The evolution of SEO: A look at one of our greatest tools

The internet drives almost everything we do, both as businesses and as consumers. We communicate, share, educate, research, buy, sell, create and work online. 

With almost 200 million active websites in existence today, there are a lot of brands and entities competing for consumer traffic. As search engines have evolved to deliver exactly what users are looking for, they’ve managed to create a somewhat level playing field with search engine optimization (SEO).

Organizing the internet

Of course, SEO wasn’t relevant until search engines emerged, which happened naturally as the number of websites continued to grow. The earliest forms of web browsers, like the original Yahoo, were just manually assembled catalogs of website links that were either generally useful or intentionally submitted by business owners.

Automation didn’t take long, with WebCrawler being the first to offer searching capabilities within webpage content. WebCrawler was a popular option but ultimately couldn’t keep up with demand. Over the years, many search engines took their shot, each sculpting the web searching experience a little more as they came and went.

Business owners quickly realized that their listings and where they were in these directories mattered—and they wanted better placements. This sparked the idea of SEO in its earliest forms.

The tasteless art of keyword stuffing

Initially, SEO tactics were limited to keywords in website text, HTML tags, and links. This led to businesses and advertising agencies boosting rankings with keyword stuffing, which is no longer an acceptable — or useful — approach.

Back then, if the owner of a hat shop wanted to rank higher than a competitor across town, they would simply add more hat-related keywords to their website, and voila! Outranked. However, the other hat shop owner could just up the ante by adding more, resulting in two terribly repetitive websites and a couple of mad hatters.

Google takes the stage

It didn’t take long for Google to enter the scene and change the way websites were cataloged. Google began ranking websites based on popularity measured by the number of inbound links from other reputable sites. If people are linking to them, they are obviously good, right?

Naturally, the keyword stuffers became link builders attempting to boost rankings by increasing the number of backlinks to their sites. Most would ask for link trades, but some built entire directories with the sole purpose of linking to their own sites. 

Amidst all the shady link dealings, Google could no longer guarantee quality search results. Not wanting to have its own name tarnished, the “Florida update” was released in late 2003 to make it more difficult for companies to take these shortcuts.

For some, these overnight changes packed a lethal punch in the rankings and Google’s reputation for updates, new features, and tweaked algorithms soon became the norm.

Identifying intentions

Today, Google rankings are based on many factors, especially user intent. This includes seeking information, navigating to a specific website, looking to make a purchase, and investigating before making a purchase in the future. Algorithms can identify intent through keywords and businesses can better cater to their audiences by classifying them by different intentions, like looking to purchase a hat versus looking to restore one. 

What comes next?

The Search Engine Journal released its State of SEO report, which outlines some notable tidbits:

Content is still king. Google’s “Helpful Content Update” was unanimously predicted to have the greatest impact in 2023 and will best serve businesses that have always prioritized the creation of unique, engaging content.

AI is in an upsurge, and it’s not going away. AI continues to pop up in science, learning, technology, and entertainment industries and is expected to play an increasing role in SEO and the prediction of user intent in the future.

But with Google rewarding “human-created” content, how will AI-generated content rank? We’ll find out. But in the meantime, take it from the keyword stuffers and link builders of the past: don’t try to cut corners. While the capabilities of emerging AI language models are impressive, they are still best used as complementary tools.

Kassie Hensel is a copywriter and content strategist at de Novo Marketing. Ally Machala is a digital strategist at de Novo Marketing.