Updated February 1st, 2024 — version 336

The UnFair Advantage Book
Winning the Search Engine Wars

 Chapter One -
Search Engine Strategies - A Brief History

Everyone knows a Search Engine is the vehicle people use to find things on the Internet. But many are oblivious to the hyper-competitive behind-the-scene strategies used to secure the highly coveted top-ranking positions.

Historically Important Search Engines killed by Google Back in 1996, when the first version of this book was originally written hundreds of updates ago, the leading search engines included the all-but-forgotten likes of WebCrawler, AltaVista, Infoseek, Excite, Open Text, Lycos, Inktomi, Ask Jeeves, and many, many more.

Those engines all responded to search queries with results based solely on matching keywords on webpages to keywords (aka, search words) being used in the search queries. The search engine strategy was very simple back then. The top search results consisted of whichever pages contained the most keywords that matched the search query.

Due to this fact, online marketers began "stuffing" extraordinary numbers of targeted keywords into webpages for the sole purpose of manipulating the search rankings. They went so far as to design entire webpages specifically to rank well for each of their targeted keywords. In many cases, this meant flooding the search engine indexes with hundreds, or even thousands, of superfluous webpages in order to dominate the rankings. And that is how the arms race to 'Winning The Search Engine Wars' began.

In those early days, whoever knew how to stuff the right mix of keywords into a webpage literally gained an unfair advantage! And, frankly, it was pretty easy to quickly score a whole bunch of top ranking pages on most any search engine under any topic.

Back then the search engine formulas, or algorithms, for responding to a search query were pretty basic. And the data compiler programs — aka, robots, bots, spiders, and crawlers — that "crawled" the web simply indexed whatever they saw wherever they found it. Neither the bots nor the algorithms passed judgments based on the "quality" of the site. Nor did they evaluate the trustworthiness of the brand, the credibility of the links, the quality or originality of the content, the popularity of the page, the reputation, or speed of the site. While it's true today that ALL of these elements and more are factored into the ranking algorithm, in the early days of the commercial web, all that mattered were keywords.

From 1995 through 1997, this so-called "keyword stuffing" was the number one strategy. But today, keyword stuffing is considered "spamming" the search engines — and it'll get your pages penalized in the rankings.

Over the years, search engine optimizers (SEOs) have come up with all kinds of strategies to "trick" the search engine algorithms. But none of them work anymore because the engines have learned how to counter the tricks. So, it's not only a waste of time to use them, it's counter-productive because your site will be penalized in the rankings when you get caught.

Regardless, to gain the insight necessary to build today's top-ranking websites, it helps considerably to know the basic history of the arms race for top-ranking pages.

Spamming the Engines — a Moving Target

spam as a moving target To combat the strategy of keyword stuffing, the engines switched to an algorithm based on keyword positioning and keyword density (the number of keywords relative to the number of total words on a page).

When SEOs — aka, online marketing experts — got ahold of software to crack that formula, the engines countered by adding link popularity to the algorithm.

At this point the search engine ranking formula (algorithm) used a combination of keyword placement and anchor text keywords in external (off-site) links that were pointing to the page.

anchor text defined as the words that appear within the tex of a link

Their thinking was that it would be difficult-to-impossible to manipulate the keywords in links (i.e., anchor text) that other sites used to point to a page.

But, no surprise, online marketers are creative and persistent. They quickly figured out all kinds of fabricated link systems designed to manipulate the search algorithms and score top rankings.

They created link exchanges and links pages — pages that were nothing more than a collection of links. And, for a while, these so-called "link farms" were tolerated by the engines until all of a sudden, they weren't.

Then the effort shifted to covertly buying links. Link brokers sprang up for a few years and were successful and even profitable for a while until the engines dropped the hammer by wiping the offending sites all-at-once from their index.

During these years, the engines began reclassifying mainstay and widely accepted search engine strategies like reciprocal link exchanges as artificial link structures and then later as spam. So, reciprocal links, link exchanges, link farms, buying links, brokering links, and keyword-heavy anchor-text linksstrategies that were at one time widely used and mostly acceptable — all got tagged as "link schemes" and added to the list of forbidden strategies.

Black Hat vs. White Hat SEO Strategies

Today they're all considered to be search engine "spam" — also known as "black hat" strategies (as opposed to the Google endorsed "white hat" strategies).

It's important to note that, by this time (circa 2005), ALL of the original search engines (except Yahoo) had been rendered irrelevant by the overwhelming popularity of Google — which didn't exist back in 1996 when the search engine "wars" began heating up.

In fact, it wasn't until 1999 when the fledgling Google first appeared at the Search Engine Strategies Conference as an almost-unheard-of panelist in San Francisco, sharing the stage with all of the aforementioned "leading" search engines.

We were there when Google co-founder Sergey Brin proudly exclaimed to the attendees that...

Google doesn't worry about spam, you can't spam Google.

But SEOs and online marketers did indeed figure out ways to spam Google. And a few years later, once they had acquired the majority market share and crowded out all of their competition, they changed their minds. Now they say:

You had better not even think about spamming Google.

And they really, really mean it!

So now that Google is, effectively, the only search engine, they've become the tail that wags the dog. They dictate (via recommendations and guidelines) almost everything a website can and cannot do — all the way down to the design of the website itself.

Sure, there's Microsoft's Bing, and the privacy-focused DuckDuckGo is coming on strong. They matter, but not enough so that you can ignore the demanding website "quality" requirements of Google.

There's also the social media sites Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and review sites like Yelp and the encyclopedic Wikipedia that influence rankings. But none of them matter near as much as Google, although they DEFINITELY DO MATTER! ...but if you defy Google, you probably aren't going to do very well in any of these other important sources for search traffic.

That's why search strategies today are centered around strategic compliance with Google's terms of service and Webmaster 'best practices' guidelines — both of which are best understood by perusing Google's Quality Rater's Guidelines, which we'll talk about later.

To state it simply, today's search engine strategies focus on constantly adapting your site to comply with whatever Google currently thinks is a "great" website. In other words, if Google likes you, then all of the others are likely to like you too. Your online web presence will flourish.

But, if you fly outside of Google's "guidelines", then you probably won't be found in searches anywhere.

So pay close attention to the following chapters because your primary goal is to keep your website in Google's good graces! And remember, even the basics can be a constantly moving target as they frequently keep raising the bar by honing their requirements and refining their suggestions as they constantly update their algorithms.