Content creators and businesses are always striving to produce websites and content that rank highly on search engines through the process of search engine optimization (SEO). We have grown so accustomed to a world with SEO that we often overlook its origins and evolution.
Although SEO emerged in the 1990s, its beginnings date back to July 1945, when the Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, Dr. Vannevar Bush, composed a piece in The Atlantic calling for a “collection of data and observations” and for the “insertion of new material into the general body of the common record.” In essence, Vannenvar was making the proposal for what we now know as Google.
More than four decades later, in 1990, a student at McGill University in Montreal, Alan Emtage, invented what many consider to be the first search engine, Archie. In the next decade, several commercialized search engines such as AltaVista and Yahoo were born, leading to a crowded internet filled with brands striving to stand-out. The solution to this problem was SEO.
Origins of SEO
Although we automatically correlate SEO with Google today, the origins of the term and process go back to these early search engines.
How SEO began is still up for debate. One legendary story states that it was the band Jefferson Starship that introduced SEO in the mid-1990s. The band reportedly called their promoter, Bob Heyman, in a rage stating that they could not find their official website during a quick search. Because the band had so many fan sites, they had usurped the official page on SERPs. Heyman and his partner, Leland Harden, were then tasked with increasing the number of “Jefferson Starship” references on the website to boost rankings.
Since the credibility of this fascinating story has not been verified, many claim that SEO was born when the first website was launched in 1991. As more websites came into existence, the internet became filled with websites but lacked any structure. This was a key reason why search engines such as Excite, AltaVista, and Yahoo were created, to give some categorization to the internet.
Whether SEO began with the creation of the first website or with Heyman and Harden, boosting SEO was a more simple process during this time. All that was needed to run a website were inbound and outbound links and references to the keyphrase.
As search engines became more prevalent in households, it became much easier to find information online. Search engine results matched queries, but many site owners resorted to keyword stuffing and adding spammy backlinks to rank higher and increase traffic. With algorithm updates often taking months to be completed, black hat tactics were common and effective.
Before SEO became a common term, others like search engine placement, search engine ranking, and most notably, search engine marketing were used. Although search engine marketing is still relevant, today it pertains more to paid search marketing and advertising.
The term “search engine optimization” was first introduced by Webstep Marketing Agency’s marketing materials in 1997. The following year, Search Engine Watch’s founder Danny Sullivan frequently began using the term to assist his clients in optimizing their content and ranking higher. Sullivan launched Search Engine Watch to provide news about the search industry and offer critical information on how to get websites to rank higher.
SEO made a breakthrough in 2003 when the term first appeared on Wikipedia, leading to an increasing number of consultants and analysts to help companies rank higher on SERPs. While “search engine optimization” may not be the perfect term because web presence is being optimized rather than search engines, after more than 20 years, it remains the preferred term in the industry.
The Birth of Google
When Larry Page and Sergey Brin introduced Google in 1997, the massive search engine’s rise began dominating SEO attention and addressed several long-standing issues like keyword stuffing. Google’s web crawler and PageRank algorithm altered how information was retrieved because Google took on-page and off-page factors into account.
Although the quantity and quality of links were included in Google’s ranking algorithm, many began to consider it the most important SEO factor. Over the following years, in order to rank higher, sites started to add as many links as possible, and links became so overused that Google was forced to address this pertinent matter. In 2000, Google released their Toolbar, allowing those who implemented SEO to view their PageRank score on a scale from 1 to 10.
Google grew astronomically in the fall of 2006 when they acquired YouTube. The user-generated video sharing network became the second most popular search property and ushered in the era of video SEO. Brands and businesses began implementing video SEO to rank higher in searches, obtain more views, and get noticed. That same year, the massive search engine launched Google Webmaster Tools, now known as Search Console, and Google Analytics. Both tools play a pivotal role in SEO strategy and implementation.
Today, Google accounts for more than 90% of search engine use, and when determining SEO rankings, it evaluates more than 200 factors. Because of the clout that Google has with SEO, their frequently launched algorithms provide innovative features that improve the quality of search results. SEO works in conjunction with these algorithms to provide the most relevant content for online users, and content marketers either celebrate the continual changes or greet them with a sense of trepidation.
With the rise of AI, many wonder what the future of SEO looks like. Despite the rapid changes in technology, online users still need to find certain information, brands, and services. And for every brand, there remains a target audience.
Major search engines like Google and Bing have employed AI capabilities to enhance their search results. Microsoft unveiled a new version of Bing with an AI chatbot being its prime feature in February 2023. Users can simply type a question into Bing Chat and receive detailed responses with links to the original sources. The chatbot can also assist in writing, solving coding tasks and mathematical problems, and generating images through Bing Image Creator. This monumental technology from Microsoft is even more powerful than ChatGPT and GPT-4 from OpenAI.
Google followed Microsoft’s lead in May 2023 when they announced their Search Generative Experience (SGE). Designed to reimagine what the search engine is capable of, SGE organizes information in a new and more efficient way, even providing various types of questions and answers. The goal is to help users grasp certain topics more quickly and get immediate, clear answers to questions. In October, Google unrolled a new version of SGE that creates images from a simple text prompt.
AI should be utilized to assist with SEO, especially because content quality is essential. As AI continues to be used to produce content, there will be ample “good” content online, but great content is what will stand out amongst competition.
In order to broaden outreach and enhance exposure, businesses must produce content that is concise and optimized. AI can work as an efficient assistant when it comes to creating content, but the best content will have that special human touch.
In the future, Google’s search engine will be used less as more users get their information from AI sources. But because of the massive amount of information that Google holds, it will prove to be a pivotal source for AI. When it comes to SEO, no matter what changes or what interface is the primary source, businesses need to remain focused on what their target audience is looking for.
Although leveraging AI and staying ahead of the curve is pivotal, it is important for businesses to continue to maintain strong technical SEO as well as on-page and off-page. Creating a strong SEO strategy, implementing SMART goals, and thinking about long-term results will continue to work to the advantage of any business as SEO and technology are transformed.
What SEO encompasses, and even what it is termed, may change in the future, but it will continue to hold value. It’s apparent that SEO isn’t going anywhere in the foreseeable future.
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