The Changing Tides of SEO

Search engine optimization has become a complex numbers game, more similar to shifting sands beneath the high tide rather than building a rock-solid foundation for a successful website. When SEO first emerged, it was an experience where you dived into a site head first, rolled up your sleeves and got to work adding keywords, Meta tags, headings and anything to attract the attention of a search engine. SEO used to be a definite hands-on operation, just requiring an initial revamping of the site, then letting the SEO work its magic.

These days, however, it seems that SEO is more about analyzing trends, poring over stats, and watching patterns of search engine behaviors; then, anticipating the next move or change, and trying to divine which way the debris will fall once the storm recedes. Lately, SEO has been feeling more like an analytical game than an actual job. Why is good SEO seemingly much harder to achieve these days, and have SEOs finally just missed the boat altogether? Without whining too much about the “good ole days” I want to look at what SEO used to be, if for nothing more than comparison purposes. Then we’ll take a look at what it’s evolved into, and why SEOs have a hard time staying afloat.

The Old SEO Tides

When SEO was just beginning as an industry, the major emphasis was placed on Meta tags. Keyword, Title, and Description Tags were almost what made or broke a website in the area of search engine ranking. While it wasn’t as simplified as I just made it sound, it was certainly somewhat easy to influence search engine ranking as long as you stayed one step ahead of the search engines; since the search engines didn’t change their methodology as much as they have in the last few years, you could optimize your website pages and leave them alone for a while, and not having to worry about whether your search engine ranking would change from the time you went to bed to the time you had your first cup of coffee.

It was a time where the Internet had essentially established itself as a serious communication medium, and it was clear it wasn’t just a fad or was going away any time soon. It was a time when the term “search engine” was becoming more well known every day, and we expected the search engines to sometimes find results and other times not, since search engines were so primitive that they were nothing more than name matching filters.

SEO tactics weren’t all that honest it seemed, and it certainly spawned the negative aspects of SEO. Doorway pages, keyword stuffing and white on white text appeared to be common practices. We look back now and think how silly it all seemed, but we once thought the world was flat, too.

I would like to point out a few important milestones of the SEO industry that, more than anything, created huge ripples in the way we optimize websites, as seen in the results of their wake. While there are certainly many things that have forged the SEO industry into the vast machine it is today, we honestly don’t have time to cover them all. After looking at these milestones in the history of SEO, we will look at why these things have prompted the changes that have come about, and how they have provided the stepping stones for the SEO industry to become what it is at this very moment in time.

In 1994 the Internet came to the general public’s attention with the public advent of the Mosaic Web browser and the nascent World Wide Web. Within two years, it became obvious to most publicly traded companies that a public Web presence was desirable.

SEO grew out of necessity as the search engines themselves became needed.  Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention; there will always be industries that capitalize upon those inventions and in the end, they become as commonplace as the invention they profit from. The SEO industry is no different. 

The First “Search Engines”

The very first tool used for searching on the Internet was Archie. According to Wikipedia, it “was created in 1990 by Alan Emtage, a student at McGill in Montreal. The program downloaded the directory listings of all the files located on public anonymous FTP (File Transfer Protocol) sites, creating a searchable database of filenames.”

Gopher, which indexed plain text documents, was created in 1991 by Mark McCahill at the University of Minnesota. Because these were text files, most of the Gopher sites became Web sites after the creation of the World Wide Web.

According to Wikipedia, “the first Web search engine was Wandex, a now-defunct index collected by the World Wide Web Wanderer, a web crawler developed by Matthew Gray at MIT in 1993. Another very early search engine, Aliweb, also appeared in 1993, and still runs today. The first ‘full text’ crawler-based search engine was WebCrawler, which came out in 1994. Unlike its predecessors, it let users search for any word in any web page, which became the standard for all major search engines since. It was also the first one to be widely known by the public.”

Words make up content, keywords, text, and names for everything. It is within words that we find one of the foundations of good SEO. Words will never be deprecated, nor will search engine relevance stop depending upon words, content, and text. Keywords provide the main concepts of our content, text should embody our navigation, and so on.

Yahoo was Created

Yahoo! was founded by Stanford graduate students David Filo and Jerry Yang in January of 1994 and incorporated nearly a year later in March of 1995. It was not a searchable index of pages, as were most of the other search engines at that time, but rather a web site which was a directory of other sites, organized in a hierarchical manner. It was not the first directory of its kind, but it was the first to become widely popular as THE directory of the infant Web.

The direct results of this today are the abundance of directories on the Web, from niche directories to directories of basically nothing in particular. They were once necessary because the organization of the Web was less than spectacular. Now, however, the directory is dying a slow death, as the need for them has passed away as well. In our SEO efforts, we must realize that the directory is no longer a resource for optimization.

Google was Born

Google began as a research project in January 1996 by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, two Ph.D. students at Stanford. They hypothesized that a search engine that analyzed the relationships between websites would produce better results than existing techniques which essentially ranked results according to how many times the search term appeared on a page or how many times that page was visited. It was originally nicknamed “BackRub,” because the system checked backlinks to estimate a site’s importance.

I don’t think I need to dwell on the impact of the birth of Google, as it is the dominant search engine of all time.  But the result I want to emphasize that changed the way that an SEO would forever do business is the introduction of backlinks into the all-important quality score equation.

In 1994, the first major SEO firm recognized for its optimization achievements was Iprospects. It was also in 1994 that companies began experimenting with the concept of search engine optimization. The original term for search engine optimization or search engine marketing at that time was web site promotion.  The early emphasis of search engine optimization (or rather, web site promotion) was solely upon the submission process of websites into the search engines and directories. 

Within less than a year, the first automated submission software packages were released. Shortly thereafter, search engine spam reared its ugly head for the first time. This was a result of eager webmasters’ realization that they could swamp search results pages by over-submission and become listed and indexed for hundreds of pages. Search engines received a severe wake-up call, as spammers began in earnest. The search engines have been playing catch-up ever since.

Pay Per Click was Introduced

In 1997, Pay Per Click advertising was spawned with the creation of GoTo.com, which later became known as Overture. Its ideology was based on the concept that search at this time was widely unreliable and the results could be much better if they were human edited. They quickly sought and gained funding; then they began selling traffic on a cost-per-click bid-style auction business model.

The ebb and flow of the Internet over the last decade has truly been filled with some of the most intense changes and milestone achievements that even the technology world has been used to, and the Internet itself has forever changed the way we look at and access information. Thus, the SEO industry refines its methods to enable sites with that information to make their way to the surface for air.

The New Wave

The latest fashion trend of SEO is analytics. With the introduction of such programs as Google Analytics, we have seen the shift in the trends of simple keyword analysis to more complicated aspects of conversion ratios, and even semantics. SEO is about watching, researching, and often times, simply waiting for the results to appear. It’s becoming a longer process, and in this day and age, where people want what they want RIGHT NOW, it’s much more difficult to convince a website owner that they must be patient. However, more often than not, watching and waiting is what is required; it’s certainly not easy.

I love to learn, which means that research is my cup of tea; the love of learning is part of my personality, and makes me who I am. But I also have the urgent side to my personality. I want to see the results tomorrow, not next month, or in three months. I want to see the fruits of my labor upon completion of my project. This can be a bad trait in an SEO, but it also has the good along with it. The good part of this is that I can relate and empathize with my client, and know their need for want-it-right-now SEO. 

If you know anything about sand, you know that it is constantly changing its face.  No matter if you are regarding the sands of the desert or the sands of a beach, elements like wind, rain, animals, and the sea itself all contribute to how the sand  changes. There is a biblical saying that a foolish man builds his house on the sand, but a wise man builds his on a foundation of solid rock. 

In the case of the Internet, it is like building your house on the sand if you only build your website for the search engines. You will constantly be moving your house to higher ground, or watching it disintegrate right before your eyes. There are, however, foundations of solid rock on which to build your website. 

Building upon Solid Rock

Every website is unique (or should be), just as people’s houses are unique.  Sure, those houses may have the exact same floor plan as the next door neighbors’, but the way those houses are furnished and decorated are completely different.  The one thing that good homes all have in common, however, are sound foundations.  And what is the foundation for websites of which I speak? Well, it’s not as concrete as a home’s foundation might be. But good content, filled with the correct density of keywords, inbound links developed naturally, and good, spiderable navigation all are part of it. 

If we look at some of the characteristics of the primitive search engines we looked at earlier, and think about those elements that still remain in today’s search engines, we may gain insight as to what we need to emphasize and build upon when optimizing our websites. Backlinks are one of those, as seen in even the early days of Google; text pages, or content, are another, as evidenced by WebCrawler, which searched the text in pages. I challenge you to look deeper for other clues as to what elements have remained true during the test of time.

In a Sea, er, Nut-Shell

Search engine optimization has evolved into an almost mammoth undertaking for any webmaster. So where do we go from here? While no one can predict what the future will hold for the SEO industry, what we do know is that the need for information, and a way to search for that information, will always exist.  And because the search engines have given everyone a taste of that, we will never go back again.

While there may be all new ways to keep up to date on the current SEO tides, there are still those main foundations upon which to build, and there are precious few of these that never have, and probably never will, change.

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