We all know that feeling that encourages these questions: “Seriously, how do we rank higher in search? How do we make money in a digital world?”
SEO, since its conception, has been an elusive tactic to gain leads organically from search engines. From the beginning to our digital environment today, website designers and SEO gurus alike have been creating newer and better tactics in efforts to gain that envied top ranking spot.
Currently, we are working within an ever-morphing environment: Google is the supreme platform, adorned with newer and more selective algorithms to ensure that its users receive the best, relevant content it can find in relation to their queries. To an SEO today, this environment is all about thinking on your feet to find that perfect blend of relevant, consistent and unique content—blending best technical practices, eye-catching designs, and topping it all off with that content that all audiences want (and need).
Google may have become the end-all be-all for search, but where did it all begin?
Because I am personally one of the obsessed content designers/creators/advocates of the SEO world, I searched for some insight from someone who has personally seen the transitions of search engine optimization, and consistently works to improve how that service benefits companies of different industries: Michelle Selnick—the founder and CEO of webFEAT Complete here in Cincinnati, Ohio.
A Brief History of Search Engines and Optimization
1998 and the Reign of Business Directories
Hanna: So, Michelle, how did the beginning of SEO services look and feel like, and how did webFEAT Complete tackle the obstacles of the time?
Years ago, the primary search engine and online directory that merited traction was Yahoo. Yahoo, at the time, was essentially an alphabetical directory based on a search.
In order to get your website officially listed on Yahoo, you would get someone (like us) to design your website. You would pay Yahoo $199, you would submit your website for listing approval, and then you would wait for an official approval that may or may not come (it could take anywhere from about two months to getting no response at all).
Hanna: Oh wow, so how could you tell a website was actually listed on Yahoo?
Back when we were submitting our websites to Yahoo, we would never hear back about their approval. So we just had to keep searching Yahoo to see if we were able to successfully get websites listed in the directory.
Alongside Yahoo listings, another popular SEO tactic was to submit the websites and companies to business directories online. There, listings were treated similarly to Yahoo listings: you would submit the site to for approval—but the kicker was that you could only submit the website once. If you submitted more than once, the directory would blacklist you. However, upon the success of your submission, the website that you’ve created would consequently be listed on all the different search engines at the time (none of which are even around these days).
Hanna: Was there any special way you could further optimize website(s) prior to submission at the time?
The running theme of the directories of the past was this simple fact: there was no real way to optimize your website for better placement—because, no matter the search term, all listings were ordered alphabetically. It was not unlike phonebooks of the time: categories and a listing of everyone by company name.
The Motive of Designing Websites in the Early Years
Hanna: If there was no true way to optimize websites, what was the primary focus for projects at webFEAT Complete?
During the reign of directories, webFEAT Complete was predominantly based in website design. We didn’t focus on search because the rules were just so unclear. It wasn’t worth our telling the clients that we could get them listed because it was too much of an unknown.
And, to be completely honest, clients didn’t fully see or understand the potential value of search listings as it was. To complicate things further, half of them didn’t even believe in the benefit of website design yet, so they rarely saw the actual value to what we were doing for them.
Hanna: What was the pitch like to those clients? How did you shed light on the benefits of designing a website?
I would frame the potential website as a digital brochure. Truly taking a traditional piece of marketing collateral and transforming it to be better suited for the current digital environment. Back then, pursuing traditional marketing methods was still the key to success—especially with the digital search limitations.
Even after designing websites for our clients, we would assert that—in order to reach prospective customers—printing the domain on business cards, invoices, cars, trucks, promotional materials, and other marketing collateral was crucial to the promotion of their domain (and source of organic leads for their business). Even so, I would say about 70% of them still didn’t see the value in it.
They wouldn’t use the domain for corporate emails, and were still stuck on AOL and Yahoo. It was as if the website was seen as an internal tool—something their sales reps could send their customers to in order to collect and gather information about their company.
My initial pitch used to be: “You can basically replace office employees and administrative protocols. If you have something that your employees are faxing all the time, you can put it on the website and your customers could go there instead of going through the extra hassle of waiting for a fax and making a phone call. So, if you create a website, you could decrease the extra admin work your employees are doing to make sure your clients are taken care of. The website is your digital storage space for pertinent business forms and information your customers will want instantly.”
And that would get them thinking.
Meta Keywords and the Beginning of Search Engine Optimization
Hanna: How did things change once Google showed up to play?
Slowly but surely Google just took over. Even though webFEAT Complete has been in business for about 19 years, it took probably near the first 10 of those years for our clients and prospects to go, “Oh…huh Google is really…ok…we’re going to have to start paying attention.”
We had been keeping close tabs on Google for some time. Instead of only creating page titles, and adding in keywords and meta keywords (like we had been doing for the longest time for Yahoo directories), we realized that there were some rules developing with the introduction of Google that were actually solid enough to show the potential of optimizing websites to rank for certain terms.
Hanna: What was the lure of meta keywords for businesses?
Those were a big seller back then: meta keywords. Before Google adjusted the rules, Yahoo was using meta keywords as their primary way of organizing their directories. If you had a meta keyword listed on your website, you would get listed in that keyword search directory.
Can you guess the most popular meta keyword? Pamela Sue Anderson.
So, naturally, every site was putting “Pamela Sue Anderson” into their keywords because then they’d come up in the popular searches. At the time, meta keywords had no relationship to site content or topic relevancy or meta descriptions. Your searches would just populate results based on the meta keywords that each site would list out.
The Blackhat SEO Takeover
Hanna: That doesn’t seem very efficient.
It was a mess. Businesses were spamming keywords left and right, and coming up for all kinds of keywords. You could put “chocolate pudding” as a meta keyword in a website design, and your website would rank for chocolate pudding…even if you were a manufacturer of gears.
Then, of course, all of the other Blackhat SEO techniques followed suit. One of the more prominent techniques was using “invisible keywords” on your website pages. White fonts on white backgrounds, black fonts on black backgrounds, filling up all the background spaces with the keywords you wanted to come up in search for—literally embedding keywords in the background, invisible to visitors, but able to be indexed. Honestly, I think that’s really how the black background websites became so popular at the time, because everyone wanted to embed keywords to rank better, and you had to put forth less effort to keep your fonts in the automatic black font.
Hanna: How did you respond to prospects and clients wanting to practice Blackhat SEO?
From the get-go, we knew Blackhat SEO wasn’t good form or technique. So we stayed away from it. It didn’t look like a lasting way we could optimize sites for search. We were definitely asked many times to do that—because of the sheer popularity of that technique—but from the trends we were noticing with Google, we knew it was only a matter of time before that technique got busted and punished.
We would simply say it was an inappropriate practice and will get you blacklisted with Google in due time to clients who would ask. I’m not sure they believed me, but they would definitely deflate and then then say, “Well I don’t want to get blacklisted…”
Even so, we would hear about other companies asserting that it was appropriate to do those practices, and that websites wouldn’t be punished. Thankfully, Google did end up creating a penalty for it.
Sometimes even today, if we see a client with an older website needing a redesign…we will most likely spend time in the design and development process of that website removing those meta keywords out of the code. Blackhat SEO was that popular.
Evolving with the Rising Relevance and Benefit of SEO
Hanna: After all this time, and all the changes with Google algorithms, what’s been your biggest takeaway in terms of growing the business and creating lasting programs for clients?
There still aren’t many companies that do what we do. Over the years, we’ve believed more and more that what’s needed in this digital marketing world is a company that offers a truly complete program: if you have a request or need, you let us know and we get it done for you. Websites are evolving more and more into the digital representation of your business. It is a presence. And that presence must be up-to-date and fully functioning at all hours of the day.
Way back when webFEAT Complete started, that kind of business was unheard of. Even as SEO started gaining popularity, there were far more companies that were solely focused on one-time SEO than something than an SEO program that would bring lasting benefit for websites. So, not surprisingly, most of those companies that were here when I started webFEAT Complete are since long gone.
My biggest take a way would be this: there will always be a check and balance to the way things change for your business, especially with the changing search rules. So, when you think of SEO as a digital agency service, it’s important to focus on how you can bring lasting benefits for your clients. How can you create an SEO program that will add to a brand and give them thought leadership in their industry and further build their audience and authority? You simply create a program that will adapt with the current trends, and you get yourself a good, solid team to make the magic happen.
The Benefit of Google and Our Hope for the Future of SEO
Hanna: Looking forward, what is your biggest hope for the future of SEO as it currently is?
My hope would be that Google doesn’t over monetize. Right now the landscape is looking like big business versus small business with the winner gaining rankings based on how much they’re willing to pay. Big business can afford to pay the fees associated with AdWords, so a small business who lacks the extra money to burn is entering the game already penalized.
For smaller businesses, their best bet is to blog as if their business depends on it—because it truly will depend on it. Without consistent blogging, they won’t have decent content to gain rankings organically. They’ll never rank without it. And they’ll fall further and further behind. If Google continues to monetize everything on page one of search, it will only be the big business that can afford to be there.
It’s already heading that way.
Let’s say Google monetizes local search results…then your entire top 60% of the page is monetized…and that will destroy the ranking potential for a lot of small businesses.
If that becomes our reality in search, I would like to see Google providing an equal opportunity for the smaller businesses in the world. Even if it’s a separate search. That way if you want to find a little local plumber versus a big name, you can do just that, the platform would be different and more tailored to benefit the startups and local scene.
Our goal is always to stay ahead (or at least keep up with) the rules Google puts in place. Because it’s the only way we can help our customers really understand what Google is doing and what the best strategy would be to continue to build our clients’ online presence.
Advice to Future SEOs and Content Marketers
Hanna: And now my favorite question, if you could give any piece of advice to the younger SEOs and the marketing students of today, what would you tell them?
Join our team! Seriously, work at an agency. Get your feet wet. Our industry is evolving more by the day so it’s of the utmost importance for you to find a digital agency you can see yourself at, and get your name out there. Look for the positions that catch your interest, read blogs, get on all the social media platforms and become a part of the conversation.
They’re slowly starting to touch on digital marketing at the university level, but not much. It’s hard to find a person with agency experience to teach at the university level, because the people who are really good in this industry…don’t really want to teach. So it is still a career path that will require those extracurricular activities of research and learning in order for you to remain truly current and effective in your work.
Never give up on learning, because what was best practice last year (or even this year) might not be best practice next year.
Get yourself with a company where there’s a good department head who gives their team the time to learn and share information and best practices. Every day here at webFEAT Complete, one of our team members has learned something that the rest of us didn’t know, and that’s really how you build the strength of your talents: being associated with a strong team who are all ready to learn. The resources you are exposed to, in that scenario, are innumerable.