A Decade of Change: SEO Through The Years

A decade may have passed, but the sole purpose of search engine optimization has stayed the same—bring the right information to the right users. It’s the process itself that has evolved. SEO started with a technical feed of information displayed solely on desktop computers. It has since transformed and now encompasses a mix of content creation and technical optimization across all internet devices.

A Blend of Technical and Content

The demand for technical SEO—site structure, clean code, site speed, and clear URLs—has stayed consistent, but we’ve seen a lot of changes with regard to the content itself. In the past, keywords were Google’s main way of detecting relevant content. Today, keywords continue to be highly important, but the meaning of “relevant” holds greater complexity.

Less emphasis is placed on keywords themselves and is instead placed on searcher intent and contextual relevance. This is done through a number of ranking factors in Google’s (or Bing’s or Yahoo’s) algorithm.

Present-day SEO relies on both the optimization of existing content as well as the continued development of new content, clear content structure, quality of content, external links, and social signals.

Google Updates

Much of the change over the past 10 years has been driven by Google’s algorithm advancements, because SEO best practices are really a matter of what Google wants. The good news is, what Google wants is directly impacted by what users want.

So, let’s talk about Google’s algorithm. It’s impossible to know exactly what the algorithm is, especially given the 500-600 updates Google pushes each year, but by taking note of changes in rankings and relying on insights from Google’s own announcements and best practices content, SEO professionals can better understand the system.

The most recent update was Google Possum, but the largest and most notable updates from this decade include Google Panda and Google Penguin. Despite their innocent namesakes, these updates are representative of Google’s aggressive attempts to reduce the amount of low-quality, irrelevant content within search results.

Panda and Penguin

In 2011, Panda was designed to help eliminate poor-quality and duplicate content, rewarding the highest quality sites with better rankings. Through this update the Google bots that crawl every piece of content on the web began reading and deciphering content to determine its legitimacy. Shortly after, in 2012, the Penguin update down voted inbound links from poor quality sites and rewarded links from trustworthy ones. This was a major change for Google. In the past links were about quantity—present day seeks quality.


The most recent (2016), and somewhat mysterious, update was Google Possum. Evidence indicates this update only affected local and Google Map results. It’s believed search results for local restaurants, shops, etc., now include a larger variety of addresses (i.e., filtering out duplicate addresses) and searcher location carries much more weight, serving up only the most relevant, local options for each search query.

Mobile Specific

Google officially announced that mobile queries surpassed desktop in May 2015, which meant that Google (and marketers) must take a closer look at the different needs and intentions of mobile vs. desktop users. This led to the 2015 Mobilegeddon update, which gave a boost to mobile-friendly pages.

To further enhance user experience, this year Google announced the penalization of mobile pop-ups. These ads make content less accessible and require extra steps to access information—not ideal for users. There have also been rumors that Google’s application for a mobile machine learning patent could possibly rely on social signals as ranking factors in order to enhance personalized results.

It All Comes Down to Users

The main takeaway from all these changes point to the fact that we, as marketers, must first and always focus on our customers and audiences while building technically sound and content-focused sites. Yes, SEO practices have gotten more complex over the years, but when everything is designed to better serve our users, it’s hard to complain too loudly.

Jamie Larson

Jamie Larson