By the mid-90s, techies realized that the increasingly popular Internet had the capabilities to offer a service called search, giving users the ability to nearly instantaneously and transparently evaluate millions of websites to find information they were seeking. The first general web utility, Archie (Archive without a “v”), was introduced in 1990. As the concept evolved, long-time web users will remember names like Excite, Infoseek, Alta Vista and several others. While this was occurring, the founders of Google were working on that now-dominant engine for its 1998 launch. Throughout this process, users were becoming more aware of the concept of search and slowly started using the engines for research and limited general searches. While webmasters started paying more attention to a website’s metadata, most of the vast terminology and numbers of techniques we use today were totally unknown. From the beginning, however, the focus has been on relevance – attempting to quickly and effectively find the specific information that would be most useful to the searcher. This gave birth to the common use of the concept of the keyword and the goal of relevance remains at the core of all search engine algorithms.
In the quest for relevance and with the ongoing technology advances in search engines, a bit of a lover’s triangle has come into existence. As users turned more frequently to the search engines, and ever-more frequently to Google, entrepreneurs and online sellers began to see search rankings as a bit of a Holy Grail. With the searcher and the online marketer, the third side of the triangle, the search provider, sought to develop the best way to satisfy both while building a profitable business model. Relevance was still the primary issue amidst a growing list of search-specific vocabulary, techniques and web-designers who were scrambling to understand and capitalize on this amazing new industry. Search went from a general concept based on metadata to the ubiquitous acronym for search engine optimization that was at the root of all website creation. All of a sudden, it wasn’t merely a part of a webmaster’s skill; SEO became a separate and growingly-complex discipline that launched entirely new careers, books, websites, seminars and businesses. By the mid-90s, it was evident to many in the industry that Google was going to be the standard and a nice idea was going to be a multi-billion dollar business. Therefore, an intriguing and intense game developed of figuring out how Google ranked websites so those insights could be applied and websites could tick the box to gain the highest possible page ranking. Ultimately, billions were on the table to be claimed by those who could crack that code. With Google’s emphasis on relevance, a bit of a biffo ensued that sometimes saw the searcher’s original goals left as a secondary priority. The online entrepreneurs that could snag someone in a search could generate revenue, even if the searcher didn’t get what they were originally seeking. This led to the first cases of “keyword stuffing” and the creation of websites that were nothing but keyword traps.
Google, of course, was very aware of this and started putting more emphasis on the type of links used as a metric, a bow to the academic use of citations and references to measure the value of a scholarly work. While links to sites were a part of the original algorithms, a more precise evaluation of the sources and quality of those links was implemented. Of course, online entrepreneurs and the free market being what they are, links became the new currency between many website owners and online marketers. At first links were merely traded, and then complex loops of links were setup in an attempt to fool the search engines about actual relationships. Throughout this process Google, and the other surviving search engines, continually monitored these activities in the marketplace and reacted with tweaks and substantial changes to get back to that issue of relevance. In fact, the process is so intense, a qualifier was added. It could no longer rely simply on website content (obfuscated by keyword manipulation and junk content) or even links and those machinations. The standard of Quality Relevance was the new criterion for success of any algorithm. The first named algorithm update, Boston, was announced in 2003. However, the process became so closely watched that after the major named update of Vince in 2009, months were spent by industry participants parsing and analyzing and writing about its impact on search results. Particular concern arose over the weight it assigned to brands. That process proclaimed an effort to re-emphasize the role of the searcher and their preferences. Beyond quantitative measures, it was a common sense acknowledgement of the importance of evaluating and reacting to the consumer’s preferences – paying homage to the well-understood role of brands and market dominance. With the parallel growth in social media interacting with search engines by 2010, what are now called “social signals” were acknowledged and given increasing weight. If a metaphor is possible, this was ultimately the build-up of plans to prepare for a D-Day style offensive against the now pervasive and effective techniques of artificially manipulating search results and rankings. In 2011, that attack became a reality with the beachhead offensive represented by Google’s now-famous Panda update.
It would probably be inaccurate to say that the release of Panda was a surprise. It was, after all, evolutionary rather than revolutionary in its tactical implementation. Many signals had been given that more changes were on the way. Ask any digital agency, however, and they will tell you that the actual impact of the change was a surprise. Numerous reports place the numbers at more than a 12 percent elimination of Google’s index – virtually overnight. A number of websites reported immediately losing more than half their traffic with this change. While many in the industry were still gasping over this basic philosophical shift, numerous small upgrades followed, culminating in the monster Penguin hitting the algorithm in 2012. Suddenly, we started hearing the first cries of “SEO is dead!” What is the philosophical shift that caused the changes? Certainly, eliminating the sophisticated links and cloned content was a fundamental objective. In reality, however, the better digital agency has now had time to accept that rather than search engine optimization being dead, it is more essential today than ever – it is, however, more nuanced and multi-dimensional.
Despite the agonies of the many industry participants hurt by the changes in the use of keywords, links and poor content to evaluate page ranking, any competent digital agency will tell you that search engine optimisation is alive and well, it is simply wearing new clothes and requires a website to prove its genuine quality relevance to the search engines. Even though social media influences a third of all search finds, a quality website will influence not only organic searches but also social media visibility. As market forces tend to do, they are now shaping the search industry that is not yet two decades in existence. The tried and true concepts of giving customers what they want in the way they want it is the same challenge today that it has always been. With the Internet a proven part of today’s sales funnel, SEO will continue to be an essential component of the entire process. The next stage in the process will be interesting indeed. Find out more about how Search works.