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Not Your Father's Google: The Past, Present, and Future of SEO

By: Matt Banner
January 10th, 2017

Search engine optimization, or SEO, is something you can't go to three websites without hearing about these days, but it wasn't always that way. The art of ranking on Google and other search engines is a fairly young beast, but it's still got teeth. Where did it come from, where is it, and most importantly, where is it going?

Today we're going to look at the timeline of SEO. Knowing where it came from is important, but we'll also go to look at how it's evolved and how you can prepare for the present and the future all at once.

Hack the Internet: A Brief History of SEO

The history of SEO doesn't begin with Google like most would assume. No, it goes way back to a man named Vannevar Bush. As head of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development during WWII, he worked on a lot of important projects. He initiated the Manhattan project, and founded Raytheon.

His name is credited for several inventions, including "memex" in his paper entitled "As We May Think." This concept would eventually evolve into what we know as search in today's Internet world. The paper is also famous for predicting other things like personal computers, and the Internet.

After the Internet was invented, "bots" were used to crawl and store data on the Web. By accessing, categorizing, and organizing this data, search engines were born. In 1998, Google was founded by Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

At first, it was a bit of a mess, but it was by far the most powerful search engine on the Internet, and that gave it legs. SEO rose out of this as a means of manipulating the system since the algorithm was fairly easy to understand back then.

It soon became easy for anyone to rank by simply targeting a few different factors like links and keywords. In short, people would just repeat a keyword as many times as they could, and presto, they were number 1.

Starting in 2003, Google got wise to this and started pushing out updates to their primary algorithm. They added new factors and started punishing sites that were just out to make a quick buck by ranking high in the SERPs.

As the world of SEO became more complicated, so did the industry surrounding it. Today, there are countless SEO services and over 13 million posts with "SEO" in the title. Businesses are online now, and eCommerce is a multi-billion dollar industry. If you want to find out what it takes to start your website, you can get all the information you need at a moment's notice. People are hungry for success in the online world, and knowing SEO is a major part of achieving it.

Let's look at the major concepts in SEO, how they have changed over the years, what they are likely to look like in the near future, and most importantly, how SEOs can act on these evolving SEO factors.

1. On-site SEO

The past: When SEO was starting out, it was a very technical field. Having a well-structured, error-free website was a serious competitive advantage if you wanted to rank your site in the search engines. A site's content wasn't as much about quality and the user as it was about keywords and the search engine. SEOs would map a few keywords to a landing page, and cram these terms into the page's body and meta tags, the more the better.

The present: The basic principles of technical SEO have not changed much in the last few years — making sure a site is crawlable and logically structured is still the first thing technical SEOs do when auditing a site. However, the field has expanded a lot with dozens of new things to check and fix, and many of these things have to do with user experience, not search engine bots. Factors like mobile friendliness, site speed, content quality and freshness have started to play a big part in how search engines assess websites for ranking.

What has changed though is that a technically healthy site is no longer an optional advantage; rather, it's a prerequisite for any SEO campaign. The occasional SEO-friendliness site checks are not an option anymore either — it's all about regular auditing and improvement.

To ensure that everything is in place, website owners will perform an audit of everything from their content to their meta tags and website settings. Depending on the size of the site, these audits could be quarterly, monthly, or even weekly — but they've got to be regular as site owners add new content to the site and search engine best practices tend to evolve quickly. Site audits are a monumental effort, and usually involves using a long checklist of items to address.

During this audit, you've got to delve deep into the website's content and the functionality of its pages. Things like Google Analytics will come into play, and manually checking content for proper keywords will also be part of the task. But while it's important to do these things thoroughly, it's no longer realistic to do them manually — and there's no reason why you can't enlist some help.

WebSite Auditor is a great tool to accomplish this. Normally, auditing a website requires a lot of manual work and a very keen eye, but with this tool you can cut out a huge portion of the time required to get a bird's eye view of your website.

Start by entering your URL and let it do the work for you. When all's said and done, you should see something like this:

Here you have a full dashboard that's filled with valuable information on your website, and your SEO. Various on-page factors like links, images, titles, and so on, are all analyzed and grouped into categories based on the information, warnings, and errors that require your attention.

From here, you can further extend your audit to specific pages, your content, and more. With this one tool, you'll have a bird's eye view of your website in a way that most people never see.

The future: There's no doubt SEO will continue to evolve into a user-centric science as opposed to a practice focused on search engine bots. Google's algo is getting better and better at figuring out patterns that make online experiences enjoyable and fulfilling for the user, and we'll likely see more similar SEO trends. Speed and mobile friendliness will likely become even more decisive in determining sites' rankings, and AMP pages could gain momentum as Google continues its effort to create a faster version of the Web.

2. Backlink Profile Analysis

The past: Chances are you remember the times when the thing that mattered most about a site's link profile was the number of links in it. Much like the site's own content and meta tags, anchor text was often used as a place to stuff keywords into, meaning that links with keyword-rich anchors could help a site rank for those keywords. 10 years ago, if you were evaluating your link profile, you'd probably look for exactly these two things: total link count and the presence of keywords in those links' anchor text.

The present: Backlinks are still the foundation of the Web, and a powerful ranking factor in modern SEO. But today, it's not as much about quantity as it is about quality and relevance. In many respects, backlink analysis in 2017 is the opposite of what it was in the old days — a sudden growth of your link profile, especially if the links don't come from top quality resources, is more of a concern; similarly, keyword-stuffed anchor text can lead to a Google penalty instead of a ranking boost.

Today, SEOs audit backlinks for authority, relevance, and variedness. To survive Google's updates, you need to make sure your backlinks come from quality sources and your anchor text is varied. By using SEO SpyGlass, you can quickly get a detailed rundown of your backlink profile and how it stands with Google.

Having a varied and natural backlink profile is crucial, so information like this is absolutely required to ensure that you're following this knowledge.

This is just a slice of the immense data the tool provides on your backlinks. You can look at each link individually in a convenient spreadsheet format, while also getting detailed analysis of how your links look in the eyes of Google.

Remember that Google's latest Penguin update is real-time, meaning it will penalize your site for having links that look remotely spammy right away, as soon as Google learns about them. SEO SpyGlass will help you ensure that your backlinks don't appear that way.

The future: Backlinks will likely continue to play a major part in how search engines crawl and rank websites. Chances are that linkless mentions may grow into a quality signal with similar weight, and sentiment analysis may be used by search engines to evaluate the Web's attitude to brands and businesses.

3. Link Building Opportunities

The past: Back in the days when backlink quantity came way before quality, practices like link exchanges and link purchases (often by the thousands) were commonplace. If you didn't do it in the early 00's, you probably weren't building links at all — it was a perfectly legit, and by far the most effective, way of building your site's authority in search engines' eyes.

The present: Link building has changed dramatically in the last 10 years, but it hasn't become any less important. Google's gotten better at figuring out link schemes, and can easily tell between a good link and a spammy one. Today link prospecting, a practice of finding link opportunities, is about discovering relevant authoritative websites in your niche and reaching out to them with a legit proposal — such as writing a guest post for them or offering your product for free so they can review it. It's also important to stay out of any link building practices that may appear unnatural to search engines — think rapid link profile growth or a disproportionately high use of keywords in the anchor text.

But while the task has definitely grown more complex, it doesn't mean you should do the entire thing manually. Finding link opportunities is one of those tasks you wish you had a robot to do for you. In many cases, people will hire virtual assistants to look for websites that are accepting guest posts, or sites that often link to other competitors in your niche.

LinkAssistant is the virtual help you always wish you had, but you never knew how to find it. Part of what makes SEO so difficult, is the need to go out and research prospects for ranking, backlinks, content, etc. LinkAssistant takes the guesswork out of the process and does the legwork for you. By inputting the keywords you're looking to target, it can compile a list of websites with their titles, meta tags, and even their primary contact emails. Take a look:

Seriously, people pay human beings to do this, but you can make it happen with a few keywords and a click. It's an incredible tool. You can even compile your emails for link outreach within the tool and utilize custom templates to ensure you're getting the message across the right way.

The future: SEOs will likely continue to work hard to win valuable backlinks and mentions, offering something valuable to link prospects in return. Chances are that Google's algos used to determine relevance will evolve further, which will emphasize the importance of links coming from sites that can be considered experts in your niche.

4. Calculating ROI

The past: In the beginning, the search engine ranking itself was often the major purpose of an SEO campaign. Indeed, ranking higher in search results does correlate with more traffic and more sales; but in the old days, if you were optimizing your site exclusively for the search engine crawlers, your UX and conversion metrics were likely to suffer.

The present: SEO has evolved into a comprehensive science where rankings are just one of the measurements of success. Picking the right keywords to rank for, optimizing your site for them, acquiring valuable traffic, and taking the search traffic through the rest of your conversion funnel are all parts of the same process and have major effects on the success of your overall business. Whether it's a boss, or investors, people will want to see the return on investment, or ROI. This is something many SEOs struggle with.

That said, it doesn't mean you should not be tracking rankings; it's just that today, you've got to look at the entire picture, in which your search engine ranking is just one of the pieces.

The tracking itself has also gotten more complicated. From a handful of money keywords SEO used to target a few years ago, Google's Hummingbird update brought the concept of semantic search into play. Today, SEOs tend to track hundreds of keywords, many of which are long tails.

That's why checking your ranking for each and every keyword in your industry can be a slog and a huge time suck. That's where tools come in (yes, again): with Rank Tracker, you can easily see where your major pages are ranking on search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing — and on hundreds of smaller local ones as well. This lets you automate a huge part of the work, and monitor as many keywords as you need to in no time.

Take a look:

If the goal of SEO is to rank higher in the search engines, this tool is how you measure your progress. It goes beyond this, as you can see in the screenshot above. The tool will also look at your traffic and your competitors without you needing to lift a finger.

The future: Rank tracking has been evolving from keywords towards topics for a while now, and the trend is sure to continue. The kinds of keywords SEOs will monitor will likely expand further with the rise of mobile searches and voice search. With the rise of RankBrain, competitive research and analysis is going to become crucial for understanding ranking patterns in Google.

We're Still Here: The Future of SEO

As we mentioned earlier, Google is all about the user experience — its algorithms are focused on providing people with exactly what they're looking for.

The past versions of SEO are dead, but the practice is evolving. In the future, it's about looking at the tools and tactics we have at our disposal, and how they can work together to improve that all-important user experience.

Consider some of these connections:

  • Keyword research > search intent > relevancy;
  • High-quality/relevant backlinks > targeted traffic > more conversions;
  • Mobile responsive design > positive UX on all devices > more satisfied visitors;

As you can see, there's a natural flow to these age-old methods of ranking. They all contribute towards the quality of your users' experience when they visit your site. That's where SEO is going. It's not going to be something you can pin down to a set number of factors.

Instead, it's going to be a combined effort from every element of your website to create the best possible experience for your visitors. You'll focus on what they want and how you can meet that need at every turn.

Final Thoughts

SEO used to be a science, but science doesn't define people. As time goes on, we have to understand our users just as much as we understand Google. Remember, we're doing this for the people, not the search engines. By helping one, we gain the favor of the other.

Which is which? I think now you know. Let us know how you use SEO tools and knowledge to prepare yourself for the future of search marketing in the comments!


By: Matt Banner

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