Semalt: The History Of SEO

What we now know as SEO was a practice that started in the mid-1990s. From that point on, both SEO and search engines have made notable milestones which we will be discussing in this article. Google is practically the mother of SEO today. However, SEO predates Google and while it can be debated that SEO and all things SEO related began when the first website was launched in 1991, or when the first search engine was launched, we can say the official "birthdate" of SEO was around 1997.

According to the author of Digital Engagement, Bob Heyman, we should all thank Jefferson Starship, the manager of a rock band, for helping give birth to the concept we now know of as Search Engine Optimization. 

The Birth Of SEO

When Jeff first launched his website, he was upset because it ranked on page 4 of search engines, and he wanted it in the first position on page 1. The truth is, we will never know if this is a made-up story or 100% facts; either way, we are quite certain that Search Engine Optimization originated around 1997. 

By February 15th  1997, John Audette of the Multimedia Marketing Group was already using the term SEO. However, at the time, ranking high on search engines was still a very new concept. It was basic and very directory-driven. 

Before the original Google classification was fueled by DMOZ, Zeal powered LookSmart,, and Yahoo's directory was a major player in Yahoo search. DMOZ was the Mozilla Open Directory Project which was basically a Yellow Pages for websites. This was what Yahoo was founded upon. It used a concept where searchers could find websites based on the approval of editors. 

We started doing SEO to assist our clients who had created cool sites but weren't getting traffic. Today, it has become our lifestyle. Then again, the World Wide Web was still very new to most users, unlike today, where everybody wants to rule SERPs. 

Search Engine Optimization Vs Search Engine Marketing   

Before SEO or Search Engine Optimization became its official name, there were other terms we used in describing what we now call SEO. 

We used terms like:
But there is one term that is still common even today that is Search Engine Marketing.

In 2001, a prominent writer in the SEO industry suggested the term Search Engine Marketing as a successor to Search Engine Optimization. The term SEO isn't perfect because we aren't optimizing search engines. Instead, we are optimizing our web presence. Nevertheless, the term SEO has remained in our industry for more than 20 years, and it will likely stay that way for many years to come.  

Although search engine marketing is still used today, it usually falls in line with paid search marketing and advertising. 

The Timeline Of Search Engine History

Search engines have changed the way we source information, conduct research, entertain ourselves, shop and connect with others. Whether we ger online to see a movie, social network, visit a blog or a website, search engines play a role. 

Search engines have become the connecting force between users and websites; it directs your target audience to your website. The chances are that you discovered this article because you searched about the history of SEO. That is how important search engines are. 

How Did It All Start? 

We've put together a timeline of notable milestones in the evolution of search engine to help you understand the roots of this technology which has become an important part of our world today. 

The Wild West Era

In the last decade of the 1900s, the developed into a very competitive landscape. Then, users had no choice of search engines. Companies like AltaVista, Infoseek, Ask Jeeves, Excite, and Yahoo used both human-powered directories and crawler-based listings. 

When it all began, the only way you could optimize your site was through on-page activities. At that time, we could only optimize for factors such as:
During this era, the trick to ranking was as simple as repeating keywords around the content and in the meta tags. If you want to rank more than a website that used their keywords 50 times, all you would have done was to use your keyword 100 times. 

Today that wouldn't work, and Google can penalize your site for spamming. 


Yahoo was created by Jerry Wang and David Filo in 1994. At the time, they were both Stanford University students, and they created Google in a campus trailer. In its original concept, Yahoo was a directory of interesting sites and an internet bookmark list. In order to be recorded on Yahoo, webmasters had to submit their page to Yahoo's directory for indexing manually. Doing that was the only way for Yahoo to find their webpage when someone performed a search. 


In 1996, Page and Brin, two other Stanford students, built and tested Backrub. It was a new search engine that ranked sites based on their relevance and inbound links. Backrub was later renamed Google. 

1998 launched with sponsored links and paid ads. Advertisers could visit and bid for positions on SERP. It was later acquired by Yahoo. 


The first-ever search marketing conference tool place. This continued until 2016, when it was shut down. 

The Google Revolution Of 2000

By the year 2000, Yahoo made a mistake that cost it its dominance as the leading search engine platform. They partnered with Google and Google had the sole responsibility of powering power their organic search result instead of Inktomi. Before partnering up, google was hardly known by anyone. 

Best believe that google capitalized on this opportunity. Forever search result that was shown by Yahoo, users saw "powered by Google". This was how Google grew and is now Yahoo's greatest competition. 

Up until this point, search engines relied on the domain names, on-site content, the ability of a site to get listed on the aforementioned directories and the site structure as its parameters for ranking content. Google was, however, of the chats with its ability for information retrieval. Unlike other search engines at that time, Google looked at both on and off-page factors. Its ranking algorithm considered the quality and quantity of external links. Google was like democracy; the more people spoke about you and like your content, the higher your rank. 

Although links were only one component google evaluated, SEO professionals latched onto links as the most important ranking factor and the sub-industry of link building was created. Over the next decade, professionals fought bravely for as many links as possible as they struggled to rank higher on SERP. 

Link building was abused more and more until Google was forced to address the issue in the coming years. 

In the year 2000, SEO experts saw one of the first tools ever made to help monitor their ranking. It was Google's Toolbar which was available on Internet Explorer, and it allowed SEO practitioners to see their PageRank score. 

Google also started the paid search ads, which appeared above, below or to the right of Google's natural results. Then a group of webmasters started sharing information about all things SEO in a pub in London. That informal; gathering eventually grew and became Pubcon. It is a large search conference series that still runs today. 

Over the months and years, the SEO world would sometimes be thrown into confusion as Google updated its index, which will sometimes result in big changes in rankings. SEO became more difficult as it no longer meant just repeating keywords to rank. 

Local SEO And Personalization

Around 2004, Google and other top search engines started began considering geography in an effort to improve search results. From 2004, Google started paying attention to end-user data such as search history and interests to personalize search. By 2006, Google rolled out Maps Plus Box, which was quite impressive at the time.  

What all these improvements meant was that the results you could be looking at might be different from what someone sitting next to you is seeing, even if you both did the same search query. 

No-follow tags were created in 2005 as a way to combat spam, and SEO pros began using these tags as a way of PageRank sculpting. 

Machine Learning And Intelligent Search

This is one of the greatest leaps forward by Google. Today, Google search has been redesigned to inform and assist. That is why Google built machine learning into all of its products. In search, we've seen how advantageous Machine learning can be with Google RankBrain. Ans ever since its introduction, Google has expanded the reach of RankBrain. 


The evolution of Search engines and search is so extensive, but we've limited it to key moments in its history. In order to fully understand what is best for our clients and their ranking on SERP, we felt it was important that we learnt about the history of SEO, Search Engines and SERP. 

Interested in SEO? Check out our other articles on the Semalt blog.