Skip navigation
SEO Website Audit

A Decade of 21st Century SEO

January 6, 2010
By Jill Whalen, CEO of High Rankings

I've been SEO'ing websites long before the 21st century began. We say on our website that it's been officially since 1995, but I was doing SEO for my old parenting website all the way back in 1993. For me, the start of this past decade in 2000 seems like only yesterday. Sometimes I feel I've been touting the same SEO processes and procedures for the past 10 years.

But have I?

Or has SEO changed so much, as almost everybody else always says, and I just haven't noticed?

I just so happen to have been writing SEO newsletters since the year 2000, which provides me with a unique opportunity to see exactly how much SEO has changed (or not) in the past 10 years. I spent the better part of this morning fishing through them all, looking for interesting nuggets that showed just how much search marketing has or hasn't changed. As you have probably guessed, what I found was a little bit of both – sort of "the more things change, the more they stay the same" kinda thing.

Here are some random things I spotted, year by year:

  • I had long forgotten when the "SEO" acronym was coined, but apparently it was pre-2000 because I was using it in my articles that year.
  • Search engines weren't indexing dynamic URLs very well back then.
  • The engines and directories that we were talking about: Lycos, Excite (almost dead by 2001), Snap (soon changed to NBCi), LookSmart, Go (formerly Infoseek), Hotbot, AltaVista and, yes, Google.
  • All the way back in 2000 you could pay for a Yahoo directory listing ($199 one-time fee at the time).
  • It seemed that many of our newsletters focused on getting listed in directories.
  • Back in 2000 Google was known to spider more quickly and thoroughly than the other engines…the beginning of the end for them?
  • Link popularity was already understood to be a very important element within SEO.

Best Jill quote of 2000:
"Who would believe that in the year 2000 we'd still hear of people trying to find new ways to hide text on their pages?"
  • Pay-for-placement in the search engines was the latest and greatest.
  • Search engines were getting much better at indexing and crawling dynamic URLs. There were mod_rewrite programs available that also helped.
  • Big Dogs (aka large brands) didn't seem to have an advantage over little guys back in 2001. (They do now.)
  • "GoTo," the first major pay-per-click search engine, was around and was getting well known. (It was later renamed Overture, and then became Yahoo Search Marketing many years later.)
  • Google was already totally dominating as far as the relevancy of search results went. (Which helps explain why they ultimately killed all the other search engines.)
  • The meta keyword tag was already known to have little to no bearing on search engine rankings (at least by me).
  • Even back in 2001, rankings were very volatile and would fluctuate from day to day. (Bet you thought that was a new phenomenon!)

Best Jill quote of 2001:
"In my opinion, buying additional domain names for the sole purpose of obtaining more search engine rankings is NOT a good idea. If you spend the time it takes to create great content, you'll naturally be able to obtain high rankings. Instead of buying up additional domain names, keep adding worthwhile pages to your existing site.

"Never forget that, if done correctly, each and every page of your site is a gateway to the rest of the site. If everyone would spend less time trying to figure out the best way to trick the search engines and more time providing useful content, they'd not only reduce their own stress levels, but they'd end up eventually getting the high rankings they crave. Really."
  • Yahoo directory submissions went up to $299 per year and people predicted the death of it. (It's still around, but I haven't used it in ages.)
  • There were rumblings of The Death of SEO!
  • Google launched AdWords, and changed the face of online advertising and search marketing for the entire decade.
  • The High Rankings Advisor Newsletter was born! See the first issue here.
  • Paid inclusion and directories continued to be big topics in search marketing.
  • My search engine optimization process.Other than the submitting to search engines part, it's not a whole lot different from our process today!
  • Traffic from AltaVista was dwindling to just about nothing.
  • Google was giving out PageRank penalties for selling PR.
  • We were already talking about usability and SEO (yeah!).
  • We were already talking about ways (other than rankings) to measure your SEO/SEM success (double yeah!).

Best Jill Quote of 2002:
"Years ago, when I would read about the latest and greatest techniques for 'tricking' the search engines, I would often wonder if I were missing the boat by not working that way. There were times when I even doubted my own tried-and-true ways of attacking SEO. But then I'd slap myself and remember that my 'crazy' Content Is King method seemed to be working fine, so I must be doing something right. When I hear people say that the search engines now want to see relevant content (like this is some new concept), it absolutely blows me away! Content is all they've ever wanted, and all they will want in the future." - From an old RankWrite newsletter.
Nailed it!


This was one of the few years I made some SEO predictions.

Here are some of the standouts:

"Google will remain the dominant player in the biz, with more and more regular people believing that Google = Search Engine. We will also see Google continue to get bashed by webmasters who can't figure out how to get a decent listing."

Very true still today.

"If Google goes public in 2003 (and I'm not making any predictions on that), we will see it start to suck by 2004. By 'suck,' I mean become like all the other engines."

Okay, so I was totally off the mark on that one!
  • Also in 2003, Yahoo purchased Inktomi, AltaVista and FAST, which was basically the end of all of them.
  • It was also the year Google got tough on spam.

Best Jill Quote of 2003:
After reviewing (for free) a site that turned out to be super spammy, I wrote:
"When I emailed [the site owner] to tell him that he was a very baaaaaad boy for using these techniques, his answer was simply that he had been given some bad advice. No, I'm sorry, that just doesn't cut it. Sure, in 1995 that excuse might have worked. Maybe even in 1997. But there's certainly enough good SEO advice in existence right now that ignorance of this magnitude is really inexcusable."
And yet…still today…in 2010…we still see a multitude of spammy sites and silly excuses. [head bang]

  • All the spam chasing Google did in 2003 made 2004 the year for "professional SEO."
  • We were still talking a lot about paid inclusion, and I was still avoiding it like the plague. (I never did fall for the whole paid-inclusion thing.)
  • 301-redirects were becoming all the rage.
In regards to toolbar PageRank, I wrote:

"Apparently Google just 'updated their backlinks,' according to forum members who study such things. Not surprisingly (to me at least), many have noticed that an increase in toolbar PageRank doesn't seem to affect a page's ranking in the search engine results for its keyword phrases."

I knew this in 2004, yet just this week in 2010 people were crying about the latest toolbar PR update – go figure!
While I wasn't happy about it – because it made my job harder – it also turned me into a marketer, and forced me to learn what marketing a website was all about, as opposed to what just getting rankings were all about.
  • In June 2004, we had the 100th HRA with a revisit of PageRank mania.
  • Google continued their banning of sites who were spamming them, with a sleazy SEO company being taken to task for the bulk of it.
  • By now there was already little talk of other engines besides Google.
  • Black Hat / White Hat SEO discussions heated up.
Best Jill Quote from 2004:
"The important thing to note, however, is that most sites don't need to resort to Black Hat SEO.

"It all depends on what the website owner's goal is. Do they want quick fixes and throwaway domains for the chance of a temporary big payoff, or do they want a stable business that takes a lot of time and energy, but which pays off handsomely over time? Neither one is necessarily right or wrong – just different."
  • This was the year Google introduced the "nofollow" link attribute, supposedly for unmoderated content. It later became Google's way of forcing people to distinguish between paid links and non-paid. Looking back now, that may have been their goal all along.
  • Google also introduced Google Analytics, which changed the face of how to measure SEO success for the rest of the decade, and presumably beyond.
  • This was also the start of Google's "Aging Delay" for new domains. Thank goodness that's behind us!
At the end of 2005 I did a year-end review.

  • Conversions (and tools to measure them) were all the rage. (Yeah!)
  • Google (allegedly) had a "minus 30 penalty" for certain sites.
  • My partner in SEO crime, Pauline, and I started SEMNE, the search engine marketing organization for New England. Other groups across the nation started springing up in 2006 as well.
  • Despite my attempt to bring some professionalism to SEO back in 2004, bad and/or incompetent SEO companies continued to run rampant. See my SEO Quack article.
  • Buying text links was huge business, but Google started to fight back.
Best Jill SEO Quote of 2006 (from the Quack article above):
"SEO isn't ALL about anything. It's about lots of things all added together to make the perfect combination for your site. A linking campaign alone will never be as effective if you neglect your on-page content, and vice versa."
  • By the beginning of 2007 we were still seeing aging delay effects for those websites that switched to a new domain. By the end of 2007 it was finally waning when 301-ing old URLs to new ones correctly.
  • Sphinn was born.
  • The phrase "targeted traffic" was heard more often as people realized it was a heck of a lot better than just any old traffic.
  • Paid links got smacked down even more by Google…at least in terms of toolbar PageRank.
  • People were still worried about dynamically generated websites, even though they (when designed correctly) hadn't been a problem for many years.
  • And last, but not least, despite years of trying to drum it into people's heads that creating zillions of microsites for SEO purposes was a bad idea, it continued to be a tactic that was often asked about.

Which leads us to the best Jill Quote of 2007:
"A much smarter idea would be to fix up your current corporate site so that every page of it is optimized in such a way that each of your main categories and each individual product page would rank on its own merits. One great site is 1,000 times better than 50 small sites."
Whoa…eerily similar to my quote from 2001…

Best Jill Quote of 2008:
"A search in today's Google index shows about 19,100,000 results for the phrase 'social media' and approximately 1,630,000 Google results for 'social media marketing.' It's safe to conclude that social media and its use as an online marketing strategy are here to stay, and are growing by leaps and bounds. If you're marketing websites, scary as it may sound, you need to learn about social media." – From "Scared of Social Media?"
  • High Rankings introduced our "Recession Buster Website Review," which gave 99 companies (to date) a cost-effective, experienced review of their website, and also led to the "Is Your SEO Campaign Out of Focus?" article.
  • Karon Thackston and I did a podcast together. (Look for more of these in 2010!)
  • Karon also talked about how guest blogging was not the new concept some thought it was.
  • HRA got more into social media (as did everyone else), and we started the Twitter Question of the Week.
  • There was more chatter than ever about baking SEO right into new websites. (Yeah!)
  • Then, in December 2009, I told you about some SEO trends I had spotted via our analytics.

The Best Jill Quote of 2009 is something that you probably never thought you'd hear me say:
"I've got a secret for you. It's one you won't hear me say very often when it comes to SEO. While my mantra has always been to make your site be the best it can be, you may not actually need to bust your butt as hard as you think when it comes to your SEO goals." – From "Is Your SEO Campaign Out of Focus," mentioned above.
Which brings us up to date with 2010!

I can't say for sure what will happen in search marketing this year, but I hope (as I've hoped every year of the past decade) that more people will continue to buy into the fact that the best way to gain more targeted search engine visitors to their websites is to make something great! While I can tell that this idea is finally starting to sink in with many, I also see new folks just getting into it who haven't figured this out yet.

Yes, it's hard. Yes, it takes a lot of work. But we all know that's the only way to have long-term success.

It's important to note that my ideal of SEO even before the year 2000 has always assumed that search engines will someday be perfect. Through the years, Google has given credence to my mantra during the times when they haven't allowed the crap-hat SEO stuff to work. By the same token, they have also made me look silly at the times when it does still work. My hope is that Google (or any other search engine) never gives up trying to find the best, most relevant results for their users – the searchers – because my SEO methods are based on that ideal.

Happy 2010 everyone! – Jill
Jill Whalen is the CEO of High Rankings, a Boston SEO Consulting Agency.

If you learned from this article, be sure to sign up for the High Rankings Advisor SEO Newsletter so you can be the first to receive similar articles in the future!
Post Comment

 BeanTownSEO said:
Funny you mention "nofollow"- I just finished up reading an article (and the tons of comments) on SEOMOZ regarding PageRank sculpting and couldn't help but laugh at all of the people wasting their time and breath on such things. Why? The article was full of statistical analysis, correlations, yadda yadda. I'm all about testing but I choose to test things that provide impact and focusing on, as you say, making my site the "best it can be." How much lift can PageRank sculpting possibly give a site? it going to give me more than creating great content, doing proper keyword research, optimizing that content, link building, promoting my site, etc. You mention that "the more things change, the more they stay the same" and I really couldn't agree more. Sure, additional things get added into the mix like Social Media, but the core objectives remain the same.
 Herman said:
Nice article Jill..please clarify "the best way to gain more targeted search engine visitors to their websites is to make something great!"

Do you recommend using the structure of a blog or a web site (static or database driven) to build a theme-based content website?
I find old content on blogs hard for visitors to find as it gets quickly buried by new posts.
It disappears quickly from the search engines unless you build backlinks to it.
It doesn't remain evergreen unless you feature it on the home page.
 Todd said:
What a great article! Thanks so much for taking the time to put this together. Now I look forward to checking out all the links and reading the older material. Your newsletter is by far my favorite of any I receive, and I'm sure that will remain true throughout the new year and beyond. Thanks and Happy New Year!
 Brian Cox said:
So what are your thoughts on Personalization then? As an SEO I too always want the absolute best possible result for any given query. After reading this:

"My hope is that Google (or any other search engine) never gives up trying to find the best, most relevant results for their users – the searchers – because my SEO methods are based on that ideal."

.. I think that we might have the same opinion in regards to Personalization being rolled out.

I feel that personalization in a sense takes that away and will show a site that a user likes, no matter if its the best result or not. Which I am ultimately not a fan of and not looking forward to seeing happen.

Awesome article by the way. Keep up the good work.
 Melt du Plooy said:
Hi Jill, awesome looking back and recapping some of the ideas and thoughts from years ago. While many things have changed, a lot have remained much the same and that for me is what makes SEO and my job so exciting.

I love your closing thoughts on 2010 as this is the exciting part for me too... the fact that we can't say for sure what will happen in search marketing this year. SEO for me is an ongoing journey. :)
 Alan Charlesworth said:
Exclellent trip down memory lane.

OK, so it would be pre-2000 - but I think Google/Bing/Yahoo make life easier [I go back to 1996]. Remember when Lycos et al would differentiate things like upper- and lowercase in keywords? Or made no effort toward stemming? Or didn't corrected obvious searchers' misspellings? Or differentiated singular and plural [though I notice this isn't 100% for common terms - try searching Google for *place* hotel / hotels, the results differ]. I was with a company called - we had around 25 pages optimzed simply for the various upper/lowercase, plural, misspelling options etc of the words domain & names - and that's before we started on common search terms like "register domain names".

I'll sign off now before I start going down the route of the Monty Python's sketch : "meta tags - you were lucky ... "
 Brad Bowen said:

As for as my industry, real estate, I don't think that is true. Back then I recall that Google results for real estate were led by big link monster national sites. None of them even had data for my rural area. But Yahoo returned results led by local real estate offices.
 Kaley Dobson said:
Great read, thanks Jill. Always interesting to take a look back to see how much things have and have not changed.

I noticed you mentioned LookSmart as one of "the engines and directories that we were talking about." Most of those companies are long gone now. I thought I'd mention that LookSmart no longer has an owned and operated search engine, but is now one of the largest sydincated ppc ad networks, processing over 1 billion queries per day.

I think Google may still be in business as well. ;)

Kaley Dobson
LookSmart Marketing Manager
 Aussiewebmaster said:
I have to commend the article and the SEO in 1993 - not many people used Aliweb - Yahoo and Lycos emerged in 1994 and was more category driven and were not really keyword spidered until Webcrawler that year.
 Craig Broadbent said:
great read Jill! I first started reading your stuff in 2001 when I first got into SEO, and whilst I don't think SEO has changed fundamentally over that time it's been fun reading and thinking back to the different nuances that have changed!
 Nishan Khednah said:
Great read, this brought back some good memories :). Thanks Jill!
 activetraffic said:
wow, nice recap of the good old days! just found myself and my experiences in SEO in this article, as I also have started SEO quite early in 1998, optimzing for altavista, fireball & Co.

Thanks Jill!
 Tampa Website Design said:
Hi jill,

Thanks for great post. I am in SEO since 1999 & running company last Seven years.
 QuickFace said:
Thanks for your great post! It was a kind of a time travel for me - I remember very well the old days when I was optimizing for Altavista etc. - it was a great time! Cheers, Anton
 Phil said:
Hi Jill, thanks a lot! I became a bit nostalgic by reading your article. It's great today but earlier, it was a world that changed a lot more when those technologies developed.

Very nice post! Best regards, Phil