A brief history of search engine optimisation

Friday, 3 July, 2020

It may seem incredible nowadays, but the internet wasn’t always slickly presented and ready to explore at a moment’s notice.

This is particularly true of search engines, which evolved in the mid-1990s in a form that now seems rudimentary, though still recognisable.

From the earliest days, search engines have published hyperlinks to webpages alongside basic summaries of what audiences can expect to find if they visit a particular location.

Early web crawlers could read web page text, indexing every word to compile searchable databases of sites where particular words were heavily used.

This led to an early example of trying to cheat search engines by publishing content stuffed with keywords, to the detriment of readability.

A car dealer might use the words ‘car dealer’ in every paragraph of car dealer text, so anyone looking for a car dealer found that car dealer rather than another car dealer.

You can immediately see how tiring it was for audiences to read content aimed at web crawlers, rather than human beings.

From these crude origins, the history of search engine optimisation has evolved at pace, with hugely complex algorithms now assessing numerous aspects of each website in real time.

Google and Bing rankings are compiled according to factors including how long a site has been live and how often it’s updated, how many people visit it and how long they stay on it, etc.

The precise composition of these algorithms remains a closely-guarded secret, to prevent underhand marketing agencies trying to cheat their way up the rankings.

As such, search engine optimisation (SEO) is a complex and multi-faceted business, involving far more than simply publishing keyword-filled text.

Search and ye shall find

Search engines have come a long way in the last quarter of a century.

It was 1997 before Ask Jeeves permitted the sort of natural-language search results we type in today, ignoring irrelevant stop words like ‘it’ and ‘the’.

The following year, tracking was born – monitoring what results people chose and using this to shape future results. This was also the year Google was founded.

It would be four years before Google’s uniquely sophisticated web crawlers allowed it to surpass the likes of AltaVista and HotBot as the world’s leading search engine.

By 2002, Google had introduced pay-per-click advertising, where promoted listings in results pages only generated a cost to the advertiser when they were clicked on.

Another innovation followed in 2005, when Google Analytics allowed website administrators to monitor their site’s performance in real time.

Microsoft refined this the following year with different ad rates for varying times of day and night, as well as adverts targeted by audience demographic.

However, it was 2009 before Microsoft launched Bing, which subsequently provided the results displayed by arch-rival Yahoo.

Throughout the 2010s, search engines evolved to downgrade sites stuffed with keywords or intrusive adverts, while boosting the ranking of sites employing HTTPS security.

By 2015, mobile web traffic outnumbered desktop traffic, so quick-loading sites which displayed effectively on smaller screens received a boost in ranking results.

Follow the leader

For almost two decades, the history of search engine optimisation has been driven by Google, whose innovations have often been imitated (but rarely bettered) by its rivals.

Today, Google is the undisputed leader in the UK’s search engine market, underpinning almost 93 per cent of searches.

Bing handles just under five per cent, as the default engine in Microsoft Edge. It also powers Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri virtual assistants.

A handful of more niche search engines hold less than one per cent of the market between them, either through residual loyalty (MSN) or a focus on privacy (DuckDuckGo).

Whichever search engine you favour, they all prioritise fast-loading websites with plenty of text, no intrusive advertising and no paywalls to view content.

The history of search engine optimisation has led us to a richly informative point in human history, where almost any question can be answered almost instantly – and for free.

Neil Cumins author picture

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Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!