From almost the launch of the very first website in 1991, users have needed a way to actually find the information they were looking for. The first search engines made their debut within a few years, but were clunky and unwieldy and hard for average users to use. In 1994, Yahoo was one of the first major players to develop a beefy search engine that could be used by average users without a tech background. Soon after, Google entered the arena and the rest is history.
Soon after Google entered the fray, however, the question first arose as to how to be the first listing people saw when they did a search for something. It made sense to simply understand how search engines worked, and then tailor your content to make it easier for search engines to find. Thus was born Search Engine Optimization – or SEO. Before the term SEO became the standard, however, the concept itself went through a series of other names. Search engine positions, search engine submission and website promotion were all names that were used to define the early practice of optimizing for search engines.
Early search engine algorithms were fairly basic and clunky, which also made it fairly easy to optimize for them. Although the tactics used to optimize content for early search engines were almost as clunky as the search engines themselves. Practices like keyword stuffing and backlinking were common because they were the very things search engines looked for to create rankings. As search engine algorithms evolved and became more elegant, however, so did the tactics optimizers used to gain rankings on search engine sites.
Another common feature search engines looked for was traffic. Websites that had a high number of visitors were often ranked higher than less popularly frequented sites. This gave rise to “”click-bait”” sites offering users tantalizing incentives to click on a link. When users clicked on the links, they often found themselves on pages laden with advertisements and very little of what was promised to make them click in the first place. Every click landed the pages higher on search engine results, however, and high rankings brought traffic and traffic brought advertising dollars. What it also did, however, was create a glut of low quality sites at the top of search engine results, which frustrated users looking for high quality information.
In the early 2000’s Google started to fight back. Instead of rewarding sites for the heavy use of keywords, backlinks and excessive tagging, search engines actually began to dock sites for some of these practices, dropping them even lower in rankings rather than raising them. Once again, however, the race was on between the developers of search engine algorithms and the optimizers who wanted their rankings to be highest. It was around this time that the practice of link building entered the scene and became the new “”cheat system”” for SEO.
As algorithms advanced, they learned to look for more than just the quantity of links offered but also at the quality. Links that led to a spam site or site that ranked low on search engines didn’t get as many “”points”” as links that led to a well-known, established or respected site. This ushered in the the era of a new wave of shady practices to manipulate search engine rankings by “”trading”” links to increase rankings.
Once again, however, Google and other search engine providers continued to hone and advance their algorithms to become better and better at sniffing out imposters to reward sites that genuinely offered the best and most high quality information. Today, search engine algorithms not only look for links to high quality sites, they also look for reciprocal links and dock accordingly. Today, more than ever before, site owners need to provide higher and higher quality content in order to gain legitimate access to high rankings. While SEO is still an important factor in gaining traffic, there are fewer and fewer ways to cheat. Today, having great content to offer your users is what genuinely pays off in spades.