By Bill Hayward
Director, Communications & Public Relations
Don’t get me wrong. SEO (search engine optimization) today is clearly a valuable, central and important discipline within the domain of digital marketing.
But SEO has what we might call a “checkered past.” In this respect, SEO is not alone among the elements of digital marketing that have an “unflattering” early history. In the early origins of e-commerce platforms, for example, the industry of—shall we say, online “adult entertainment?”—played an important role. SEO’s history isn’t much more flattering. And that checkered past still bears some relationship to the problems marketers currently encounter even in what purports to be good, professionally executed “white hat” SEO.
Having been involved in building websites to help support the marketing goals of organizations in healthcare and other industries since the days when hand-coding HTML was the norm, I had some direct awareness of what came to be called SEO at its nascent stages. It may be a cliché, but the early years of the web, especially before Google emerged as the dominant search engine, really were a “wild, wild west” environment. The playing field really was quite level. With just a bit of technical knowhow, a relatively unknown business or even an individual could build a site and garner significant traffic without being backed by the power of a strong brand or a large marketing budget.
With some of the pre-Google search engines (anyone remember InfoSeek, WebCrawler, HotBot, and AltaVista?), knowing a few gimmicks could enable someone sitting in a garage with a dialup connection to get to the top of the results list on a given topic. Around the mid-1990s, leading search engines of the time began to weigh the meta keywords field heavily in ranking search results. By strategically seeding the meta keywords field and body copy, webmasters could sometimes achieve nearly instant success in their efforts to move a site or page to the top. This practice was often carried to an extreme extent, with attempts to corner the search-results market for a particular word or phrase by cramming it excessively and repeatedly into the meta keywords field or even body copy.
For a while, keyword cramming was an effective way for operators of questionable or even downright disreputable websites to draw traffic and generate revenue through direct product sales or advertising impressions. But especially as Google began to dominate, search engines grew smarter. And knowing full well the extent of abuse that was taking place, Google before long adjusted its algorithm to give less weight to and eventually, according to some experts, entirely ignore the meta keywords field or even penalize its misuse.
So as the search engines get smarter, what are the effective strategies to increase your site’s rank? Find out in the next installment, PART 2 of 3: As Search Engines Got Smarter, Things Got Better… Or Did They?