Evolution of SEO: 30 Years of Search Engines

by | Jun 16, 2020

On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the first search engine (Archie) in 2020, we are presenting an SEO special. For with the start of the search engines, the discipline of SEO was inevitably born. What has changed in the past three decades? How does successful search engine optimization work today? And how does it evolve?

Table of Contents

  1. SEO in the 1990s
  2. SEO in the 2000s
  3. SEO in the 2010s
  4. SEO in the Future
  5. SEO and Content Marketing Go Hand in Hand

SEO in the 1990s

The first decade of SEO was mainly dominated by “keyword stuffing”. Websites were literally stuffed with keywords – sometimes without meaning and reason. Valuable and relevant content was not always available, but dozens of keywords in metatext and keyword clouds were.

The second major trend of the first SEO decade: link building. To improve your own website in this respect, virtually any method was tried and tested. Little emphasis was put on the quality of the linking website, nor was thought given to the user experience or the customer journey. Backlinks were the most important factor and the search engines rewarded them with good rankings.

SEO in the 2000s

Through such techniques a lot of websites of inferior quality got good positions in the search engine. In a way, the search engines were “hacked” with these methods. But as search engines evolved, they also gained the ability to differentiate between reputable web sites and their dubious counterparts.

Another new feature at the end of the 2000s was the “Suggest” or “Autocomplete” feature, which suggests frequently searched search queries while typing. At the same time, better tools for keyword research and web analytics became available to online marketers. Thus, websites could be optimized more effectively.
With the launch of the first iPhone at the latest, the age of mobile traffic – in other words, Internet use on smartphones – started.

SEO in the 2010s

In the early 2010s an increasing number of additional features made their way into the search results: Knowledge Graphs, Local SEO, etc. were introduced, to shorten the user’s path to the desired information. At the same time this meant a decrease in traffic for many websites: Google had started to answer a growing volume of search queries directly on the SERP itself.

The strongest trend in the 2010s was of course the strong growth in mobile traffic. In the first quarter of 2017, for the first time more than half of the traffic worldwide came through mobile devices (see Statista). Already in 2015, mobile friendliness was introduced as a ranking signal. Since then, Google has been taking into account whether a web offering is usable on mobile devices when evaluating it (Responsive Design).

Consequently, the next step followed in 2018-2019: the transition to the “Mobile First Index”. This index evaluates web offers exclusively based on the mobile version and leaves the desktop version of the website out of the crawling process. Since then, anyone who does not offer a complete and usable website for mobile devices has been left behind! Websites have been gradually converted to this new index by Google. You can easily find out whether your website has already been converted in the Google Search Console.

The second major trend relates to content and its quality. With old methods such as keyword stuffing, sustainable rankings can no longer be achieved today. The primary goal of the search engine is to satisfy users. This is achieved by giving the user the best answers to his question(s). In order to find these best answers on the web, the search engine’s capabilities are constantly being enhanced: it now not only recognizes keywords, but also whether they are used in a meaningful context. Past “Penguin” and “Panda” updates have gradually improved Google’s ability to filter out inferior content.

The search engine collects further indicators for the quality of a website in the form of user signals: it measures, e.g., the CTR (Click Through Rate) of a search result on the SERP (Search Engine Results Page), the bounce rate of a result or the length of time a user stays on a page. Based on all these indicators and signals, the search engine can classify the relevance and quality of a content – and thus ultimately determine its ranking.

SEO in the Future

Search engines are getting ever more advanced in what they do. The updates of the past years have already shown that Google is able to sort shady websites out of the results. In general, search engines will be able to better grasp the context of a website through semantic analysis.

Content Is King!

Content marketing has not yet arrived in the broad mass of companies, but it already plays a crucial role in the competition for good rankings. If you want to develop good, sustainable, organic rankings, meaningful content marketing is the best way!

Ads Are on the Rise

However, I also assume that Google will continue to massively promote monetarization via SEA (Search Engine Advertising) due to its almost monopolistic position. Probably the ratio of paid to organic will continue to shift towards paid results.

Voice Search

There are other trends that have been established in the 2010s with growing relevance in the coming years: voice search and AR (Augmented Reality). First of all, voice search: with Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri there are already some widely used voice-operated devices. The NLP (natural language processing) technology will further evolve in the years to come. Voice search means a significant change compared to manual search in the browser: there is practically only one single search result instead of ten. It remains interesting to see what the future will look like and what monetization attempts the providers will make here. Voice search also challenges website operators: in order to perform well in this search form the use of structured data is necessary among other things.

Augmented Reality

I also see the topics image recognition and AR (Augmented Reality) as increasingly relevant to everyday life. I expect that an increasing number of searches will be conducted using these methods. For instance, in the future you will buy the new battery for your kitchen scales as follows: You take your smartphone and point the camera at the battery. Your smartphone identifies the battery type and displays a few shopping results directly, all you have to do is just tap on “order”.

SEO and Content Marketing Go Hand in Hand

As you see: you won’t get far with pointless keyword collections today. And even with 25 keywords in the metatext, you won’t make it to number 1 in the search results. The battle for good rankings today is fought in one way: through high-quality, relevant content. Now don’t get me wrong: keywords continue to play a key role. But the importance of context and user signals has increased significantly in recent years. This is exactly why I now look at search engine optimization and content marketing as inseparable twins. Serve your target group with valuable, useful content. Reach and enrich your target group online. Relevant and useful are, for instance, explanatory content, specialist information, tutorials, webinars and the like. The main point is that you serve your target group without aggressively promoting yourself/your products. In the end you will benefit from this: You will gain trust and awareness.

Interesting Links:

The Author

My name is Oliver Gibietz and I am passionate about effective online marketing. Everything at PeakRelevance revolves around content marketing and SEO for small and medium-sized businesses.

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