When the first search engines and websites came online in the early 1990s the order in which search results appeared became incredibly important. As the Internet expanded away from just scientists and the military to the general population this became even more important. It became immediately apparent that whoever appeared at the top of the list was poised to have their link clicked on first and the race to get there became more and more important.

While file indexing was common from the early 1990s on with the Gopher program it wasn’t until the late 1990s that search optimization techniques (SEO) became understood to web developers. The birth of SEO may have also come from a most unlikely source: a rock band.

A rock band?

Jefferson Starship (previously Jefferson Airplane) was a popular rock band in the 1970s and 1980s with popular songs like Miracles, With Your Love, Runaway, Count on Me and No Way Out. The band had retired in 1985 but had returned to the stage in the early 1990s. Jefferson Starship just had their website built by a company called Cybernautics (they’re still in business today!). On a February morning in 1995 at 3 AM the band’s manager placed an angry call to a senior VP from Cybernautics wondering why the band’s official page was coming up on page 4 of the search results rather than page 1. While the band was on the road he had wanted to show a promoter the new website but to his chagrin and embarrassment it did not come up on the first page of the search results and he had to keep searching.

The birth of SEO

Why did the page not come up? The page looked absolutely amazing (for 1995) but the search engines did not (and still don’t) take that into account when ranking the page. The problem was that the phrase “Jefferson Starship” was not mentioned as often as it should be. Other pages mentioned the band more and thus were placed higher in the rankings. To remedy the problem the developers wrote Jefferson Starship out all over the page and simply colored the text to match the background. The website shot up to number 1 almost immediately and SEO optimization was born.

Techniques have changed since then

This was an almost Wild West-esque time and most search engines were based on keywords and metatags. If you wanted to shoot up the rankings just use a keyword more than a competitor. It was easy, all you had to do was to type it in and change the color of the text to match the background which is a technique that is now frowned upon. In 1998 you could also begin to pay a fee (AdWords) to improve your search engine results. As one can imagine these practices were greatly abused but there seemingly was no better way to do it.

Search rankings gradually began to include other things, like the content, the domain name and the site structure. It was Google in 2000 that changed everything. Stanford University students Larry Page and Sergey Brin had started the company in 1996 and developed a ground breaking algorithm. It took into account both on-page links as well as links coming to a page so if a page was linked to more often it must be a more reputable page. While there were other components of the algorithm this was the easiest for most people to work with and the easiest to understand. It was not perfect but was a vast improvement on what had come before.

Evolution of SEO

Even before Google came about being able to manipulate SEO was an industry unto itself. By 2003 keeping up with SEO was becoming harder and harder and a wave of spam and stolen content was crowding the Internet. Many people were writing poor content just to get it ranked or simply stealing it from other places and Google began to combat that by prioritizing known brands believing that they were more trustworthy and later updates took into account site architecture and the amount of time it took for a page to load. At that point the major search engines began to also use your own data to help customize your searches as well as using tags to help to combat spam. The introduction of XML in 2006 allowed for easier crawling.

There have been many changes to not only Google’s but other search engine algorithms in the past decade but getting a website to the top of the search rankings and keeping it there have never been more important. The techniques have changed since SEO first began but the intention is still there and it is still a never ending process. It is expanding now to voice searching and even visual searches. What will it look like in 20 years? We’ll see.

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