A Short History of SEO for Digital Marketing Beginners

What Is SEO?

In short, SEO describes the various processes and strategies that allow a particular website to outrank other, similar websites when they’re provided to a user by a search engine in response to a particular query. So, if I search “top San Francisco digital marketing agencies” I’ll get a slew of results (and there’s a reason why Colibri Digital Marketing often appears on the first page). SEO encompasses the total set of things we do to make sure that Colibri is at the top of that list.

Developing a Search Engine

The first description of something like a modern search engine comes from Dr. Vannevar Bush’s article in the Atlantic, July 1945. In this article he envisions a tool to help solve a problem he was facing. Though the mountain of scientific knowledge was constantly growing, the “methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research [were outdated and] totally inadequate for their purpose.” However, he saw salvation in the works of Leibnitz and Babbage, each of whom had laid the groundwork for “calculating machines” of a sort. If a machine of sufficient complexity could be built, it might be used to store information for later access. Indeed, it could facilitate “the collection of data and observations, the extraction of parallel material from the existing record, and the final insertion of new material into the general body of the common record.” In effect, Dr. Bush envisioned a sort of hybrid search engine and FTP server for the scientific community.


The pun in the name wasn’t lost on Larry Page, when he and Brin were naming their algorithm. At heart, PageRank was a way of evaluating two different web pages and putting them into an ordered list, automatically. It worked in a very clever way. PageRank considered the link network of the internet as a whole as a ranking factor. Pages were ranked based on the likelihood that they would be found by just random link following, so sites with more linking domains would rank higher than sites that weren’t as thoroughly enmeshed.

SPAM and Misuse

In the very early 2000s, there was an emergent problem. Sites with more links tended to rank better than sites with fewer, and pages with greater densities of keywords would show up for a greater number of possible searches. The natural outcome was a sort of arms race between sites to stuff keywords and farm links more and more lavishly. A whole cottage industry sprang up under the guise of SEO that would link your page from ten thousand spam directories, and cram your page full of invisible keywords trying to outpace every other site vying for the top spot.


In 2003, Florida — an update to Google’s algorithm — started to watch for keyword stuffing, but it wasn’t perfect. The update caused a drastic decline in the overall quality of the results returned for a query. The problem was that the algorithm overreached. See, to a simple algorithm, there’s no clear way to tell the difference between keyword stuffing and especially relevant content based solely on keyword frequency and distribution. The problem was that bad content was so good at masquerading as good content, structurally, that Florida ended up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The tech wasn’t there, yet, to interpret context.

Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing

That brings us to the concept of machine learning. We’re getting ahead of ourselves, chronologically, but bear with me for a minute. The problem with Florida was that it didn’t have a way to get a grip on the overall content. The math wasn’t there to describe the relationship between keywords (raw semantics) and quality (syntax and meaning).

Panda and Penguin

Unleashed in 2011 and 2012, respectively, these algorithms were much closer to the mark when it came to weeding out thin content. Penguin targeted sites which were spamming unnatural links (“link farming” as above) while Panda worked to promote high-quality content and demote thin, spammy, or otherwise unhelpful pages.

SEO in 2017

Today, the state of SEO is at once more and less complicated than in decades past. While the number of ranking factors continues to increase and diversify, and the precise weight of each factor fluctuates, the overall experience is much more fluid.

So, what does this mean for you?

Well, as we’re fond of saying here at Colibri Digital Marketing, content is queen. The best thing you can do for your site, your brand, your business, and your digital presence in general is to just produce really strong content. Of course, pairing your content with the keywords your target audiences are searching for goes a long way, too.



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