The Evolution of SEO: It Just Keeps Getting Better

I was recently asked how I’d decided to get into content marketing. “Decided” might be a strong verb. Long before the internet, my area of content creation was writing and reporting. The best content then was well-researched, genuine, clear, concise and written so real people could understand it. And the most authoritative publications were those that gave people what they wanted, whether it was in The New York Times or National Enquirer. They answered questions and kept people informed.

Authority on the internet is often determined by where a publication lands on a search engine results page (SERP). The higher the rank, the more precisely the answer matches what the user is looking for. Anyone typing a query into a search box today can get some pretty good answers, pretty quickly. And as search engine optimization (SEO) continues to evolve, those easy answers will become even more personalized to the user. But it hasn’t always been that way.

In the earliest days of the internet, I was often contracted to write SEO-focused articles for a variety of sites and publications. I wish I could say I was proud of the writing. The only solace I took from those contracted posts was that my byline was never attached. Search engine optimization back in the cavemen days of the 90s was less about awesome writing and high quality content and more about formulaic posts that hit some magic keyword-to-word count ratio. Keyword stuffing united with excessive tags and backlinks were designed to trick search engines into thinking the content on a page or site was worthwhile and deserved a top spot on a SERP.

The bad news was that the strategy generally worked –for a while. Algorithm updates back then didn’t happen quickly so black hat SEO techniques were rife and dishonest methods to inflate rankings were unfortunately pretty common practice and often successful. A user might type a query and get a spate of spammy answers that had nothing to do with what he or she was looking for.

By the early 2000s, Google and its improved indexing and “don’t be evil” motto had begun to kick out the bad guys. It penalized marketers that used keyword stuffing and bad linking practices. Spamming was a mortal sin and could send companies into the digital doghouse for months or even years. Google and other search engines, instead, rewarded rankings that were “earned” and by using tags related to the geographical location of the searcher, they connected users with answers that were relevant, right and local. Google also began to regularly update its algorithms and rank pages according to hundreds of individual factors.

When the Google Panda and Penguin updates were rolled out in 2011 and 2012, the bar was raised even higher. Quality was paramount and content had to be extremely relevant to a user’s search. Duplicate content was penalized. Keywords had to make sense and long-tailed keywords were valued more highly than single words. Thus linens would lose in a head-to-head match against linens for college dorm rooms in a SERP. Changes to the way Google and other search engines indexed pages and created rankings became more natural and intuitive –and shareable. When users shared content with one another, backlinks were real and built legitimate authority for the site and helped increase its rank.

The tipping point of mobile searches outpacing desktop occurred in 2015 when Google’s Mobilegeddon landed with much fanfare.  With the user experience in mind, sites that weren’t optimized for mobile suffered in rankings. Content had to be what the user wanted, when and where they wanted it. It had to look good, load quickly and answer user queries regardless of the devices they were using.

In some ways, going forward will be like going back –just with lightning speed. Writing needs to be authoritative, honest and helpful. Online publications need to consistently provide quality content and have the individual user’s needs in mind. That means that sites that segment by user and build real relationships instead of using “tricks” to gain ranking results will fare better than those that don’t.

If you want to rank well so your future students find you instead of your competitors, let the HigherEd Geeks at Effective Student Marketing help you with SEO. We’ve been around since near the dawn of the Internet. We know what works and how to make it work for you.

~ Linda Emma