Before social media, before Google, before smartphones and tablets, there were search engines.
But they’re not the search engines we know today. They were a lot simpler, a lot more basic. They operated by an entirely different, less advanced set of rules. And the process of optimizing content for them was different too.
Here is a brief look back at the origins of search engine optimization (SEO).
The Web’s First Search Engines
“Eventually, as websites crowded the Internet, the first search engines filled a need for structure and accessibility.” – Thomas Stern, Search Engine Land
1990. That’s the year McGill University’s Alan Emtage created Archie — oddly, approximately one full year before the launch of the world’s first website. Short for “Archives,” Archie is believed by many to be the web’s first search engine (though there’s some contention on that front). It didn’t take long for people to realize the potential of these tools from a business perspective.
Yet it was still several years before that potential was realized. Several years before we saw anything remotely reminiscent of the commercial search engines of today. And in the interim, there was a lot of abuse.
Since early search engines were little more than word-matching tools, unscrupulous webmasters took advantage of that simplicity. Keyword stuffing throughout the 90s was common. Black hat tactics like excessive tagging and link farming were widespread.
The web was basically the wild west. Even as commercial search engines like Yahoo, Alta Vista, AskJeeves, and Lycos launched, spam ran rampant across all corners of the web. It wasn’t until 1998 that we saw change on the horizon.
That was the year that Larry Page and Sergey Brin, at the time, both students at Stanford, published their paper “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine.” That year we first saw the groundwork laid for what would eventually become the world’s largest search engine. The year SEO was truly born.
The Birth of Search Engine Optimization
While SEO has existed as a discipline since the 1990s, the actual term is a lot younger. While we’re not quite clear on who first coined the phrase, the earliest usage appears to have been in December 1997. It was, according to Search Engine Land Editor Danny Sullivan, in an advertisement that ran for Paul Bruemmer’s company ClientDirect.
Sullivan then popularized the phrase with an August 1998 article titled “Promoters Call for Certification.” That same month, he also renamed a page on his website, Search Engine World, from Search Engine Positioning to Search Engine Optimization. At this time, SEO was still pretty lawless.
As you no doubt know, this is where Google stepped in. As its search engine rapidly grew to dominate the market, it led the charge on making SEO more ethical, with algorithm updates meant to penalize black hat marketers. It was then, as it is now, all done in the interest of providing end users with as positive an experience as possible.
That’s one thing that’s remained constant through today and, I hope, the one thing that continues to underscore Google’s decisions well into the future.