SEO in Plain Language: How has SEO changed since it became a thing?

2018-06-13T15:08:14+00:00 March 21st, 2017|

There are a few distinct chapters of SEO over the last 10-15 years. Because the algorithms that search engines use are kept secret, nobody can have a definitive history of SEO, but it’s interesting to see where we’ve been because it gives proper context to where we are today and where we’re going tomorrow.

Chapter 1: Keyword Obsession (late 1990s – early 2000s)

“You have one job: stuff your website with as many keywords as possible!”

Some people called this practice “SEO” at the time, but most people didn’t care to find a name for it–they just wanted to do well with AOL and Yahoo!, so they overloaded their websites with the keywords that they believed would bring them the most traffic.

You have probably experienced this in the past when you arrived at a website that was super repetitive. For me, it was the the keyword “resources” on an entrepreneurship blog years ago. It went something like this…

“Tips for Entrepreneurs: Resources… Remember, you want to tap into all the resources that are out there. Resources are important, and all top entrepreneurs leverage their resources for success…resources…resources…resources…”

I read the blog three times because I assumed that I wasn’t smart enough to get it on the first time. I eventually gave up, assuming that I was not cool or smart enough to be apart of their world.

Now, years later, I realize that blog was never written to be read by real people. It was stuffed with keywords to be read search engine “spiders” or “bots” that were crawling their website. I know this sounds like an archaic idea, but people still think that this works today in 2017.


Chapter 2: On-Page SEO (early 2000s)

Keyword stuffing is sloppy and insufficient! Just do the honest work within the code of every page that I wrote about in Part 1. During this time, we just called this “SEO.” Only later did we look back and call this same list of work “On-Page SEO” because of what would come next…



Chapter 3: On-Page SEO and, wait for it, “Off-Page SEO!!!” (ca. 2005 – Today)

You still do the honest work on your own website, and then you also look for people to link to your website from their website; this is called “Off Page SEO.”

I cringe every time that I hear people use the term “Off-Page SEO” because it is clunky name to describe a simple, intuitive concept that has been obvious since the dawn of the Internet in the 1990s: get people to link to your website to prove that your website is legit.

Same old idea, except now it has a new name.

Call it what you want, but now you have to get out there!

  • You could send “cold emails” to people who run cool websites and ask for a link.
  • You offer to be a guest blogger on a popular website.
  • You could spend time on message boards hyping up your stuff.
  • If you get desperate, you can pay a some crafty people to use their mafia of 1000 websites to link to your website.*

*This last option feels a lot like cheating, so people call it “Black Hat SEO.” Because apparently guys who wear black hats are magicians? Or bad guys? Or cheaters? I don’t know why it got that name, but I do know that Black Hat SEO was a thing, and for a time, it worked well.

An example of Black Hat SEO was captured in this interesting article from 2011 that exposed JC Penny’s elaborate strategy to game Google so that JCPenny ranked high for Christmas Shopping. From the 2011 article in the New York Times:

“There are links to’s dresses page on sites about diseases, cameras, cars, dogs, aluminum sheets, travel, snoring, diamond drills, bathroom tiles, hotel furniture, online games, commodities, fishing, Adobe Flash, glass shower doors, jokes and dentists — and the list goes on.

…when you read the enormous list of sites with Penny links, the landscape of the Internet acquires a whole new topography. It starts to seem like a city with a few familiar, well-kept buildings, surrounded by millions of hovels kept upright for no purpose other than the ads that are painted on their walls.

The JC Penny story gained a lot of media attention (even more than BMW’s similar scam), and this, perhaps, triggered a new…” Read Full Article (

But then Google got mad at the Bad Guys Wearing Black Hats, and Google upgraded their algorithm…



Chapter 4: Google Hummingbird –  (On Google’s 15th Anniversary)

This is basically when Google wrote a new algorithm to more effectively measure the overall worth of a website, and at the same time punishing the websites that persisted in trying to game the system with keyword stuffing and Black Hat links.

This is what Google now cares about:

1. On-Page SEO and the “Off Page SEO”

We’ve covered this. Except now, if the website who link to you are dubious and on the naughty list, then you website is punished. Shame on you JC Penny!

2. Natural Usage of Language

No more keyword stuffing! I mean it this time!! Like you should have stopped this in 2005!!! 

So if you have a real estate blog, Google will reward you for having natural usage of language, rather than repeating “Real Estate Phoenix” 30 times in a blog.  Instead, you write like a real person:  

“Are you a looking for a home in Phoenix area? We know many great neighborhoods in Phoenix, Tempe, and Scottsdale. Our realtors can help you find the right house at the right price. Here are five unique neighborhoods that are up-and-coming that many new homebuyers are excited to move into!”

3. Pagespeed

Does the page take forever to load? You’ll be punished. Does it load quickly? You’ll be rewarded. (Fact: We break this rule the most here on We are vain designers, and we like big beautiful images of our work. Pagespeed be damned!)

4. Mobile-friendly

If it looks good on a phone or tablet, Google will reward you for that. (FYI, we only build responsive websites for our clients.)

5. “Social Proof” aka Love from Social Media

This is an important and sensible upgrade! It’s still valuable to have reputable websites linking to you. But it’s just as important to have your own connected social media accounts with strong followings, and to have plenty of traffic arriving to your website by way of Facebook and Twitter. Why? Because it proves that real people like your company and like what you publish.

I should note that nobody really knows everything that’s inside Google’s algorithm. But Google lets people know what matters to them, and that is why we can make a list like the one we have above. Google stepped up to the microphone and we all took notes.

But do we really need to know what’s in their algorithm?

All five concepts in the list above sounds like what you and all of us would expect from a cool website. Number one on the list is still fussy, but the rest is pretty obvious. Google sees value in a website authored by a real person that loads reasonably fast on all devices… and is appreciated with links from other websites and social media.  This isn’t rocket science.  The rocket science days of SEO are over!


The Awkward “Final Season” of Search Engine Optimization

Every great television series has to eventually come to an end.  My favorite TV series are The Office, Lost, and Seinfield.  I’ve especially missed Seinfeld since my family “cut the cord” of cable TV and replaced it with Apple TV + Netflix.   And since Seinfeld isn’t on Netflix, I’ve found myself digging around the web and YouTube for clips and documentaries surrounding the show.

One of the hottest topics about Seinfeld is this: how do you finish the series? What does your final season look like? Your final episode? Do you go out with a bang? Do you drag it out a few seasons too long to make some extra bank?

The most creative and talented people tend to prefer to go out on a high note.  Go out strong! Leave and make people wanting for more!

Unfortunately, most facets of our culture and business world don’t work this way.  Tired ideas stay way too long.  I mean, aren’t you surprised that they still make the Yellow Pages and deliver them to your door? Nobody has flipped through the Yellow Pages in 10 years! Yet the Yellow Pages are printed by the millions and delivered to every door step in America.

This is how I feel about SEO: it’s a tired subject.  If you want evidence, spend an hour taking notes from the SEO experts.

  • Listen to talks on YouTube from SEO Conferences.
  • Read the trending articles on SEO blogs.
  • Listen to SEO podcasts.
  • You can even read the first few pages of the new SEO Books on Amazon.

Believe me, when you are trying to be a good student of SEO, it feels akward. Everyone is saying a lot, but it doesn’t satisfy your curiousity. Something seems off. What’s going on?

Here is what is going on.  The topic of SEO have a legacy of being technical, fussy, and tactical.  And since driving traffic to your website is no longer exclusively techical or fussy, these fastidious experts struggle to find their voice now that the subject has changed. They want to make things complicated, but it’s not complicated.

Today, driving traffic to your website isn’t technical or fussy at all. It’s tactical, yes, but it’s fun and rewarding. It’s human! It’s something that you can get excited about.  So let’s stop wasting time and money by putting SEO in the middle of your digital strategy.

This brings us to my final point. We’ll talk about it in our final blog.

Next: “Where are we in 2017? Where will we be in 5 years?

About the Author:

Matt Smith, MBA
Matt Smith is the creative force behind smithHOUSE, a Phoenix-based creative agency that focuses on the intersection of business, design, and technology. About Matt Smith.