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Bill Faughnan

SEO: The Mid-90s and Today

Bill Faughnan

Search Engine Optimization as we know it today began in the mid-90s when a number of search engines began indexing web content in an effort to make it easier for people to find things quickly and easily. Back then, the dominant player was America Online (AOL) who controlled a lot of the content and distribution.

AOL provided millions of people with their internet browser and controlled a lot of the SEO by having a search box called “AOL Keyword.” Anyone remember that? If you were lucky enough to be one of their channel partners with a keyword, your web traffic would be in the millions. I was lucky enough to work for their Travel Channel partner and witnessed this first hand as our traffic tanked when that partnership ended.  Other Search Engines back in the day included AltaVista, Infoseek, Netscape, GoTo.com (Overture) and, of course, Yahoo, who became the dominant force before Google. 

SEO Then

SEO was relatively simple back then and consisted of three basic rules:

  • Provide original and interesting content that people would want to read and share (email to others).
  • Add  meta titles, descriptions and keywords to each page to help indexing. Keywords were a must back then.
  • Link out to appropriate pages and get other websites to link to your site. This helped provide a great user experience.

If you did this the right way, you were doing better than 90% of your competition.

The Black Hatters

When SEO began to take off and the competition grew, the cheaters came along. Commonly known as Black Hat SEO, these people began to bend the rules and attempt to artificially inflate their own search rankings. Many times, these Black Hatters were successful, but eventually they would get caught (or will), and they would be punished, resulting in them having to start over. When Google came along and surpassed Yahoo as the dominant force in the early 2000s, they would actually tell you the rules. Although they wouldn’t give away their exact “algorithm,” they would flat out tell you they preferred sites with original content, meta tags, high quality links and a great user experience. Sometimes certain things were rewarded more than others (H1 tags, keyword meta tags, title tags, etc.), but as long as you followed the basic rules and didn’t cheat, the cream would always rise to the top. However, Black Hatters still tried to cheat and beat the algorithm, and would often do the following:

  • Duplicate Content – AKA plagiarize.
  • Link Farms – Go for quantity over quality, and build sites for the sole purpose of linking back to their own. This was often hugely successful.
  • Content Farms – Build microsites that were loaded with useless info for the purpose of linking to their other sites or showing up in search results for specific words.
  • Keyword Stuffing – Overload a page with keywords you wanted to show up in the results for that particular search.

Google Cracks Down

Panda Update – in February 2011, Google released their Panda update which punished those Black Hatters who plagiarized and duplicated content.

Penguin Update – a little over a year later, Google released the Penguin update which went after Black Hatters who wanted to beat the algorithm by stuffing their pages with keywords, and loading up on poor quality links back to their site. Link farms and content farms were punished.

Again, Google flat out told us they preferred sites with original content, meta tags, high quality links and a great user experience. If you did those things honestly, the Penguin and Panda Updates shouldn’t have impacted you. If you were a Black Hat, you were in trouble.


SEO is relatively simple now and still consists of three basic rules:

  • Provide original and interesting content people would want to read and share (social media).
  • Add meta titles and descriptions to each page (an asset) to help indexing.
  • Link out to appropriate pages and get other websites to link to your site. This helps provide a great user experience.

Do these rules sound familiar? They should because although SEO has changed a lot over the past 15+ years, the basic rules remain the same: If you do the right thing and produce original and interesting content that people will want to read and share, you will always remain relevant.

Author bio:

Bill Faughnan has more than 15 years of experience in the Search Engine Marketing (SEO and SEM) industry. He has worked in both the B2C and B2B industries, and specializes in managing projects from beginning to end.

Bill began his SEO career at The Independent Traveler and Cruise Critic, two travel content websites later acquired by Trip Advisor. His strategic vision helped increase website traffic and revenue during his seven years with the company. Bill has continued working in the SEO field and has since ventured out into digital marketing and lead generation with both business to consumer and business to business.

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