Brief history of search engine optimization and SEO

history of seo
history of seo

There are a lot of things whose existence we know of, but their history is still mysterious- the history of Search Engine Optimization is one such mystery. We know SEOs exist, but we don’t really know where they come from. They have been around for decades- the history of search on Google has somewhat been around the formation of Google. We have been using it for years on end- the least we could do is find the history of search engine optimization. Fortunately, marshmallows are medieval concoction, whereas SEO is fairly recent. A completely millennial invention, we can attribute its origin to around 1991. Interestingly, its short life has seen quite a lot of changes- similar to how the Google algorithm has changed itself overtime.

Since we all use it daily, we should get ahead and look up the history of search engine optimizations. But before we do that, we need to understand- What was the need for Search Engine Optimization? Well, in 1945 Dr. Vannevar Bush preached in The Atlantic that there should be a collection of data and records from which existing, parallel records would be drawn out at random, and newer records would be put in. This proposition can be roughly translated into the creation of a search engine. In 1990, Alan Emtage from McGill University created Archie- the first search engine. But unlike modern search engines, Archie was mostly focused on drawing out information from other servers on the Internet- rather than bringing out its own. Nevertheless, Archie did pave the way for other search engines to enter the market.

The 1990s saw several developments taking place in the field of search engines, which are chronologically arranged below.

February 1993- Architext is created by six students from Stanford. Search Engine Land finds Architext or Excite to be extremely revolutionary in how it changed the way information was being stored. Here, results were easy to obtain by pressing in keywords that would be discovered within content optimization.

June 1993- World Wide Web Wandered by Matthew Gray is launched in the market, which slowly becomes Wandex.

October 1993- ALIWEB becomes the first site that allows its users to submit their own pages.

December 1993- There was evidence of the presence of three search engines that were bot-fed- RBSE Spider, JumpStation, and World Wide Web Worm- and it has been assumed that these bot-fed search engines were created by web robots to crawl for information over servers.

1994- Several new search engines come to the front- Yahoo, Lycos, Infoseek, Alta Vista.

1996- The founders of Google- Sergey Brin and Larry Page create a backup search engine called BackRub.

April 1997- is found- previously known as AskJeevies.

September 1997- BackRub is finally replaced with the domain name

With the ever-growing popularity of search engines, site owners decided that with a few algorithms, any site could be manipulated, and money made. This is where Search engine optimizations came into place. But that too went through a lot of stages that we would talk about now.

A Brief History of Search Engine Optimization & SEO

The 90s

As the search engines became massively popular, almost every country in the Western hemisphere had access to the internet. This made processing and searching for information really simple. But the problem was with the quantity- which remained sub-standard. The earliest model of SEO would be site owners stuffing their websites or blogs with keywords- sometimes to a point where it became incoherent. This was done simply to improve the rankings of the site owners and increase the traffic to their sites. There was no regard for quality, as the search engines became places where sites with the most keywords were usually on top- notwithstanding their bad quality of service.

If that wasn’t the only problem, collusion too was rampant. Since many site owners wanted to display a modicum of authenticity to their sites, they started using spammy backlinks that would improve their rankings on the search engines.

And this is where Larry Page, and Sergey Brin- two students from Stanford decided to step in and clean up the entire mess. They wanted to build a search engine that would highlight all these problems one after the other. Their thesis highlighted the use of PageRank- the one technology that is still utilized by Google to check up on the quality of websites and then rank them and is heavily included in the history of search on Google. It was Page and Brin, who established the base for a proper SEO to be in place.


The start of the decade saw Google establishing itself as the search engine to go to. To ensure that the search engine technology was performing cleanly and without any collusions, they dictated a set of guidelines that would make them less advertising-centric, and more focused on the quality of work.


Unfortunately, PageRank didn’t go into the thick of things and it was still easy for site owners to fill their sites with inbound links- which led to a higher ranking. The guidelines prescribed by Google didn’t really have an impact on the ratings so it is quite plausible that most site owners completely neglected it. Also, back in those days, it wasn’t easy to measure up the authenticity of a particular inbound link, so collusion was rampant amongst site owners to bring their website to the top. According to several blogs, site owners often infused inbound links that weren’t even related to the topic.

But in 2001 when the young entrepreneurs from Google came on Charlie Rose, they mentioned that Google simply outperformed their opposition because they weren’t just focused on particular keywords. No, they were focused on the entire web. It was an out and out search engine, that literally searched the entire internet for information. This did lead to a revolution, where more and more algorithms came into use.


This heralded a new development in the history of Search Engine Optimization when Google brought out its ‘Florida’ update. This helped several site owners benefit from a much careful ranking strategy, while a lot of other site owners rallied against it. This was the first time Google had put its foot down when it came to providing users with the best service possible. Also, they were issuing penalties on stuffing keywords and putting up spammy backlinks- the quality had to be maintained. The next year brought out the first voice search by Google. Although the New York Times did refer it as an experiment that was half-finished, it simply was an indication that later decades would have cell phones being a lot dependant on SEO.

2005: A Big Year for SEO

2005 was one of the biggest years for technological reforms, as major search engines like MSN, Yahoo, and Google joined together to create the Nofollow Attribute, which prevented blogs from applying spammy backlinks to their sites, and also reduced the number of comments per blog. In June, Google developed its personalized search engine, which would take into account the user’s previous Google searches, and then provide the most relevant blogs and websites. Google Analytics was also launched in the latter half of the year, which is still being used for ROI campaigns and measuring traffic.

2009: SEO shakeups

2009 brought about a few changes in the history of search engine optimization, as Microsoft vociferously marketed their search engine Bing- calling it the best search engine in the market. It was also assumed that Bing would provide better results than Google. On both counts, it failed. Bing never replaced Google as the numero uno search engine, nor was it able to use any technology that differed from Google. The only thing different was Bing favored keyword in URLs, along with capitalized words, and a proclivity towards large site pages. Its optimizing content advice too wasn’t any different than Google’s. In August, Google expanded its services through a Caffeine algorithm change. For this, they needed the help of the general public in unveiling the next-generation infrastructure. This was said to not only accelerate crawling but also integrating ranking and indexation in almost real-time.

It would be wrong to state that Caffeine came out in 2009, for it came out a year later. But when it did, it did signal major changes in the horizon. But before that, the December of 2009 saw the introduction of a tangible real-time search, which then led to Google bringing out breaking news and tweets. This made one thing transparent- search engines weren’t just for webmasters anymore. Anyone, from journalists to copywriters- everyone would have to optimize whatever they put into the internet.


September 2010 saw the introduction of Google Instant Technology, which gives out the results when we first type in the keywords. When it was launched, there was a combustion of SEOs all over the websites, until it was found out that there wasn’t any feasible change in the rankings due to that. But Google Instant did improve the user experience- in fact it would be correct to say that every development towards SEOs from 2010 onwards has always been towards the benefit of the consumer. Although there were a few sites that might have lucked out due to the negative reviews, Google took steps to penalize those sites.

This year also highlighted the importance of social media on the internet, as both Bing and Google added ‘social signals’ which would upload Facebook posts if it matched the query. In certain cases, Twitter handles were ranked- according to the frequency with which they appeared in queries.

2011: The year of the panda

Google continued to punish and penalize sites that would use spammy backlinks to improve their ratings. Back when the decade started, several high profile links were accused of doing the same, and most of them were punished when things came to the open. One of them was It was seen in 2011, that sites that ended with the domain name- .edu would have a higher rating on Google’s PageRank than sites that ended with .com. This was something Overstock wanted to use, so they decided to link their website to education institutions that would use keywords like ‘bunk beds’. In return, they would be giving discounts to faculties and students. Although Overstock stopped the practice in 2011, they were still penalized by the search engine.

This year also saw the Panda come to the technology world, which was created solely to take care of content farms. Content farms were sites that had low-quality content, published frequently just to ensure the driving of search engines. These sites also come with a high ad-to-content ratio, something Panda was an expert in seeking. As it were, Panda then went through several different updates- 28 of them- none of which are that revolutionary, or highly controversial.

2012: Along came a penguin

April of 2012 saw Google bring out its Penguin updates. In the history of SEOs, this is quite a landmark feature as this was when they decided to bring out the best from the many sites that peppered their search engines. They also reiterated what Bing had mentioned a month back- the face of SEOs was changing and search engines had to adapt to the change. The use of Penguin was simple- it was meant to crack down on sites that might be informative, but they would also not shy away from using a whole bunch of spammy backlinks that had nothing to do with the H1.

This year also saw Google bring out its old initiative on reducing the ranks of sites that were heavily ad-spaced. They targeted those websites that mostly had heavy ad-spaces above the fold- which meant that they had spaces on the top half of the page. These sites would be mostly filled by ads, with extremely low importance given to information or quality.

Finally, Google decided to cut out the middleman and focus on the main problem. Instead of spending their time weeding out spammy backlinks, they decided to roll out the algorithm for Payday Loan. This algorithm update would mostly focus on the query- and analyze whether it was about to publish a spammy backlink or not. The usual queries involving pornographic material were more likely to create a spammy backlink, so Google decided to remove spam from those results. In no way did it affect the SEO ratings of legitimate sites- it simply displayed Google’s desire to keep things clean.

Google goes local

Google’s algorithms have always been based on animals, so Google decided to uphold the tradition by naming the 2014 update called Pigeon. This update was big on local search options, and this provided Map queries to be treated with the same technology that other search engine queries were treated with. This made it efficiently clear that Google was going local.

Then, in 2015…

The most important update that came after 2010 was the April 2015 mobile update wherein sites which weren’t mobile-friendly would find it very difficult to score high on the rankings. This meant that not only quality but responsive design mattered a lot too- keywords weren’t everything. It must not be said that Google didn’t give webmasters enough time before they decided to roll this feature out. In February, a mobile-friendly test was conducted which would allow site owners to check for mistakes, or issues and fix those. In 2016, Google decided to organize takedowns on mobile pop-ups.

What’s Next in the history of search engine optimization?

There are several new changes that Google would be bringing out in the next couple of years.

To Mobile and Beyond

With the rise in mobile usage, it is quite natural that major developments would be geared in that direction. Currently, mobiles generate 51% of the SEO, while desktops generate 41%. Google has always been favorable towards mobile-friendly SEOs, and now it will start updating the voice search features to better accentuate the changing times. Currently, Google already has 20% of all its searches done by voice, and it is estimated that the future would see the percentage getting a lot higher. And with the presence of voice activation devices like Alexa, it isn’t just a dream anymore.

SEOs have played a major role in developing search engines over the last three decades making it quite important that we understand the history of SEO. From cutting down on collusion to penalizing sites from preferring quantity over quality, the history of search engine optimizations has truly displayed the hegemony Google has over other search engines. The strides taken by them have been rarely matched by their competitors, and despite several claims by search engines like MSN, and Bing, the consumption of Google by users daily far outstrips the rest. The history of search engine optimization on Google has been a game of updates and developments- all geared towards giving the best experience to the user.