The History of SEO Part 1: Google search results and user experience
Welcome to part one of Further’s History of SEO series. As SEO has so many different elements and evolutionary stages, we’ve split this article into three parts to focus on specific areas that have affected SEO over the last two decades.
Search engines are at the core of what SEOs do; without them we wouldn’t have a marketing platform to assist businesses to promote their websites.
It’s not just about ranking number one in Google either. Once upon a time in fact it wasn’t even Google we were optimising for, and with various updates to how Google serve results to best serve user’s needs, we’ve ever been evolving to ensure our clients are seen in the right places by the right people.
In this part of our three series blog post, we’ll be looking at core changes over time to how Google serve results to users. These have all played a big part in shaping SEO strategies over time.
Pre-1998 – Search engines are born
Unfortunately, I was only 10-11 years old in 1998. SEO wasn’t my chosen career path, we didn’t have a computer in our family home and if I remember correctly the school I attended was only just on the cusp of getting internet access for pupils. I had much bigger priorities anyway, such as watching the France 98 World Cup, collecting Merlin Football stickers and playing Goldeneye on N64.
(Image via footballstickipedia.com)
But before this turns into one of those “If you remember these you were a true 90s kid” listicles, I’m going to pass you over to my friend Mat Bennett. Mat is the Managing Director of OKO Digital, whom specialises in website monetisation via advertising platforms. Mat has been running his digital agency for close to two decades now, and was an early adapter of utilising search marketing to promote websites and generate income.
“Search engines were part of the web since almost the very beginning. Services like Archie existed when the www was just months old.
“Even though the web was much smaller then, the search engines weren’t great at either indexation or retrieving relevant results. Even searching for the name of a website could mean clicking through many pages of results to find what you were looking for. Very different to how things are today.
“Alongside search engines were the big human-edited directories, like Yahoo. The web was still small enough that employing people to check websites manually and write descriptions for them was still a viable model. The “quality control” aspect of these directories made them a great antidote for the poor search results at the time.”
Thanks Mat! Mat will be back in part 3 of our History of SEO series when we talk about how SEO tactics and best practice has evolved over the years.
1998 – The launch of Google
In 1996, two Stanford college students launched a project called “Backrub” with the goal of crawling the world wide web and creating an index for those browsing on the internet to search and easily find the content best suited to their needs.
By 1998 Backrub had evolved, and in September it was launched online on the domain ‘google.com’.
(image via web.archive.org)
What set Google apart from other search engines at the time was the having a widely regarded better algorithm than competitors. Whilst other search engines would often bring in irrelevant or overly sponsor heavy results, Google made head way in ensuring it was serving the best results in line with the intent of the user’s search by using new metrics such as the power of backlinks to a website/page. Based on how the search industry has shaped up 18 years later, we feel it’s safe to say Google succeeded in its mission!
2000 – AdWords is launched
Although not specifically related to SEO, the launch of Google AdWords in October 2000 was a big change in not only how searchers used Google, but how businesses could target people in the SERPs.
(Image via www.flickr.com/photos/cambodia4kidsorg)
It also meant changes to CTR for organic results as paid results now took up a considerable portion of the above-the-fold page.
Throughout the years there has been many changes to the way Google displays AdWords, including how/where results are displayed, the snippets or elements businesses can use within paid results and how searchers can be targeted. Many of these changes have further changed the success rates of strong organic rankings, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.
2001 – Google Images
In 2001 Google launched a searchable index of images, initially including over 250 million photos and graphics from around the web.
(image via e-intelligence.in)
2003 – Supplemental index
In 2003, due to the sheer size of Google’s ever-growing index (in part due to the web growing and in part due to competition from other search engines), it released an update called the “Supplemental index”.
In simple terms, what this meant was Google had one index they considered the cream of the crop, and another index containing pages they deemed less valuable. How this was applied to SERPs was when a user typed in what they were looking for Google would first check the best index, and if nothing relevant returned they would then check the other index.
This was problematic for a few reasons. First, if you’re a site with great content but lacking other signals such as links you could end up in the index deemed lower quality, which is not great for business. Secondly, the results of this index split for users were widely considered to be of less value and use.
Evidently Google agreed, and the index was integrated back into one, although in the modern-day Google there are index “tiers” which help them determined things such as which content is most valuable between duplicates.
H2: 2004 – Local results
A big change to how businesses can target searchers came in the form of local results.
(Image via e-intelligence.in)
This allowed searchers to find relevant businesses and services on their doorstep easier, alongside address and contact information.
Google local results have continued to change and evolve over time with the introduction of Google Maps in 2005, the increase in mobile usage and the incorporation of user reviews.
2005 – Personalised search
Although there had been some attempts to introduce personalisation into SERPs, 2005 was the beginning of Google nailing it as a core function. Using cookies based on previous searches, some websites or results may be given prominence over others regardless of rankings if a user had engaged if a website in a positive way before.
Personalised search has continued to grow ever since with the introduction of Google Plus and localisation.
2006 – Sitelinks
Sitelinks was introducted to SERPs in 2005 by Google as a way of recommending popular sub pages or similar pages of a website to users. They appeared as a set of links below the main result.
(Image via howshost.com)
This helped users navigate directly to the potential page they were looking for without having to click through on the main result and find the page within the site’s navigation.
2007 – Universal search
Universal search was the introduction of elements from some of the above mentioned services such as Google Local and Google images being pulled into the main results as opposed to the traditional 10 links.
(Image via searchengineland.com)
This change allowed Google to serve the best layout and information based on search intent, rather than relying on the user to click on the best suited available tab below the search bar.
2008 – Google Suggest/Instant
Google Suggest (which later evolved into Google Instant was the introduction of auto-prediction of what a user was potentially looking for in the search bar based on previous popular searches.
(Image via searchengineland.com)
This was a useful time saving feature for users and helped Google shape the way people search by being more specific in their requests for information, thus returning results of better relevance.
The downside of this for SEO is it could have (and still does) influence how people may search for a brand or product, for example if a company is regularly searched for as “[COMPANY NAME] scam” Google Instant may show said search suggestion and put the user off using its services.
2009 – Real-time search and rich snippets
In 2009 Google introduced real-time results to SERPs, pulling in the latest news articles or coverage as a featured piece depending on the topicality of the search.
(Image via redmondpie.com)
As news, topicality and viral shelf-life become more and more prominent to influencing search volume, this change meant users found it easier to find the latest information and developments on a topic. For example, if someone was searching for information about a politician around the time of the EU referendum, Google would show the user the latest news articles relating to said person as opposed just a generic profile page on the party website or Wikipedia entry.
The other big change to search results in 2009 was the introduction of rich snippets. These were bitesize chunks of information that made some results stand out more in SERPs, imported via structured data markup on the page in question.
(Image via searchenginejournal.com)
These snippets offered additional information to assist the user as to which result may be best suited, such as price brackets and reviews.
2010 – Hacked sites highlighted
In 2010, Google introduced a snippet that highlighted a result if it believed said site had been hacked, thus meaning the quality of the content had been compromised, or worse yet could potentially infect your device with dangerous software.
(Image via commercialprogression.com)
We feel this one doesn’t need an explanation of the benefit to users. This snippet is also a priority to fix for SEO as it can drastically reduce organic click through rates.
2011 – Google+ authorship
In 2011 Google introduced a new social network venture called Google Plus. A big draw to this for the SEO industry was the opportunity to have articles you have written online feature an author snippet in search results, which added a level of trust to users and improved click through rates.
(Image via oncrawl.com)
Authorship snippets were later killed off in 2014 after Google decided they had little value or impact on CTR, also many speculate it was the beginning of the dismantlement of G+ as it had not taken off in the same way as other popular social platforms, despite large growth in users upon launch.
2012 – Knowledge graph
Knowledge graph is an expansion on how Google uses markup and local data on a page to incorporate useful information into search results via the right side of the SERP.
This feature is particularly useful for users as it allows them to see all potential information they may require from their search on the page without clicking through and finding it on the site. The downside of this for SEO is it can impact click through rates.
2013 – App indexing
2013 saw Google introduce app indexing, and start displaying links to download/go directly to Android apps within search results on mobile.
(Image via androidcommunity.com)
This introduced another way for potential users to discover and download an app outside of the Play Store.
2016 – Four ads instead of three at top, no more sidebar ads and position #0 snippet
In 2016, Google made a big change to Adwords, by removing the traditional right sidebar ads and replacing the traditional 3-pack of adverts with four results.
As you can see from my laptop screen, this was expected to have a big impact on organic click through rates as it pushed all organic results below the fold of the page for a lot of screen resolution sizes. However, data research after the switch suggests the impact was minimal.
Another change was related to the way Google displays rich snippets, by importing information directly into the SERP at the top of the page in a standalone box as opposed to next to the results.
This is something Dr. Pete at Moz has named “Position #0”. In some cases this can improve click through rates, whereas in others where all the required information is provided it can reduce CTR.
What might change next in Google’s results?
Below are our predictions for what may change the way Google shows results to users in the near future. Let’s revisit these in a year-or-so and see how many we got right!
Mobile will keep evolving
We predict the development of dynamic apps could impact how apps are displayed within search results. Mobile has been a big focus for Google since smart phones were brought on the market, and we don’t see that shift getting any smaller.
Home automation and voice search will introduce a whole new search result platform
The rising popularity of home automation, products such as Google Home and Amazon Alexa creates a new medium for Google to capitalise on. How it would display multiple results to a user over an audio platform in an efficient manner remains a tough question, but you can bet it’s something Google will continue to develop.
Self driving cars will offer real time results on the go
Self-driving cars, when they finally become road legal, will offer a whole new stream of Adwords revenue for Google as well as potential organic opportunities for SEOs to capitalise on. We’d expect to see some kind of real time result feature in the future, where a user can see all businesses nearby and upcoming on one’s journey, perhaps built into the dashboard of the vehicle.
Keep your eyes peeled for The History of SEO Part 2. If it’s not linked to here, we haven’t written it yet. When it comes it will include a rundown of the major Google algorithm updates over the years.