Once upon a time, there was a World Wide Web. Infantile and confusingly organised by second guessing algorithms, it was the private domain of academics and tech geeks, a stuffy place to store papers and other publicly accessible information. However, its transparent, bottom-up design that encouraged “maximum participation and experimentation” would see the Web enter the everyday arena, paving the way for what was arguably the greatest cultural transformation of our time: the dawn of the information age.
In 1993, there were just 130 websites online. Today, there are over 1 billion and counting. It quickly became apparent that inquisitive users wishing to extract information out of this gulf would require a map. And thus came the search engine, a system that would trawl through, index and make relevant information available to the user.
And that marks the beginning of our SEO tale, the on-going tussle to get sites to rank prominently on what was rapidly becoming the only online high street that matters, page one of a Search Engines Results Page (SERP). Like all the best stories, it has its dastardly manipulators, a legion of worthy underdogs, and one ultimate champion.
The Troublesome 90s
AltaVista was the darling of search in the 1990s. It gained immense popularity among users for its immense capacity to index and locate up to 10x as many sites as its then contemporaries WebSeeker, Lycos and Excite. (For a glimpse of how all these sites used to look as early as 1996, click the link here).
AltaVista, like other search engines at the time, operated by reading the meta keyword tags of sites. Crafty webmasters soon cottoned on to this fact and began stuffing the tags with all sorts of irrelevant popular search terms, most notably celebrity names, in order to climb the SERP rankings. This hindered search engines’ ability to establish a site’s relevance and made for a more frustrating user experience, as the process between query and answer became more convoluted.
Their relative failures to impose adequate, user-focused sanctions to the black hat tactics of the early webmasters paved the way for the behemoth we now know as Google.
The Rise of Google
It seems impossible to imagine a time when Google wasn’t synonymous with search but in actual fact Google was once known as BackRub. Developed in a cramped dorm in Stanford, Larry Page and Sergey Brin identified a key variable that was being overlooked in the quest to match results with queries. They postulated that one could ascertain the credibility of a page via its backlinks – tracking which sites were linking to each other and analysing the respective authority of each of these sites.
And so PageRank came into being, a complex algorithm that John Battelle describes as a system that “…rewarded links that can from worthwhile sources and penalized those that did not.” While the exact workings remained closely guarded, PageRank effectively afforded a score to each individual site based on the amount of inbound links the page receives, the logic being that authoritative content will be frequently referenced in other articles. With this monumental innovation, authority became the currency of SEO.
Once again, webmasters sought to cut corners and manipulate the system. The early noughties witnessed the eruption of link farms, online exchanges in which web owners could pay for links from sites that PageRank considered reputable. Doorway pages emerged, pages that posed as a relevant answer to a user query but really funnelled users back to retailer homepages, the most high profile incident involving BMW.
While all search engines suffered as a result of this devious behaviour, Google’s aggressive response to bad SEO practice over the years would ensure their monopoly on search and the high quality content users now expect today.
Key Google Algorithm Updates that Impacted SEO
(Handpicked from Moz’s comprehensive list that chronicles all of Google’s algorithm updates since 2000)
- Jagger (2005) – This update improved PageRank’s functioning by condemning reciprocal linking and low quality links which effectively halted the practice of link farming.
- Google Suggest (2008) – The now iconic suggestions dropdown was rolled out in August and meant that users queries were guided by popular search recommendations.
- Real Time Search (2009)– This update emerged in reaction to citizen journalism. Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook often claimed a lot of traffic for their ability to report live and instant news so Google responded with this algorithm which enabled recent news stories from trusted sources to rank prominently regardless of the number of backlinks.
- Panda (2011) – An algorithm of immense proportions, Panda sought to crack down on shallow-content sites. Pages that added no significant value were equated with spam and caused a minor meltdown in the SEO community as masses of content were deemed worthless.
- Hummingbird (2013) – This update can be seen as laying the foundations for voice activated search. A major system overhaul, Hummingbird focused on looking at every word within a query then assessing the overall user intent as a whole rather than focusing intently on high ranking keywords.
- Pigeon (2014) – Pigeon was part of Google’s campaign to integrate local search results with non-localised core results, the effect of which was felt by local businesses as their web referrals wavered respectively.
Google has transformed the face of SEO and forced content writers to produce, concise, original and high quality content if they wish to rank prominently on SERPs. But where does the future of SEO lie? And what trends should specialists look out for?
The Social Media Factor
Social media is rapidly emerging as the dominant mode through which, news, information and content is consumed, indeed Fortune recently broke the story that Facebook has overtaken Google as a traffic source for news. This increase in mass engagement has occurred because journalism is now a dialogue. Social media acts like a megaphone for the formerly voiceless. One lesson to take away from this is the need to make all platforms as engaging and interactive as possible. SEO should focus intently on interaction with rather than speaking to – evolving past the stage in which the comments section is a mere afterthought to a carefully crafted piece of copy and finding ways to integrate the user within the content. As the advertising and content marketing strategists have realised, the balance of power has irrevocably shifted. Prepare for the fact that sites like Facebook might no longer allow users to redirect to your content preferring instead to host and load your content within their app.
And of course it goes without saying, if your content is not optimised for mobile, prepare to fade into lonely obscurity.
Voice Activation and Machine Learning
As the number of users using voice activated search increases, there needs to be a greater focus among SEO specialists on conversational queries. Long tail keyword research that takes into account the nuances of speech will be key in securing high-ranking results.
Machine learning that is no longer fixed or rigid requires an increased attention and hypersensitivity to the traditional elements of SEO. While it has always been necessary to produce compelling and regularly updated content as machine learning becomes more nimble so must their human counterparts.
Anna Howell writes graduate careers advice for Inspiring Interns, a graduate recruitment agency specialising in matching candidates to their dream internship. Check out their graduate jobs listings for roles. Or; if you’re looking to hire an intern, have a look at their innovative Video CVs.