The SEO Origin Story

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So, today we're going to talk a bit about the SEO origin story. In order to truly understand SEO, it’s important that we go back to the beginning. At the dawn of the World Wide Web, there were really only a handful of websites as we would think of them today, and there wasn’t any easy way to find those sites other than learning about them in bulletin boards or on IRC. It was a lot like trying to navigate a city with no maps, no landmarks. And so, to make it easier for people to find new web pages, along came search engines.

While there were search programs as early as 1990, the first real search engine as we think of them was WebCrawler in 1994 (text based, indexed entire pages). As you can see here, Wordstream has a great infographic that walks through the history of search engines, so I definitely recommend checking that out if you want to dive deeper. Suffice it to say that a bunch of search engines came online in the mid-90s, and kicked off what we know now as SEO.

Around the same time as the first real search engine, you had the first directory come online, Yahoo. You could say that, for all intents and purposes, 1994 was the dawn of “SEO”. To be fair though, in 1994 “SEO” was just A. submitting your website to search engines, and B. submitting your website to directories. There just wasn’t much else. Most search engines were manually updated. While crawlers existed, they were extremely primitive, and entirely text based. Speaking of text based…

Welcome to early “SEO”, keyword stuffing. Along with submitting your site to search engines and directories, the only other thing that really had an impact was keyword usage. Whether it was a Meta Keywords tag loaded to the gills, a huge block of keywords at the bottom of a page, or offset to a far corner of the page outside a human’s view, or simply black text on a black background, ranking well for a keyword was as simple as using that keyword somewhere on the site, a lot.

Thus was born the SEO mentality of gaming the search engines, and the cat and mouse game of SEO vs. Search Engine that still continues today.

For roughly 4 years, search engines and SEO remained largely the same. Get listed everywhere you could, jam keywords on your site. Easy peasy. And then along came Google, with the radical idea of using links between sites as the most important ranking metric.

These are visualizations of PageRank from the Google patent. Now at the time, this was a pretty radical idea. Every other search engine was based on submissions and keywords, and Google took a very different approach. Turns out, it was a damn smart decision. It was also the dawn of Link Building in the SEO world. All the other tricks and tactics still worked, and Google factored them in, but now there was a new piece to the puzzle, links. Lots and lots of links.

Now, we’ve talked about keywords, and we’ve talked about links. The 3rd piece of the puzzle is the website itself. The first SEOs were web developers and web masters, for a reason. The key component of SEO, then and now, is the very website you’re optimizing. How it’s built. The code, the structure. Links to a broken website don’t do you much good. Keywords used correctly on a website that search engines can’t crawl and index do you know good. Technical SEO is the backbone on which every other aspect of SEO is built, and you need to get that piece right first.

And there you have it. SEO, then and now, falls into 3 buckets. Technical SEO, the backbone of your site. Keyword usage on the site itself, in various places. And links (and other signals of 3rd party validation). SEO is making sure your technical foundation is sound, and that it stays current. Making sure your site has great, well optimized content and architecture, so that search engines and humans know what you’re relevant for and love what you have. And making sure the right people and websites link to you, share your content on social, and search for you by name. That’s SEO, in a nutshell.