From 10 blue links to voice search: how Google has evolved and SEO followed
Like so many Silicon Valley success stories, Google was founded in a dorm room in the 1990s. Back then, its search algorithm was called BackRub, but that’s not the only thing that has changed since then. Here’s a look at how Google search has evolved along with consumer behavior over the last 20 years and how advances in technology help users find what they’re looking for, no matter how they search:
Evolution of SEO
1990s: Search is born
In the beginning, Google had plenty of competition, including AltaVista, Ask Jeeves and Yahoo, and search engine optimization (SEO) was focused on on-page factors like keywords. And, really, the philosophy was ‘the more the better,’ which led to black hat SEO tactics like keyword stuffing to boost rankings.
2000s: Algorithms and tools
But in 2000, Google started to set itself apart from its fellow search engines. That included the launch of its PageRank algorithm, which also took off-page factors like links into consideration – and both the quality and quantity of said links. This additionally led to the practice of PageRank sculpting, which sought to manipulate the algorithm by building internal links. (But, as SEOs learned, manipulating the algorithm never pays off for long.)
2000 also marked the debut of online advertising service AdWords – and consumers started seeing ads within search results.
Four years later, Google began incorporating data, like user location and search history, to personalize results and further enhance the user experience, which was at the crux of its intent from the beginning.
2006 marked the launch of services like Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools, as well as support for XML sitemaps, which help webmasters show search engines every URL available for crawling. This, in turn, helped search engines crawl better and, as a result, further improve the user experience.
Universal Search came out in 2007. That’s when Google started incorporating features like images and news into organic results – and it marked the end of the era when search engine results pages (SERPs) included just 10 blue links. At this point, SEOs were still mostly focused on technical aspects, which is in part why SEMrush launched research tools like Domain and Keyword Analytics in 2008.
2010s: Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird
And then Google really started to go after those trying to game the system. In 2011, its Panda update penalized content and link farms. Google also provided guidance on how to build high-quality sites. The following year, its Penguin update focused on spammy link tactics and keyword stuffing. Both updates eventually became part of Google’s primary algorithm.
2012 also marked the debut of Google’s Knowledge Graph, which helps users access additional information relevant to queries about people, places and/or things. This was the point Google shifted in earnest to determining user intent beyond the keywords used. It’s also when SEOs started to focus more on quality content as a means to boost rankings and SEMrush tools like Domain vs. Domain and Position Tracking helped practitioners with competitive intelligence.
Google’s efforts continued in 2013 with the Hummingbird update, which sought to address increasing mobile searches. It focused on natural language and conversational search. By this time, mobile SEO was a reality and SEOs became concerned with site speed. SEOs also began focusing on getting content in position zero, where it would be highlighted above all other search results as Google began suggesting what it thought was the most relevant answer to a given query.
And, in 2015, Google said it was building machine learning into its algorithm to get an even better understanding of intent beyond keywords.
This was also the year mobile search overtook desktop and Google released a mobile-friendly update known colloquially as Mobilegeddon, but it was really just designed to give users the best possible results on mobile devices. (This was followed by Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) in 2016, which load content even faster. SEMrush added checks for AMP implementation in its Site Audit tool in 2017.)
2015 also marked the launch of machine learning system RankBrain, which further enables Google to determine the most relevant results to a given query, as well as SEMrush’s On-Page SEO Checker, which suggests how to improve on-page SEO. And, in 2017, SEMrush released its SEO Content Template, which helps users build optimized content.
2020s: Voice search
In 2018, consumers aren’t just searching on mobile devices – they are asking assistants like Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and, of course, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant. The reason why voice search has become one of the quickest growing areas of SEO.
This increased focus on text-less search is still something SEOs are figuring out, but certainly means mobile SEO – and optimized local content – will continue to be important, particularly for users asking Google Assistant for something “near me.”
It also makes the coveted featured snippet even more important as that’s the answer read aloud by said assistants. SEMrush added a featured snippet report in its Position Tracking tool in 2017.
Anna Lebedeva, head of media, SEMrush