The Evolution of Digital Marketing: SEO

Published on September 5, 2017

“Just Google it!”

That three-word sentence is probably one that you hear or use every single day. Searching the internet using Google, Bing, or another search engine is such a commonplace activity that we all tend to just take it for granted.  

But if you stop and think about it for a moment, the potential and power of modern search engines is actually kind of overwhelming. All of the world’s information, available at your fingertips, day or night! It’s a dream come true – and yet this instant access to search results is a relatively recent phenomenon; as little as 25 years ago, the ability to simply “search” the internet would have been all but unheard of among everyone but high level academics and scientists.

And certainly, the knowledge about how to market your brand by tailoring your web presence for search engines – a practice that we now shorthand as “search engine optimization,” or SEO – would have been equally confounding. Today, however, creating SEO-driven web pages and content is a fundamental cornerstone of all digital marketing.

How did we get from there to here? From nothing to everything? Let’s trace the evolution of search engines and SEO:

The Birth of the Search Engine

Tim Berners-Lee, widely regarded as the “father of the internet,” launched what is considered to be the first website in 1991. Like many of his peers, Berners-Lee saw the World Wide Web as an unbelievably powerful resource for sharing knowledge and information; for the most part, the pioneers of the early web believed in what we now think of as “the hacker ethic,” characterized by an emphasis on sharing, openness, and decentralization.

Of course, for this philosophy of sharing to actually work in practice, there would have to be a method for collecting, organizing, cataloging, and, above all, sifting through the information available on the web at any given time. Enter the search engine.

Archie, created by Alan Emtage, is widely regarded as the first true search engine; Emtage created the code to quickly search through software directories for students when he was working as a systems administrator for the School of Computer Science. Though it was never patented or monetized, Archie – or “archive” without the “v” – marks an important first step in the evolution of search engines and SEO.

Around the same time, a number of search engines popped up, including WebCrawler (1994), Lycos (1994), Excite (1995), and Yahoo (1995); Google, the behemoth in the field today, finally emerged between 1997 and 98.

All of these search engines worked in largely the same way: They employed an algorithm to automatically crawl the web for keywords in content and on the backend of websites, pulling search engine ranking pages (or SERPs) together from those results.

The Rise of SEO

Of course, the search functions on these early engines seem quite primitive compared to the more sophisticated algorithms in place today. In most cases, search engines worked with little besides keywords – which opened up the floodgates to gamesmanship, as brands and individuals quickly realized that they could stuff their content with keywords in order to appear higher in search results.

Nothing illustrates the sorry state of early search engine marketing like one of the most famous (and entertaining) stories from the period. It goes like this: A manager for the band Jefferson Starship calls up the group’s digital service provider in the middle of the night, howling:

“Why the #$%$ don’t we come up before page 4 on this damned thing? Page #$%$ 4, you #$%$ morons!”

The manager, you see, was trying to show the band’s website to a promoter, and had to click through many pages of fan sites in order to find the group’s official, branded site. The problem? Search engines at the time often looked at little besides the number of times that a keyword was used in order to make their ranking decisions; the tastefully-designed website for the band only used its name once or twice, while fan sites were, of course, plastered with the words “Jefferson Starship” again and again, giving them a leg up with the search engine’s bots.

There are plenty of other stories from the same time period that all highlight the same principle: Everyone was trying to figure out the best way to get their content to the top of the SERP. This led to SEO as we know it today, for better and for worse.

On the one hand, this led to the growth of content marketing, as brands began to recognize that producing a lot of high quality, text-based content helped elevate their search rankings. On the other, this early scramble for instant search engine dominance also led to a number of blackhat tactics that cast a pall over the digital marketing industry for decades, including keyword stuffing, plagiarism, and the rise of content farms, which crank out questionable web pages in order to create phony “backlinks.”

The Innovations Keep Coming

Recognizing that brands were clamoring for a chance to get to the top of their SERPs, Google released AdWords, its marketing platform, as far back as 2000; AdWords allowed brands to bid for certain keywords, giving them the chance to corner the market on a certain search. It launched with just 350 participating advertisers, and has since become a digital marketing fundamental in its own right, generating tens of billions in revenue for Google every year.

This commitment to innovation is, largely, what allowed Google search to become the default for so many consumers over the years. Putting aside its massive growth and expansion into social media, email, and just about every other facet of our digital lives, Google has continually been growing and evolving over the years, causing other services (including its nearest competitor, Bing, which was launched in 2009).

Google, for instance, was one of the early leaders in combatting blackhat SEO tactics, fighting back against keyword stuffing and poor linking practices in order to level the playing field for brands and searchers alike. Throughout the 2000s, it was also on the front lines when it came to user personalization and “local SEO,” driven by maps, store hours, and mobile results (which have become a vital component of the search ecosystem).

Of course, though it has largely cornered the market on search in the U.S., Google has also faced its fair share of criticism – particularly with regards to some of its most recent innovations, which some fear may actually kill search as we know it, rather than elevate it.

Specifically, critics have taken qualms with Knowledge Graph and Featured Snippets, both of which present a pop-out within search results. Knowledge Graph may show the available images, contact info, and reviews for a specific place or business, while Featured Snippets automatically pulls and displays information from the engine’s top search result.

Some fear that extracting relevant information from websites will actually prevent searchers from clicking through to brands’ landing pages, reducing the potential for overall organic traffic, and, by extension, the capacity for lead generation and capture from SEO. Indeed, some brands have actually already seen their traffic – and their capacity for making money – decline as a result of these features, which cannot really be opted in or out of.

Other critiques come from the presentation of these results: Thought they appear like dry, objective truths, Featured Snippets are not necessarily verified before being pulled out and presented to the searcher. This can lead to some extremely questionable responses, especially considering that these results are the default when using voice search on a Google Home or other such virtual assistant tool. This long read from The Guardian does a great job of highlighting some of the pitfalls of these recent Google innovations.

Will Google address these valid concerns? That remains to be seen. To that end, we can also only begin to imagine what the future may hold for search engines and SEO; experts expect that voice search will only continue to grow in importance, and some have suggested that search engines may soon move toward integrating more with social media and other apps, as the rise of mobile devices continues.

If you want to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to latest and greatest in SEO, drop Geek Chicago a line today! Our team of digital marketing experts knows what it takes to stand out online, and we’re always ready to talk shop. Feel free to send us an email, to reach out on Facebook or Twitter, and hey, for fun… maybe Google us!

We hope you enjoyed this little look at the past, present, and future of SEO, one of the most important facets of a comprehensive digital marketing campaign. This is the second piece of a multi-part series designed to spotlight the history and evolution of digital marketing as we know it; be sure to check back in the next few weeks for looks into the history of email marketing, and check out our timeline on the history of social media, here