From keyword obsessions to an AI brain: looking back at 10 years of SEO

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The SEO industry has come a long way over the past ten years.

Like any good mission statement, Google’s has remained unchanged since launching in 1998: ‘To organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.’

Although the mission hasn’t changed, the way in which Google has sought to deliver this mission has changed considerably. As we approach our tenth anniversary in Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) we’re taking a look back at how our industry has evolved and what the future holds for search. Glancing back into the murky world of black-hat techniques, keyword stuffing and link farms, we challenge our readers: are you keeping up with the ever-changing SEO landscape, or are you still relying on old SEO techniques?

SEO: 2007 to 2017

When Ayima started in 2007, SEO was a relatively young industry. Back then, 61% of all households had access to the internet, with 10% still relying on a dial-up connection, which doesn’t bear thinking about in our live video-streaming Wi-Fi era. Most consumers said they didn’t have Internet access then because ‘they didn’t need it’. That seems laughable today, when 89% of all adults declare themselves recent Internet users (and that’s 99% in the 16-34 demographic).

Since then, much has changed. How we search for and access information has evolved considerably, and will only continue doing so. Though the first iPhone launched back in 2007, Google have only just confirmed a mobile first index speculated to roll out towards the end of this year. For responsive and mobile sites, this will see mobile rankings dictating desktop rankings with Google acknowledging the increasing prevalence of mobile search. Additionally, voice search is rapidly becoming an even more convenient way to find information.

The dawn of mobile Internet

Google algorithms were much less advanced in 2007, making it easier to influence their results. The sites occupying number one for competitive terms had the resources to scale link building and content generation, with a focus on quantity over quality. Search was largely about a handful of techniques that, if employed and adhered to rigidly, could almost guarantee the top spots on the search engine results page (SERP).

Those techniques included:

Keywords – Choosing keywords that were relevant (mostly) for your business and stuffing them into your pages, even at the expense of common sense. Black-hat techniques, such as adding keywords off the visible page and hiding them as coloured text on a colour background, were also rife in an attempt to trick search engines.

Backlinks – The more inbound links you had in 2007, the higher you ranked, regardless of where those links came from. We saw link farms emerge, where marketers created multiple blogs and additional sites solely to include links for their master site. Link spam was also common, with marketers buying links to boost rankings.

It was a paradox. While Google looked for more intelligible ways to fulfill its mission and deliver ‘useful’ content, marketers looked for ways to climb the rankings.

And then came the animals

In order to stamp out these tactics, Google unleashed a horde of updates in the guise of friendly animal names, each set to address these ranking practices:

Panda (2011) – Put an end to keyword stuffing, placing less emphasis on the quantity of specific words needed in order to rank. In August 2016, Google restricted the data available on their free keyword planner tool, making it harder for SEO marketers to find the necessary data to drive keyword-based SEO activity.

Penguin (2012) – Sought to stop link-buying schemes by penalising sites that were buying links. Sites which genuinely attracted links were lifted above the others, with big consequences for businesses that relied on link schemes This continues to be important today and it shows Google’s power to make or break a business.

Pigeon (2014) – Brought in the 3-pack display of local search to the top of the SERP and started the rise of the well-optimised site. O. Towards the end of 2016, mobile search officially overtook desktop-based search in the UK.

Previously, Google issued rumours ahead of a speculated update refresh, giving site owners time to ‘tidy up’. Now, as part of their mission to end manipulation malpractice, Panda and Penguin updates are rolled into the overall indexation of the web and updated in real-time.

Just use your brain!

With the launch of AI system RankBrain, in 2015, Google is now on the verge of delivering their mission in a way that is as close as possible to the human intent. What does this mean?

Google is using big data and machine-learning techniques to:

● Get to the heart of what a user is looking for;

● Why they are going to a site;

● What they are doing when they get there;

● Whether they get what they need.

Once, Google itself was the only entity that truly understood its algorithms. Now, as it steps into the AI realm and RankBrain learns and polices itself, to some degree, Google will, undoubtedly, understand less about the patterns it uses to make decisions.No more second-guessing Google. Authentic content is the only reality now.

So, what does this all mean for marketers today? Here are three things to consider:

Deliver useful content to become the authority

With RankBrain, Google is arguably stepping that much closer to rewarding sites that truly deliver what their human audience is looking for. If your site contains genuinely useful content that keeps visitors interested and delivers what they need, and if it’s shared on social media and elsewhere, then it’s likely to have authority on that subject.

The aforementioned keyword and backlink emphasis won’t work today. To get ahead, you need to follow the fundamental principles of marketing: know your customer, understand their needs and problems, and provide the solution.

Find your voice

The emergence of voice search is another exciting development and it’s entering a new realm with the launch of Google Home and Amazon Echo. Without the luxury of displaying a list of potential matches for your search query, users are delivered just one answer. Suddenly, only the top-ranking position gets a say. If visitors immediately run a similar search, or skip to the next result, you can bet that this won’t help your rankings. We expect some jostling for position as companies pitch their content for the top spot.

Will it catch on? Just ask the people who doubted mobile search.

Digital growth starts with your team

Having a happy and productive team is essential for your business to survive, and we have always taken recruitment and staff welfare incredibly seriously. As we approach our ten-year anniversary (“Ayimaversary” as we like to call it), we’ve achieved fantastic growth by maintaining an extremely high staff retention rate without losing our independent agency status.

Provide an environment where people can envisage a long-term career, and there’s no doubt I’ll see you another ten years from now.

Nicky Applegarth is managing director at Ayima

Nicky Applegarth

Nicky Applegarth is managing director at Ayima.

All by Nicky