12 Years of SEO: Changes and Trends During This Time

Over the past 12 years, SEO and content marketing underwent countless changes that reshaped the whole marketing approach.

Officially, SEO technology started in the mid-90s and it was mostly directory-driven. It was quite easy to reach the first page of Google by using keywords extensively in meta titles, descriptions and page content.

SEO History and Trends

SEO Drastic Changes in 2011 and 2012

When I started my career in SEO and digital marketing in 2012, most of the strategies still spin around keywords.

To achieve favorable rankings in this period, the key was to use keywords repeatedly across your web pages and meta tags. Link exchange and getting backlinks with keyword-saturated anchors were also a frequent strategy.

A year before, in 2011, the Panda algorithm was launched. Back then, there was a problem with many low-quality websites appearing in its search results. These sites, known as “content farms,” were making it hard to find good information, and sometimes even copied content was ranking higher than the original.

The new algorithm targeted low-quality sites with high ad-to-content ratios and content farms. It favored high-quality sites with only original content and valuable information, such as research, in-depth reports and thoughtful analysis.

Since then, Panda was frequently updated and became a part of Google’s core algorithm in 2016.

Another big SEO event in 2011 was the Schema markup. It is not a Google ranking factor but a type of microdata to help search engines understand what people are looking for.

Using Schema can make your website stand out in search results by showing extra information, like special snippets. This can help your website get noticed more easily.

2012 was a memorable year in SEO because that’s when the Penguin algorithm was introduced. Traffic crashed for many websites just in one day.

Penguin was focused on link schemes and websites with unnatural linking patterns. These patterns often included using a lot of exact-match anchor text that matched certain keywords.

Both Panda and Penguin were two important changes aimed at making sure good websites were rewarded. And we still see their effects on SEO today.

SEO Big Movements in 2013-2015

In 2013, Google made a big change with the “Hummingbird” update, shifting away from just looking at individual words in searches to understanding whole phrases.

This change was seen by many in SEO and content marketing as a move from focusing on keywords to concentrating more on topics.

Its goal was to alter how semantic search and the Knowledge Graph functioned. The latter was another major thing that happened a year before.

Google’s Pigeon update was the main event in 2014, aiming at making local listings more relevant and connected to both the local algorithm and the core algorithm.

With Pigeon, Google wanted to improve the accuracy of local search results, ensuring that when people searched for businesses or services in a particular area, they would get more precise and meaningful results.

In 2015, the RankBrain stepped out with strong machine-learning capabilities. RankBrain tried to interpret user queries even if they didn’t use the exact words. The system looked at the user’s past searches and compared them to find similar topics. It combined different words and phrases to provide search results that make more sense based on what it learned.

This made searches more accurate and helpful, creating a search experience that adapted to user needs. Therefore, the search results became more precise and relevant, making it easier to find what you’re looking for.

Since then, Google has extended the use of RankBrain to operate on every search.

How SEO Evolved in 2016-2019

Possum, which came around in 2016, changed how Google decides which local businesses get featured in search results. It made results more varied and considered users’ precise location giving nearby businesses a better chance to be seen in local searches.

In 2017, Google decided to crack down on irritating pop-ups and intrusive interstitials that disrupted the user experience, particularly on mobile devices. This penalty was introduced to encourage a more user-friendly online environment. Google’s aim was to prioritize a smoother and more enjoyable browsing experience for users.

In 2018, Google started to roll out mobile-first indexing. Although Google has already been prioritizing mobile-friendly sites since 2015, mobile responsiveness has become one of the major ranking factors.

In 2019, BERT was a major update from Google that helped it understand what people were looking for when they searched. It looked at words and their meanings in sentences, making search results more accurate.

BERT also paid attention to the words around the ones people typed making it better at understanding what they meant. Google mentioned there was no need to change how people wrote or optimize for BERT; it was about making sure Google showed the best content.

Additionally, during 2018-2019, Google consistently released core updates to maintain content relevance and emphasize the authority and trustworthiness of incoming links.

SEO in 2020 and Onwards

In 2020, zero-click searches became the new normal. This includes featured snippets, Google’s Local Packs, Knowledge graphs, etc.

Featured snippets have been present since 2014 and hold the “position zero” in search results appearing above other results.

In January 2020, Google updated this feature to avoid duplication between featured snippets and organic results.

Then, in June 2020, Google allowed featured snippets to take users directly to the relevant text, highlighted in yellow. As voice search grows, featured snippet content becomes a significant opportunity to enhance organic visibility.

Google started providing a better user experience straight from the search engine results page. Rich Results, including carousels for news and event listings with easy-access bookmarks, were designed to improve the user experience. Content blocks featured visually appealing and interactive elements.

Moreover, Google exerted more control over titles and meta descriptions on the SERP, aiming to provide specific content aligned with search intent.

There was a significant shift towards high-quality content. Writing content that helped readers apply information in the real world was crucial for achieving higher rankings.

In February 2021, Google introduced the Passage Ranking update enhancing its ability to read, understand, and categorize long-form text. This system involves breaking down big chunks of content into concise informative slices and ranking them based on utility.

If a specific passage within an article provides the best answer to a user’s question, Google displays it directly on the results page.

The battle for top-quality content got stronger. The focus on writing great, informative content with clear headers and a user-friendly structure became the priority.

In fact, these are evergreen content marketing tactics. The key is to write with empathy for your readers and to provide topical authority.

The topic clusters known since 2016, develop into a powerful strategy. The concept of pillar pages and content clusters evolved into a robust engine from 2020 onward.

In late 2022, ChatGPT stepped out to shape the content writing process and simplify many routine marketing activities. Despite the controversial nature, businesses started using AI tools extensively, recognizing their major benefits.

Exciting developments are on the horizon for Intelligent search. More people are using voice searches, and visual search capabilities have become exceptionally advanced. Chatbots and personal assistants are gaining popularity among both users and brands.

SEO Trends in 2024

Many trends that have started emerging in the past few years will continue to anchor and reshape the way we find information, shop, and connect with others in our daily lives.

  1. Search Generative Experience (AI-powered featured snippets) started spreading in 2023. While it becomes more powerful in 2024, people are getting the information they need directly from search results. It is best to focus on achieving the most of top rankings and zero-click searches to stay competitive in this new environment.
  2. There’s even a deeper focus on user signals and user experience. It’s all about making your site user-friendly and valuable. Google heavily relies on user signals that help understand how users feel about your content. SEO is moving more towards optimizing for user satisfaction.
  3. Artificial Intelligence is spreading massively in all areas of digital marketing. While AI helps reach more people, it is crucial to offer something unique and valuable to stand out. Your personal experience is what sets apart good content that AI can’t replicate. In fact, since Google revised its EEAT guidelines (Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness) in December 2022, first-hand experience has become a key factor in deciding how trustworthy a piece of content is.
  4. Social media and AI-powered chat services are now competing with traditional search engines.
  5. Voice and Visual Search are more mature than ever. Searching by speaking or using images is becoming increasingly common. Websites need to be optimized for these types of searches to stay relevant in the changing landscape.
  6. Local search is evolving with advanced features such as targeted ads, effective review management, and increased importance of star ratings in algorithms. Businesses are also focusing on schema markup for improved visibility. Social media platforms, including TikTok, are becoming significant competitors in the local search landscape.
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