The History of Search Engine Optimization

A difficult problem with writing a history of search engine optimization (SEO) is the obscure etiology of its birth. By default, the term search engine optimization implies a relevant history must be considered after the development of search engines. A troublesome aspect of this implication is the fact that search engines and the Internet did not always have their modern form. For example, the Internet arguably can trace its roots back to 1958 when AT&T introduced the first commercial modem, enabling remote computers to communicate over ordinary telephone lines. While the Internet’s technical roots were already in use, the term “Internet” did not actually come into existence until December 1974 when the term was adopted in Request for Comments (RFC) 675 published on the Internet Transmission Control Program. Around this same time, “an Internet” gained more common use as ARPANET was interlinked with NSFNet to mean any internetwork using TCP/IP.

As the Internet evolved, greater insight into the need to organize and find distributed data inspired developers to create some means to search for information. In 1990, the first identified search engine was created as a school project and was a text-based index of “archived” and shared File Transfer Protocol (FTP) files – thus came the name “Archie” because the name fit length parameters. This tool did not resemble today’s modern form of a search engine with a front-end graphical user interface and back-end complex algorithms finding, collecting and organizing information. Like the Internet, search engines evolved as advances were made in technology, and as needs arose.

For example, in 1992, Gopher became the first search engine using a hypertext paradigm. Only a year later, the graphical Mosaic web browser improved Gopher’s primarily text-based interface. About the same time, Wandex became the first search engine to crawl the web indexing and searching indexed pages on the web. By 1998, the major search engines found today were in development.

SEO symptomatically grew out of the development of search engines and the World Wide Web. As natural language search capabilities were designed in search engine tools, relevancy of ranked results was discovered to have significance on traffic coming to web pages. Rather than the web just being a collection of shared files, the World Wide Web opened up concepts of e-commerce and internet marketing. With new avenues of sales to be gained, companies found value in creating and promoting their websites.

The earliest pioneers in the field of SEO also found the Internet not only interesting, but a viable industry money maker. For example in 1994, Greg Boser discovered that he could use the Internet to sell protective foam equipment to fight fires. He built a website and started seeking ways to drive potential customers to his site for sales. Likewise in 1996, Christine Churchill discovered the potential of Internet marketing after she built websites for her employer and noticed the intensive labor involved with maintenance. Her husband and a friend developed software tools to reduce the burden. Soon, she created an online company selling these software tools. These early stories explored are in the collection of interviews on The History of SEO.

Many of these early pioneers eventually met up and learned from each other either in person or via subscriptions to email marketing newsletters related to this new field of Internet search marketing. For example in 1995, John Audette formed Multi-Media Marketing Group (MMG) in Lake Oswego, Oregon on the sale of 4,000 copies of his $30 online book about marketing on the World Wide Web. He recruited many future SEO pioneers including Marshall Simmonds and Derrick Wheeler who eventually relocated with John to Bend, Oregon in 1997. John originally planned to assist companies with multi-media projects, but with the growing use of the web for online marketing, he discovered great opportunities therein. For example, MMG created the famous early I-Search Internet marketing newsletter with at one time had 15 to 20,000 subscribers.

John also recruited famed early pioneer Danny Sullivan to teach his staff his knowledge of the tricks of the search ranking trade, and during that meeting he coined the phrase “search engine optimization.” Whether or not it was the first use of the term is not known. It is valid to state that the early pioneers were all discovering the importance of Internet marketing of websites and the need for optimizing them for higher rank by search engines and increased traffic. These pioneers were unknowingly engaged in an activity that would be known as “search engine optimization.” Today SEO is sometimes used jointly with “search engine marketing;” a like term that evolved over the last decade.

SEO pioneers learned from each other and sometimes competed against each other while discovering new methods for optimizing search. Like the discovery of the Internet, the technology was growing and in use, but the concepts related to the growth of these new tools and industries were not fully conceptualized. While it is almost 20 years after the birth of search engines, not all of the facts are known about the history of SEO and our goal is to interview early pioneers to share and learn more. Like the evolution of the Internet from its birth in 1958, to its first semantically representation in 1974, and on until now, the history of SEO will continue evolving into new form out of the work of both early and modern pioneers.