Few marketing channels have evolved as quickly or as dramatically as search engine optimization (SEO). In its infancy, SEO was the shady practice of stuffing keywords, tweaking back-end code and spamming links until you started ranking well for the keywords you wanted. Thankfully, Google stamped out those practices pretty quickly, and its search algorithm has never really stopped evolving.
Much of Google’s foundation was in place by the mid-2000s, but how has its algorithm — and as a result, our approach to SEO — changed in the past 10 years?
First, there’s the rise of content marketing as part of a successful SEO strategy. Google has steadily refined what it considers to be “good” content over the years, but it was the Panda update in 2011 that served as the death blow to spammy content and keyword stuffing.
After Panda, it was virtually impossible to get away with any gimmicky content-based tactics, such as favoring a high quantity of content while forgoing quality and substance. Instead, the search engine winners were ones who produced the best, most valuable content, spawning the adoption of content marketing among SEOs — and content is still king today.
Google has provided its own definition of what a “link scheme” actually is, along with some examples. Many find the guidelines here somewhat ambiguous, but the simplest explanation is this: Any attempt to deliberately influence your ranking with links could qualify as a scheme.
By the late 2000s, Google had worked hard to stamp out most black-hat and spam-based link-building practices, penalizing participants in link wheels and exchanges and paid linkers. But it was in 2012, with the Penguin update, that link building really became what it is today. Now, only natural link attraction and valuable link building with guest posts will earn you the authority you need to rank higher.
Compared to 2006, local SEO today is a totally different animal. There have been dozens of small iterations and changes to the layout (such as the local carousel, and today’s modern “3-pack” layout), but the biggest recent change to ranking factors was in 2014, with the Pigeon update.
With this update, Google more heavily incorporated traditional web ranking signals into its ranking algorithm, giving well-optimized websites a major edge in local search. Google also boosted the visibility of high-authority directory websites in its search results.
More generally, local searches have become more common — and more location-specific — over the last few years, thanks to mobile devices.
I can’t tell you how many times the search engine results pages (SERPs) have changed, and not many people could; some of these changes are so small, it’s debatable whether to even count them. But take a look at a SERP screen shot from 2006 and compare it to today, and you’ll see how different your considerations must be.
Another major influencer in modern SEO has been Google’s Knowledge Graph, which first emerged on the scene in 2012. The Knowledge Graph attempts to give users direct, concise answers to their queries, often presenting them with a box of information about a general subject or a succinct answer to a straightforward query. This is great for the user but often takes precedence over organic search results.
Accordingly, optimizers have had to compensate for this, either by avoiding generally answerable keyword targets altogether or by using Schema.org microformatting to make their on-site content more easily deliverable to the system.
Mobile devices have exploded in popularity since the iPhone first emerged back in 2007, and Google has done everything it can to emphasize the importance of optimizing websites for those mobile users. Indeed, in 2015, mobile queries officially surpassed desktop queries in Google search.
Optimizing for mobile has become not only common, but downright required these days, in no small part due to Google’s continuing and escalating insistence. Its mobile-friendly update, which occurred in two separate phases, has been a major enforcer of this new standard.
Panda and Penguin killed off the practice of keyword stuffing, but a smaller, more curious update in 2013 spelled the “soft” death of keyword optimization altogether. Hummingbird is the name of the update that introduced semantic search, Google’s way of deciphering user intent rather than mapping out individual keywords and phrases.
Today, Google attempts to understand meaning rather than matching keywords, so keyword-centric optimization doesn’t work the same way. However, keyword research is still relevant, as it can help guide your strategic focus and provide you with ranking opportunities.
It’s also worth noting that for a time — in the few years following Panda — Google stressed out search optimizers by releasing seemingly random, major updates to its search algorithm that fundamentally changed how rankings were calculated. However, now that the search engine has reached a strong foundation, the significance and pacing of these updates have declined. Today, updates are smaller, less noticeable, and roll out gradually, giving them a much less dramatic impact on the industry.
Understanding where SEO has come from and where SEO stands today will help you become a better online marketer. Hopefully, by now you’ve long ago eliminated any black-hat techniques in your strategy.
Google — and we, as marketers alongside it — are constantly pushing this now-fundamental element of our lives forward, so if you want to stay relevant, you’ll need to keep focused on the next 10 years of search engine updates.