Evolution of SEO: A Decade of Perspective At SES


photo credit: RC_Fotos
Welcome to SearchEngineStrategies Toronto 2009
. Today we took a glance back a decade to 1999, when parties had a reputation to live up to and some families were preparing for an all out cataclysmic technological failure come the new year. For the most part, times were swell.

Family Guy began its first season, Britney Spears’ hit “…Baby One More Time” climbed the billboard charts & Lawrence Fishburne took curious Keanu down the rabbit hole in The Matrix. In the realm of SEO, effective optimization was all about keyword, title & description meta tags and reciprocal link building. Life was good!

It’s a decade later and still some of those characteristics remain. Family Guy is still running strong, Britney Spears’ hair has returned and Keanu still manages to carry his signature phrase, ‘whoa’ in each film. The SEO playing field however, isn’t the same ball game. The same tactics that worked in 1999 simply won’t cut it anymore. What tactics have stood the test of time, which have become obsolete? How has SEO evolved over the past decade and what can we expect for the future?

The session SEO Then & Now: What’s the Same? What’s changed? at SES Toronto took a look at exactly that. Moderating the session was Amanda Watlington (Searching for Profit). On the panel was Shari Thurow (Omni Marketing Interactive), Anne Kennedy(Beyond Ink) & Jeff Quipp (Search Engine People).

First to speak was Anne Kennedy. She began by giving an overview of what was going on  in the world of search in 1999 in comparison to now. Less than 50% of the US population were internet users and Yahoo maintained dominant market share for online media. At this time there were a lot of different online media companies and various ways of optimizing them. One preeminent tactic or developer’s nightmare was to develop different landing pages for each search engine (panelists cringe).

At this time the amount of server space it took to power Google’s inventory was located in Larry Page’s apartment. There were no meaningful analytics to lend insight on search volume, bounce rates, top referring pages, etc. Adwords was just around the corner which would also usher in quality score. Prior to 1999 it was all about on-page factors (alt attributes, keywords in content, title tags, etc.). It was pivotal when off-page factors such as links were an added variable to the algorithm.

A great deal hasn’t changed since then, but now there are so many more ways to build and drive traffic. Much more advanced technical “spam” has filtered in today compared to ten years ago. Anne lays out what she believes to be the top 3 areas search is evolving:

1 – Stronger Focus on User Intent

Click data – Search engines are now able to predict how people navigate to their destination. The ability to see an individual clicked through 2 different sites to land on the page they spend the most time on is lends insight. It becomes obvious to search engines to deliver results that will bring users to their desired page and skip the intermediary sites.

2 – Universal Search

Digital asset optimization – Marketers have a huge opportunity to optimize digital assets as search engines are seamlessly incorporating these verticals into the SERPs.

3 – Social Networks

Global & real-time – What social networks have shown us is the ease with which buzz can propagate from one network generation to the next. Twitter has given users the ability to search for answers in real-time instead of viewing a dated file from a database.

Next to take the podium was Shari Thurow. She begins by taking a poll to see who had attended the very first SES conference 10 years ago (one hand poked up from the crowd). Shari continues by quoting a comment made by Sergey Brin in the second SES conference, “You can’t spam Google” (the crowd laughs).

Her presentation focused primarily on what has remained the same with SEO over the past decade. She shows a slide from her very first conference presentation 14 years ago that still holds true to SEO. The slide depicts the primary functions of a search engine:

– Index text

– Follow links

…all search engine spiders are like this and will continue to be like this.

Its important to organize a site using words and phrases that people type into the search query, focus the content around those keywords and  give search engines access to these files.

Back then – On-page criteria (mid to late 90s)

1. Text component (index text), keyword density, title, alt, and H1 tags

– Words at the top of the page are still more relevant than text at the bottom of the page as well as keyword proximity.

2 Link component (follow links)

– It was important to get links in the Yahoo directory, Dmoz and Looksmart with pertinent keyword rich anchor text.

Nowadays, off and on-page need to work in tandem.

1. Text component

– Still need to use keywords and phrases that your target audience is searching for.

2. Link component

– Links are still a way to give search engine spiders easy, user friendly access to content through site and page architecture.

3. Popularity component

The amount and authority of links pointing at a site is a strong off-page indicator to search engines of how popular a site is.

4. Searcher behavior

– 3 types of search queries

1. Navigational intent (2nd most searched) – Searchers with navigational intent rarely go past the first 3 results.

2. Informational intent (1st ) – Answer to question, quick fact, read reviews, quick list

3. Transactional intent (3rd) – Not only add to cart items, music, downloads and pictures

Shari parted with emphasizing the importance of optimizing not for search engines but for people that use search engines.

Last up was Jeff Quipp. Jeff begins by taking a look back at the past when there were roughly 5000 search engines. Many services would offer to submit your site t0 each of these search engines for $50. This is no longer the case. These days Google dominates with 80%+ so its critical to play by Google’s rules. Trying to cheat Google may result in a ban, and with that big of a market share can any company afford not to be found in Google SERPs?


What’s the same?

– Proper keyword selection is still at the foundation of search whether it by organic or paid.

What’s changed?

– Google external keyword tool – Gives you a relative idea of search volume, advertiser competition, local search volume and estimated cost per click.

– Google suggest – the drop down menu that appears below the search query field can lend insight as to what people are searching for.

– 25% of terms per month have never been seen before!

Who cares?

– Choose keywords carefully

– Ranking probability – What are the chances you can rank for a certain term? Assess you strengths, weaknesses and competition in the space.

Build out your Content. The shorter the keyword the earlier in the buying process a consumer is. Its nearly impossible to know what the searcher’s intentions are, you have to build out content for the longer tail as well.

Algorithm complexity – What’s changed?

1. Now more than double the number of variables … 200+ and possibly 300+

– Many of their new variables are based on the question, who is trying to spam Google?

2. Many more filters to identify artificial linking – Google can tell the quality of a site’s link inventory. If a site has 99% reciprocal links, it’s a good sign of artificial linking.

3. Introduction of 3rd group of variables… based on user behavior/personalization – Google Analytics and various other tools are used to determine how relevant their search results are to the query

So what? You need to build out great content, and use that to build links!

Figuring out great ways to attract authority links is a must.

Local/regional search – What’s changed?

1. Search results catered to each country based on:

– Host IP address

– .ca vs. com

2. Google is beginning to serve local results to generic queries (eg. Pizza)

– Regardless if you type your location or not Google sees the IP address and will serve up results based on your location.

What Does This Mean?

1. Companies operating in more than 1 country, have decisions to make.

2. Optimize for Google Local, Yahoo Local, and local directories

3. Implement strategies to encourage online reviews! These can help to get people to click through on links.

Content – What’s the same?

1. Text content is still very important – likened a search engine to a child, its comprehension is very literal.

2. Creating content that others find valuable

What’s changed?

1. New types of search engines including video and image

2. Universal search – many other types of content pulled in to SERPs

So What?

1. More opportunities to rank for a given keyword

2. Companies need to think of a great strategy to attack this

Social Media – What’s the same?

1. Word of mouth is the 1st form of social media

Word of mouth has been put on steroids! Companies no longer control their brand messages, social media users do! It has become much more apparent the flaws of various businesses with the ease with which people can spread their opinions through their networks.

If you can create buzz, you can generate 100s if not 1000s of links. Businesses need to learn to offer good value to the community. It’s imperative to facilitate two-way communication and not just to talk, but to listen up. Develop an online reputation monitoring system and keep your ear to the street. Lastly, promote.

Its been proven time and again, what works today just might not work tomorrow. It will be interesting to see the evolution of SEO a decade from now. Chances are we’ll realize how easy we had it in 2009.


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