SEO FOR BEGINNERS: Search Engine Optimization Over The Last Two Decades

From the “Wild West” Era to the Google Revolution

More than two decades ago, the World Wide Web in its entirety was still a pretty new concept. Today, everyone wants to rule the search engine result pages.

Much of what we know about search engine optimization today revolves around Google. However, SEO and all things about search engine marketing can be dated back to the launch of the first website in 1991. According to Loren Baker, author of ‘SEO 101: Learn the Basics of Search Engine Optimization’, the story of SEO “officially” begins a bit later, around 1997.

In 1997, Manager of The rock band, Jefferson Starship became the pioneer for the art of Search Engine Optimization. At the time, he was quite uncomfortable with the fact that the official Jefferson Starship website was ranking on page 4 of some search engine at the time, rather than in Position 1 on Page 1. Before then, ranking high on search engines was still a pretty new concept. There was the Yahoo Directory and the Mozilla Open Directory project which were basically just pages where we could find the best websites as approved by editors.

Lately, there have been a number of false claims regarding search engine optimization such as ‘SEO is dead’, ‘the Old and the New SEO’ and ‘SEO rebranded’. However, while SEO as a term isn’t the perfect definition for optimizing our web presence, it has for over two decades remained the preferred term in the industry and will most likely remain so in the future.

In order to understand what Search Engine Optimization really is, we need to look back to how it evolved and its journey over the years.


In the 1990s, there was a wide range of search engines, from human-powered directories to crawler-based listings. These included the likes of Excite, Infoseek, Lycos, AltaVista, Ask Jeeves, and Yahoo.

SEO at that time was limited to On-Page activities. They were simply limited to making sure that there was substantial content, that HTML (HyperText Markup Language) tags were accurate, and that there were both internal and external links.

In this era, the trick to ranking high was just pretty much repeating your keywords a substantial number of times throughout your web pages and meta tags. All you needed to outrank a website that used a keyword 50 times was to use that same keyword 100 times, In today’s SEO practice, this keyword stuffing is simply spamming.

1994: Stanford University students Jerry Wang and David Filo created Yahoo in a campus trailer. It was initially a directory of interesting sites and an Internet bookmark list. You only needed to manually submit your page to the Yahoo directory for indexing so that it would be easy to find when someone performed a search. This was the year other search directories like AltaVista, Excite, and Lycos also launched.


Two other Stanford University students, Page and Brin created and tested a new search engine that ranked sites based on inbound link popularity known as Backrub. Backrub would ultimately become Google. That same year Inktomi powered a new search engine known as HotBot.


Search Engine Watch was launched by Danny Sullivan. It was a website dedicated to providing news and information about the search industry and tips on searching the web, and ranking better on websites.

1998 launched and became the first search engine with sponsored links and paid search. People bid on to rank above organic search results. It was ultimately acquired by Yahoo. The Mozilla Open Directory Project (DMOZ) became the most sought-after place for SEO practitioners to get their pages listed. MSN Search also launched that year, initially powered by Inktomi.


Search Engine Strategies (SES), the first-ever all search marketing conference took place.


The most strategic move in the history of search engines was in the Year 2000. Yahoo partnered with Google by letting Google power their organic search results instead of Inktomi. Before that time, hardly anyone knew Google. As a result of that partnership, every Yahoo search read “Powered by Google”. That gave Google the recognition it needed and it soon became a household name. Through that strategic move, Yahoo introduced its biggest competitor to the world.

SEO before the Google revolution was simply based on on-page contents, domain names, site structure (breadcrumbing) and the ability to get listed in search directories. Google’s web crawler and page rank algorithm, however, took information retrieval to another level taking into consideration both on-page and off-page factors such as the quantity and quality of external links pointing to a website (as well as the anchor text used). Simply put, what Google’s algorithm meant was that “You rank based on the number of people talking about you.”

Despite the fact that links were only one component of Google’s overall ranking algorithm, SEO practitioners made it a focal point, leading to the establishment of an entire sub-industry of Link Building: a tactic that became so heavily abused; it took a series of Google Algorithm updates to address the problem.




Founding Editor, The Muslim Women Times. I write about Gender, Culture, Equality and Islam | Visit our Website at

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Wardah Abbas

Wardah Abbas

Founding Editor, The Muslim Women Times. I write about Gender, Culture, Equality and Islam | Visit our Website at

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