An Abridged History of SEO

Courtney Culligan
October 2, 2019

Over the past two decades, search engine optimization tools and marketing strategies have evolved alongside the internet and its users. Progress made with SEO years ago still informs choices marketers make today. Let’s take a closer look at the past to sharpen our vision of what SEO is now.

SEO’s humble beginnings

1991 – In the beginning, there was Tim Berners-Lee’s first, and only, website. This site is still live today (although it’s only raw HTML)!

1993 – The first search engines, like Excite and Archie, began to emerge. These two engines existed prior to Google, which wasn’t introduced to the world until 1997, the year its domain name was registered. The first few search engines sorted results based on keywords and backend optimizations, revolutionizing how information was cataloged.

During the ‘90s, typical SEO optimizations included:

  • Writing relevant, good content
  • Having enough text on each page
  • Ensuring HTML tags were correct
  • Having both internal and external links

To rank well, SEOs would keyword stuff within the meta tags and webpages. Search Engine Journal detailed how back then, someone aiming to outrank a page that used a keyword 100 times, might use that keyword 200 times. Of course, these strategies, nowadays, are considered black hat SEO and would be penalized by Google quickly.


In the early 2000s, Google began providing guidelines for white hat SEO. These guidelines, initially, had no impact on ranking, resulting in many people not following them at all. Additionally, PageRank was based solely on the number of inbound links your site received (regardless of whether they were spammy or not).

2003 – Google’s Florida update began to penalize sites that were keyword stuffing—a technique that, prior to this, was central to SEO.

2005 – The NoFollow attribute was created, helping to reduce the amount of spammy links and comments on sites. Later in 2005, personalized search debuted which provided more relevant results depending on one’s search history.

2006 – Google’s Universal Search was created, which now included news, images, and videos in the search results. Also, the Maps Plus box was rolled out.

2008 – Google Suggest launched. This displayed suggested search options based on historical data. Generally, by the end of the 2000s, the focus of SEO shifted to user intent and usability, while also utilizing keyword research tools, Google Analytics and Google Trends, for optimizations.

2010 to present

2010 – Brands and websites were finally being forced to improve and gain rankings based on quality, user-focused content. Google also announced site speed as an official ranking factor as well as the continued improvement of localized SEO results.

Major Google algorithm updates:

  • Panda (2011): Google rewards high-quality websites and shrinks the presence of low-quality sites. They begin penalizing sites with:
  • Thin content
  • Duplicate content
  • Low-quality content
  • Lack of authority
  • High ad-to-content ratio
    • Penguin (2012): Google penalizes sites that are buying backlinks or obtaining links through networks to boost rankings.
    • Hummingbird (2013): The first major change in Google’s algorithm which better addresses natural language queries and conversational search.
    • Pigeon (2014): This update aimed to increase the ranking of local listings in a search.
    • RankBrain (2015): Self-learning is integrated to better understand a user’s search.

What’s important now?

Outside of producing great content and having a strong technical foundation, additional SEO tactics that are important today include:

  • Mobile-first rollout — Ensuring your website’s mobile interface is user-friendly, fast, and contains as much valuable content as the desktop version.
  • Voice search — Tailoring your content and metadata to fit how a user might phrase it on a smartphone or home assistant.
  • Structured data — Marking your website with structured data, or schema markup, to help give context to users
  • Site speed — Optimizing your site to be as fast as possible

Although SEO’s history has spanned just under two decades, its lineage is jampacked with updates. Considering this ever-changing nature, it’s important we stay abreast of what’s new and what’s out. Sometimes, a little history lesson is a good way to begin this work.


Take a look at this post to learn more about how to improve your site’s backlink profile.  Don’t hesitate to contact us with your questions; we love hearing from you!

Courtney Culligan
Senior Manager, SEO & Content

Courtney Culligan is a DePaul University graduate, but she still loves cheering on her home state’s baseball team. (The Minnesota twins, obviously.) Her dream birthday present might include a German Shepard and a trip to Japan.

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