An Ex-SEO Looks Back At 25 Years of Google

Google turned 25 last week. I guess you could say it’s been a successful quarter century. The term “to Google” is now synonymous with “to search.”

Maybe it’s been a little too successful. Currently the global giga-gargantuan tech giant is facing a massive antitrust trial that starts this week due to its dominance of online search. Depending on the outcome, Google’s search business might be torn up into much smaller Google-bits.

Who would have thought all this would happen? Not me. Not on that day back in 1998 when I first “Googled.” For a good chunk of the following two-and-a-half decades, as an SEO (search engine optimizer), I had a love-hate relationship with Google.

Let me share.

First, to understand the impact of Google, you had to understand the world of SEO pre-Google. Back then, there was the band of usual search suspects, which included Excite, Lycos, HotBot, Infoseek, and AltaVista. To be a successful SEO, you had to juggle visibility on all of them, because they each had a small chunk of the search audience.



Then, you also had the directories: Yahoo and the Open Directory project. You couldn’t ignore them, because they were the most popular choice for finding sites. But they were clunky -- both to use and to submit to.

Plus, most importantly for SEO (which wasn’t even commonly called SEO back then), you couldn’t really game the directories. But you could game AltaVista, Excite, Infoseek and the rest. Their algorithms depended exclusively on “on-the-page” elements: text and hidden text, metatags and titles. It was the heyday of keyword stuffing, cloaking and “doorway” pages, collectively called spam.

Then came Google, a game-changer in more ways than one.

I, like every other user, used to rotate my searching through the available engines, because none of them was that good. Then someone pointed me to the fledgling Google. I think it might have still been hosted on the Stanford server at the time. From that day forward, I only used Google. It wasn’t that it was perfect, or even very good. It was just better than every other alternative.

And that’s when Google changed the game for SEOs. Suddenly, it was all about backlinks. It made us embrace the central concept of the Internet -- the way information was connected together. And that made SEO a lot tougher.

It was tougher, but it was also a helluva lot of fun. As I now know, I had a front-row seat for the historic rise of search. Today, Google has somewhere around 175,000 employees. Back then, the numbers were in the low double digits. And I knew many of them, including Marissa Mayer (hire #19) and Craig Silverstein (hire #1). I -- and every other SEO -- used to hang out with Matt Cutts (the former head of the Spam team) when we were at the same speaking gigs together.

When SEOs got together for a conference in Silicon Valley, Google used to host something called the Google Dance. It was a little like inviting the foxes into the hen house, but there was a weird frenemies dynamic back then between SEOs and Google.  The first Google Dance I went to would have only been a few years after the company moved out of Susan Wojcicki’s garage. I think it was probably its first office space in Mountainview.

I remember both Larry Page and Sergey Brin were working the crowd. I kept just missing them. This pattern would continue. I never did meet them face-to-face. But I was in a meeting where Eric Schmidt (then the CEO) just happened to drop in and asked me what, as a search marketer, I wanted from Google. I wish my answer had been historic, but I’m pretty sure it involved shrugging and mumbling.

That was the vibe back then. When you were on campus, you just never knew whom you were going to see. Because of the research we used to do, we enjoyed a more symbiotic relationship than many SEOs had with Google. Our early research established just how valuable that Google top-of-page real estate was for advertisers, and helped make the business case for Google AdWords.

I was also invited on more than one occasion to present to Google’s search team, the engineers who made the engine tick. I was lucky enough to talk to Marissa Mayer about the nuances of page design, and Peter Norvig (a literal rocket scientist who was Google’s head of research) about the role of AI in search. I was always in awe of the sheer wattage of brain power that could be found at 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway in Mountainview. A chat with Marissa Mayer was kind of like riding a roller coaster: You just hung on for dear life and tried to stay inside of your car.

My last time on the Google campus was a little over a decade ago, when I dropped out of the search business. But when this particular 25th birthday showed up on my newsfeed, it brought a lot of memories back. Some were a little traumatic (like when all your clients disappeared off the first page due to an algorithmic update), but mostly they were good.

So happy birthday, Google. And as they used to say where I grew up in rural Alberta: Don’t get too big for your britches.

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