Happy 4th! A Good Time for a History Lesson

We’ve all read stories lamenting the lack of basic history knowledge that seems to have permeated too much of our society. Unfortunately, that’s too big a subject to tackle here. But SEO? Well, that hasn’t been around for all that long. We can handle that. So let’s talk a little SEO history.

Since the goal of SEO is to make it easier for people to find a particular website on a search engine, we first have to talk about the history of search engines themselves.

The Early Years

Initially, the Internet was mostly a collection of File Transfer Protocol (FTP) archive sites, where people could find various files that could be exchanged—kind of like the various Torrent sites today, only these files were vastly smaller than today’s music or movie files.

A program to search these sites, named Archie and developed by a student at McGill University in Montreal named Alan Emtage in 1990, is generally regarded as the first search engine, although it had little in common with today’s search engines.

Gopher, another student project out of the University of Minnesota, followed in 1991, but neither program used the natural-language keyword searches that we use today. Wandex, developed by Matthew Grey in 1993, was the first engine that functioned more or less as modern search engines do. WebCrawler, from 1994, was the first search engine that looked at the full text of websites, and not just their titles, a huge leap forward.

Search Goes Commercial

Excite, developed as early as 1993, saw commercial release in 1995 as a crawler-type search engine, and was one of the first widely-used engines. Yahoo, founded in 1994, also became a big player very quickly. Yahoo, however, was not initially a search engine, but rather a directory of websites. It didn’t adopt a crawler model of search until 2000, when it partnered with a relatively new search engine called Google.

1994 was a big year for search engines, with Lycos and Infoseek also joining the fray. Lycos, in fact, proved one of the most adept of the early search engines, and by 1999 was the largest single web portal. It didn’t stay there long. AltaVista (1995) and AskJeeves (1997) appeared on the scene as well.

But Google, debuting in 1998, would outshine them all. Founded by Sergey Brin and Larry Page, doctoral students at Stanford University, Google partnered with Yahoo in 2000 to provide search results beyond Yahoo’s own directory listings. Yahoo broke away and began to use its own crawler-powered search in 2004, but by early 2005, Google was the undisputed search leader, and has gained market share steadily ever since. Today, Google accounts for almost 70% of all search engine traffic.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Appears

By the mid-1990s, it was becoming apparent that a website’s position on the search engine results pages (SERP) was vitally important for businesses. Those with good rankings drove business; those with poor rankings languished. Some people decided to figure out how to make sites that would do well in the SERPs. Thus was SEO born.

As early as 1994, Greg Boser was trying out different aspects of site design, linking methods, and copywriting in order to drive business to his site The term search engine optimization itself seems to have first appeared in 1997, on a web page for John Audette’s Multimedia Marketing Group. Audette is generally regarded as the first SEO “expert,” although early on, everyone was simply learning by doing.

Other early SEO notables include Danny Sullivan, who worked closely with Audette for several years and founded Search Engine Watch (he now runs Search Engine Land);  Christine Churchill, who recognized early on the necessity of regular and time-consuming maintenance of websites to keep them up in the SERPs; and Jill Whalen, who successfully drove heavy traffic to her parenting chat site in the mid-90s through early search engines like Lycos and Excite.

All these early SEO pioneers had no rule book by which to play. They learned as they went, by trial-and-error and from each other. Sullivan and Audette’s newsletters were especially helpful in spreading information about SEO techniques.

As search engines have become more advanced (and as Google has come to dominate the market), SEO techniques have been constantly evolving. But many of these early names are still active and widely-regarded as industry experts. From humble beginnings (much like the Internet itself), SEO has become a vast and competitive field full of honest (white hat) and shady (black hat) operations alike.  With the rise of social media and its influence on search, SEO looks to have a whole new ballgame on its hands in the near future, so stay tuned!

So there it is. Now you know a little more about the history of what we do. Thanks to www.thehistoryofseo.com, from where most of this information came. And from all of us at SonicSEO.com, please have a happy—and safe—4th of July weekend!