We need to have a conversation about Search Engine Optimization. Specifically, where it’s been, where it is today and where it’s going next. The old rules don’t apply; yet, some of today’s best practices still cling to outdated notions, past their sell-by date and on life support.
Search engine optimization, or just SEO, is older than Google. In 1996 Danny Sullivan wrote A Webmaster’s Guide To Search Engines on Search Engine Watch. Back then the major search engines were Alta Vista, AOL Net Find, Excite, HotBot, Infoseek, LookSmart, Lycos, Northern Light, Search.com and WebCrawler. Yahoo was still a directory and in 1997 Microsoft/MSN announced they would launch a search engine in mid-1998. The first documented use of the term was when John Audette’s Multimedia Marketing Group (MMG) put it on a web page in August 1997.
Before Google our main concern regarding links was discovery. Search engines crawl links to find sites. We wanted to make sure there were links on sites the search engines already indexed. Early search engines could not measure authority or quality so they focused on relevancy, which could be easily manipulated. Optimization methods included repeating search queries over and over, using different letter cases and even adding AAA at the start of title tags so they’d be first alphabetically. Out of necessity the first generation of optimizers were technical tricksters, a characteristic that has endured through most of SEO’s history.
Google Algorithmic Authority
Google changed SEO by assigning algorithmic authority, PageRank, based on the quantity and weight of links. The more links pointing to a document, the more PageRank it received. Links from documents with lots of authority passed on more PageRank than documents with less PageRank. Suddenly SEO became a popularity contents and links were the currency.
Google became popular because it had a simple interface and provided far superior results than its competitors. As system admins worked throughout offices they’d change employees’ home page to Google. Users shared Google with their coworkers, friends and families. In short, Google quickly dominated the market because it went viral.
Throughout Google’s history SEO was a cold war where optimizers attempted to understand Google’s algorithm then beat it with a combination of content, earned links and manipulative tricks. Over the years Google became more adept at identifying quality content and disregarding unnatural links, culminating (as of now) with Panda (2011) and Penguin (2012). Panda is a formula for identifying a preponderance of poor quality content across domains. Penguin penalizes domains with too many unnatural links.
As Google grew better at rewarding relevance, quality and authority (popularngs and traffic by merit. One by one, keyword and meta tag stuffing; reciprocal links, link farms and freity) optimizers gradually abandoned the trickster mentality in favor of earning organic rankie link directories; paid text links; free content distribution sites, content networks and press release sites, scraped and thin content; as well as many more tricks for attaining higher ranking fell under Google’s wrath.
As recent as two years ago link brokers and content brokers still exhibited at major search marketing conferences. Now they’re pretty much extinct or operate under the radar. More recently Google’s trained its eye on spammy guest bloggers. Not all grey hat or black hat SEO is extinguished just as Google’s algorithms are not 100% impervious to web spam.
On the flip side, Google has become adept at rewarding excellent content, high social media standing and brand popularity. The search engine provides automation and tools to consolidate duplicate content, systems to mark-up content for data parsing, tags for brand and author identification, and reporting to disavow potentially damaging inbound links. Google wants to help webmasters.
Up to now I’ve focused on Google, which is a bit unfair to Bing, Google’s main competitor. Bing is a worthy adversary with it’s own high quality search results, spam fighting techniques and assistance to webmasters. Thanks to history and market share, Bing doesn’t get as much attention as Google. We tend to think what’s good for one is good for the other. This is admittedly unfair and Bing deserves far more attention than it receives.
The prominent philosophical difference between Google and Bing is how they consider the engineering quality of your website. Both search engines try to read through overly complicated URLs, broken HTML and other errors that might otherwise stop a web crawler. But while Google says these imperfections will not hurt rankings, Bing communicates it does take technical excellence into account when ranking documents.
It ought to be obvious I advocate quality content, good code and the legitimately earned authority. I’ve not exactly hidden this sentiment. But, before I get there, I want you to understand where SEO comes from to help you understand why SEO operates the way it does today.