ranked sites based on inbound link relevancy and popularity. Backrub would ultimately become Google. HotBot, powered by Inktomi, also launched.
  • 1997: Danny Sullivan launched Search Engine Watch, a website to provide news about the search industry, tips on searching the web, and information about how to rank websites better. Ask Jeeves also debuted and was registered.
  • 1998: First search engine advertising appears – launched with sponsored links and paid search. Advertisers bid on to rank above organic search results, which were powered by Inktomi. was ultimately acquired by Yahoo. DMOZ (the Open Directory Project) became the most sought-after place for SEO practitioners to get their pages listed. MSN entered into the search sphere with MSN Search, initially powered by Inktomi.
  • 1999: The first-ever all search marketing conference, Search Engine Strategies (SES), was held.

The Y2K Evolution

Aside from fears of a looming end to our world, the year 2000 brought about a peculiar and notable incident. It is infamously known for the worst strategic move in the history of the internet. Yahoo partnered with Google and let Google power its organic results instead of Inktomi. Before this key move, Google was a hardly known search engine. The result: every Yahoo search said: “Powered by Google”. Thus, the largest competitor for search engines was introduced.

Quality and Quantity

It was then, that Google’s evolved algorithm switched things up. This helped move forward from the old way of ranking sites based on the on-page content, domain names, ability to get listed in the aforementioned directories, and basic site structure. A revolution of information lookup. Google looked at both the quality and the number of external links pointing to a site, as well as on-page and off-page factors.

Difficult to Pin down

Whereas links were one part of Google’s overall ranking algorithm, SEO practitioners considered them to be the most important one. And for 10 good years, experts and businesses raced to get the most – and best – links possible. Google also introduced AdWords ads in 2000. These paid search ads began appearing above, below, and to the right of Google’s otherwise organic results. It was also around that time that Google updated its index on a monthly or regular basis. Which very often resulted in changes in ranking. This frequent update made SEO practices difficult. And the life of Search Engine Optimization experts, very hard.

Google AdSense: The Rise of Monetization

In 2003 Google acquired and launched AdSense. This release allowed the search engine to increase monetized internet publishing and basically revolutionized the world of blogging. Bloggers from around the world could now generate passive income from their low-quality content blogs. What Google did not realize immediately was that it created the problems that it would have to deal with later on. By that, we mean Spammy practices and fake sites with the sole purpose of making money off of ads.

Localization, Personalization, & the SPAM war

The year after – in 2004 – search engines, led by Google, began orienting users towards their own location. So search queries were answered with geographic results. And by 2006, Google unveiled the Map Plus Box – an ancestor of Google Maps, if you will.

Other updates of the year included:

  • A tool – Jagger – to reduce the level of unsolicited link exchanges and the importance of low-quality anchor text.
  • Improved Google architecture to better understand the quality and relationship of links between sites.

Tools and Video

2006 was marked by Google acquiring the user-generated video sharing network YouTube for $1.65 billion. These steps led to video SEO becoming a major stop for brands. Other noteworthy milestones:


Universal Search

A new way to see search results. Google introduced a wider view to results by including the traditional vertical (organic and paid) links, images, videos, and latest news.

A Major Clean-Up

In 2008, Vince was born. Google created the update so that popular big brands ranked better in SERPs. While the ranking of brands was not the intention, the main goal was to clean up the results from less important listings. The way to generate trust in the algorithm, and therefore in the results, was to highlight brands that already have worldwide credibility. Shortly after, came the Caffeine update to improve the speed of indexing. And in 2010 Google announced that site speed was a ranking factor.

The Alliance

In 2009, Microsoft Live Search became Bing. Yahoo and Microsoft join forces in an attempt to challenge Google’s nearly monopolistic presence. The alliance saw Microsoft’s Bing power Yahoo’s organic and paid search results. While it made Bing the clear Number 2 search engine, they ultimately have failed to break Google’s massive grip on search.

The Social Media Phenomenon

Google placed a bet on YouTube and Google+. But many new social networks emerged. Notably, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn became major players.  Along with the rise of social media came speculation that social signals can impact search rankings. Yes, social media can help SEO, but indirectly. Just as other forms of marketing can help drive more traffic to your website and increase brand awareness and affinity (which generates search demand).

A World Wide Zoo

Two major algorithmic updates, in 2011 and 2012, had a big impact on SEO that is still being felt to this day. Google once again attempted to clean up its search results and reward high-quality sites.

The Panda

In 2011, Google search results faced severe scrutiny due to many sites producing low-quality content on a large scale and thus, dominating the search results. Google’s SERPs were also cluttered with websites that feature unoriginal and auto-generated content. And even, in some instances, scraper sites were outranking content originators. So came forth the Google Panda update in 2011. As a consequence, many websites saw their traffic die out. Panda was updated periodically over the coming years, eventually becoming integrated into Google’s core algorithm in 2016.

The Penguin

Google unleashed its over-optimization algorithm in order to eliminate all spam tactics from its results. The Penguin algorithm targeted link schemes (websites with unusual linking patterns) and keyword stuffing. And, like Panda, Penguin became part of Google’s real-time algorithm in 2016.

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The Next Generation

In 2012, Google unveiled the Knowledge Graph. This was a major shift away from interpreting keywords strings to understanding semantics and intent. It enabled users to search for things, people, or places (landmarks, celebrities, cities, sports teams, buildings, geographical features, movies, celestial objects, works of art, and more) and instantly get relevant results.
And the next step came quickly afterward. In 2013, Google launched Hummingbird – a new algorithm designed to respond accurately to natural language queries and conversational searches. This update came with the rise of mobile and voice search, prompting the search engine to adjust its algorithm to meet the new needs of mobile users.

The Year of the Mobile

From 2005 to 2014 mobile was very much talked about. Mobile use was growing and users increasingly searched for businesses and information on-the-go. Finally, in 2015, we had the Year of Mobile – the point at which mobile searches overtook desktop search for the first time on Google. That’s when Google launched a mobile-friendly algorithm update aimed at giving users relevant results. And in yet another attempt to speed up pages, Google also introduced Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) in 2016.

The Future is Ahead: AI & more

In 2017, Google transformed itself into an AI-first company. Today, Google search is designed to inform and assist, rather than giving users a list of links. That’s why Google has built AI into all of its products – including search, Gmail, AdWords, Google Assistant, and more.

Launched in 2015, RankBrain impacts ranking but isn’t a ranking factor in the traditional sense. Voice and visual searches are on the rise and brands are increasingly adopting chatbots and personal assistants. This will surely move search deeper into the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

In Conclusion

We can all agree that using the internet for information lookups has drastically changed over the years. And while the early days were merely 30 years ago, technology has incredibly changed in this short span. So has our relationship with new tools. Search Engine Optimization is just one part of the history of the web, but it has had many exciting ups and unexpected twists. From new SERP features, ever-evolving algorithms, and state-of-art tools, to gurus leading the way with strategy; we’ve seen it all.

No matter how different the internet landscape becomes in the future, one thing is certain: as long as there are search engines, SEO will rule the game. Therefore, there can be no doubt, that investing in this practice to boost your business website is a must.

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