Optimising for Search or

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Written by Chris Hirst. Posted in Internet Marketing and Search on 04 September 2012.
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 SEO! What it was; What it is now; And what it has never been.

1: A Brief History of the Internet and Search

Back in the early days of the Internet, after it had been wrested from the grasp of academic  and military institutions, where is had been since the late 1960's - early 1970's and it emerged into the public purview in the late 1980's and early 1990's a need was created for a means of indexing and categorising the collections of HTML documents that started to appear at places such as Geocities and Tripod. In these early days directories were sufficient, these were simply static lists of website root URLs a.k.a. 'home' pages,that were collected by the directory owners or editors, the first ever index was created by Tim Berners-Lee and the 1992 list is kept for posterity by the W3c at W3 Servers. This the expanded as others began to create more lists that were categorised  and arranged in alphabetical order. For an example of this, see the Yahoo! Directory.
  As the 'web' continued to grow search "engines" began to appear, these were lists of URLs that were collected by automatic systems that could "follow" hyperlinks in HTML documents and discover more than just the 'home' page. The first 'real' Search engine was WebCrawler" which appeared in 1994. This did more than just list URLs,  WebCrawler brought a whole new dimension to the Internet, as it also indexed the documents at the URLs and created a lexical database that could be searched by Internet users to create a list of document URLs where the words appeared. Other search systems soon appeared, among them Lycos, Magellan, Northern Light, AltaVista and a few others. Some of these newcomers added a "ranking system", often based on nothing more that the number of times a word appeared in a document, others were a little more sophisticated and used the HTML tags that wrapped the words to give some extra weighting to the words, so words in bold <b>word</b> or headings <Hn>heading</Hn> had a little more "value" than words directly in the body. Others simply used the meta keywords element content to weight the document. In 1996 a couple of Harvard University began working on a project that added the anchor text of links pointing to a URL into the mix, along with a method of assigning a value to URLs based on the value of  links pointing to a URL. This was PageRank and became the unique selling point for BackRub, the project that Sergey Brin and Lawrence (Larry) Page, whom PageRank is named after, had developed at Harvard. By 1998 BackRub had become Google and the rest is history as they say.
    As the web started to become commercially orientated  these "ranking"  systems led to people vying to get their website URLs at the top of the ranked results, and a whole new industry was born and was soon given the misnomer of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). It is also at this time because of Google's link weighting that links became incorrectly synonymous with optimisation.

2: What it was.

From 1994 through to circa 1997, being on "page 1" in the search results for a few key words, that's key words not 'keywords', was enough for any website owner to get customers from search engines referrals to their URLs, simply because there were relatively  few websites that were commercial in nature and the "dot-com boom" had only just started. As cheaper and faster Internet connections became available to more people the internet went from a relatively small number  of users who were reading Usenet groups or  other news groups, Bulletin Boards, to an explosion of websites appearing on places such as Geo Cities, Tripod etc and the need for a way of being found increased at the same rate. Being "top" of the search engine results became ever more important simply because there was more competition for the few words that people used when looking for anything. At this time search engines were less sophisticated and search users were much less 'savvy' about searching, so the simplistic approach of being "No.1" worked adequately.

As the 'dot com boom' gathered pace, more and more companies launched their "Web Presence" with more and more products and services becoming available for "Internet Shoppers", web users became used to search and began changing their habits and preferences and being looking further than the 'top result', they also began using longer search patterns where the single word results did seem satisfactory any more, it is around this point where the "Search Revolution" began, with Google 'as the new kid on the block' being the leader of pack. With their 'no frills' interface which, unlike the other search engines  provided no distractions from what they wanted the user to do ie: type in the box - press [Search], Search and search engines was firmly implanted in the mind of the users, and unlike the 'real' world where products and service information was thrust upon us in newspapers, magazines, radio and T.V. advertising, we had to decide beforehand on what we were looking for and ask for it specifically.

3. What it is now:

This development and intellectual growth of users, along with the search engines developing and refining  their algorithms that determine the best results to show their end users means that the simple idea of a websites 'home page' being number one for one or two "important" words is no longer a viable "SEO strategy". The world has changed, people have changed and search engines have changed. As website owners or 'SEOs' it is important to know and remember that, unlike link directories which still stick to their outdated notions of the "Home page" is the important one, search engines have ALWAYS treated every single URL of a website as a separate entity and as such, can and will be shown to users for the words or phrases that are associated with it. These are words or phrases that are in the document content, possibly in the URI and anchor text of links that point to the URL. Search engines have also advanced and developed to a point where they can show different results to individual searchers based on their location, the device they are using to search and their search history. These 'personalised' results mean that "number one rankings" do not exist anymore simply because what person 'A' sees will NOT be what person 'B' or person 'C' sees so judging the results any optimisation work based your 'rankings' is a futile exercise at best.

4. What it never was:

Search Engine Optimising was never about search engines,  the name should never be or have  been used literally, it was, is and always has been, about the users of search and search engines.
It never was a separate discipline to be focused on almost exclusively, SEO should be employed as one part of a an overall marketing campaign that is aimed at allowing search engine users find your URLs, any or all of them not just the one 'home page'.
It never was about one particular search engine or any one aspect of the ranking factors. It is about doing as many things right for the user as possible, so ALL your users and visitors benefit in the improvements made to the documents that make up your website, not just the ones you hope will arrive from search referrals.

Just remember, your website is only as good as the last conversion it made for you.

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Author: Chris Hirst

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