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SEO then and now: From keyword stuffing to digital marketing

Date Posted: May 25, 2016

Long gone are the days when you could have your targeted search terms show up on top of the Google search results by stuffing your pages with keywords and acquiring hundreds of cheap external links. Today, ranking high in Google requires quality content, credible external links and a good user experience. You have to pay attention to analytics, relationship building and branding—and it requires the talents of an entire marketing team to do SEO well.

Google Search for Keywords

SEO in the early 2000s

“I want to rank #1 for this keyword. Can you make it happen?”

In the early 2000s, SEO tactics were mostly keyword stuffing and the acquisition of free or low cost external links (directories, classifieds, forum signatures, article directories, social bookmarking, etc.). It wasn’t uncommon to come across hidden text, long URLs filled with keywords and poor content that was built for search engines instead of the user. Those were the days when house hunters would click on www.hamiltonrealestate.com, find some seriously unhelpful keyword-stuffed content, head back to Google, click on www.burlingtonrealestate.com, find the same useless content and—getting wise to the pattern—not bother to click on www.oakvillerealestate.com. In general, quantity prevailed over quality.

SEO from 2005-2010

“I want to have a blog. And I want my posts to show up in Google right away.”

As search engines continued to refine their algorithms, put more efforts into fighting spam, and introduce features such as local listings, some SEO tactics from the early days became obsolete and others emerged. People were penalized for using hidden keywords and duplicate content. Instead, SEO enthusiasts were taking advantage of Web 2.0, where users could generate your content for you through guest blogs, blog comments and discussion boards. “Content is king” became a buzz phrase. The goal was to publish lots of content as often as possible—because the more content you had out there, the more opportunities there were to use keywords and the greater the likelihood that people would link to or share your content. External links were playing a big role, especially if your keywords could be found in the anchor text.

SEO Today

“I need a Facebook page, Google adwords campaign, responsive website, inbound marketing strategy and to know what’s working and what isn’t.”

Although it’s still important to have some keywords in your content and page titles, SEO in its original form (content optimization and link building) will only get you so far. Since 2011, Google has released a number of algorithm updates to help people find the information they’re really searching for on the first page of their search results (Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird) are some of the best-known updates. Because of these updates, poor quality or duplicate content and link building done the wrong way may get your website penalized by search engines. Although not impossible, it takes a lot of effort to undo the damage of poor SEO.

Today, you need to look at SEO as a branch of a bigger digital marketing tree. You’ll need to focus on publishing unique quality content that people will want to read and share—content that will stand out from the competition in a very crowded online world. This is hard work and you might need help from a professional writer, graphic designer and social networking ambassador. You will also need a developer that is up to snuff on the latest trends and technologies because search engines like websites that are responsive, load quickly, and include code that can be used by social networks and search engines (open graph data, structured data markup, etc.). Additionally, you will need to keep an eye on your analytics in order to repeat your wins and fix your mistakes. Finally, you will need someone with a vision and people skills to assemble the pieces of the puzzle and make things work.

In other words, SEO has become the work of an entire marketing team. It takes significant time, effort and money but the rewards are worth it: better brand engagement, better organic search results, more leads and delighted customers.

Here are some SEO tactics that used to be effective on Google versus what is now recommended by most SEO professionals. Feel free to send your suggestions for new additions.

Link building

Early 2000s

Quantity over quality – Getting as many links as possible is a common strategy. Website owners acquire links through automated link submissions, forum signatures, social bookmarking, link exchange, link farms, etc.

2005-2010

Relevancy – There is increased focus on getting links from relevant sites, blog comments, wikis, guest blogs, syndicated content, social networks, link brokers/sellers, etc. Keywords are more often used in the anchor text.

Today

Quality over quantity – Emphasis shifts to getting quality external links from partners, clients, associations, the media, industry-specific blogs, etc. Credible mentions of a brand (citations), even without a link, get noticed by Google. Sharing over social networks is part of the link-building strategy.

Technology

Early 2000s

Tricking the spider – Developers use cloaking as a strategy to give search engines different information from the website user. Deceptive url redirections are also commonly used—people buy a large number of domains that they use only to redirect to their main site.

2005-2010

Website architecture – Search engines are strategically guided through website content using files such as sitemap.xml and robots.txt.

Today

A better user experience – The emphasis is on conversions, not just visits. The focus is on user engagement and retention, which is partly achieved by building responsive websites that are optimized for load speed and readability. Analytics are used to make better decisions. Websites are optimized for Google’s knowledge graph using structured data markup.

On-page SEO

Early 2000s

Spam the #%*@ out of it – Keyword stuffing and hidden text in the content are used in order to achieve high density for targeted keywords. Sites are full of repeated words and read like robots wrote them.

2005-2010

Optimize with caution – Thanks to guys like Matt Cutts, search engines are better at detecting spam. Website owners must optimize with caution and target long tail keywords to get noticed in a crowded space. Footer links are heavily used.

Today

Rich and useful content – Pages are optimized using SEO best practices (proper headings, image alt-tags, shorter page titles etc.). SEO experts and writers use semantic keywords (synonyms and related keywords) to keep writing interesting and natural feeling. The keyword topic is present but the reader doesn’t feel bored or spammed.

Content

Early 2000s

Multiplicity – Website owners purchase multiple domains to build doorway pages and small sites with the sole purpose of directing visitors to a primary site. Keywords are heavily used in the domain name. Websites often have multiple pages covering the same keyword. Content is often of poor quality.

2005-2010

Content is king – The goal is to publish as much content as possible. File names are optimized. Duplicate content and slight variations in content are common.

Today

User-centric content – The emphasis shifts to publishing quality and unique content supported by images, videos and downloadable files and marketing that content instead of simply moving on to the next piece. Companies put more focus on creating a single well-branded site with a superior user experience than multiple sites.

Search engine business listings

Early 2000s

SEO or die – There aren’t any free business listings offered by search engines to increase a company’s visibility in the search results. Companies have to use other SEO strategies.

2005-2010

Thanks for the alternative – Google introduces its Local Business Center in 2005. By 2010, it’s been reinvented as Google Places. Business owners can add their business details to Google Places to show up for local search queries. (Check out this history of Google’s efforts to improve local search results to see the evolution.)

Today

Business info on the go – Google’s business listing platform is now called Google My Business and offers more features. Businesses can also create a listing with Bing’s Places for Business. The goal is the same as back in 2005—to increase visibility for local search results and get more real estate on the page—with the additional benefit of information formatted with on-the-go mobile users in mind.