The Evolution of SEO

With all of the conference events, podcasts, and social media buzz focused on SEO, it's easy to lose sight of how young a profession SEO truly is. You don't have to think back too far to remember the days of keyword stuffing, Web rings, irrelevant meta data ploys (back when Britney Spears was a keyword for every site), and old-fashioned black-text-on-a-black-background cloaking.

How far we've come.

We've seen a natural progression from back rooms to boardrooms -- from the basement to the mainstream. SEO has not simply shed its dubious roots; it has become a legitimate, reputable component of a proper client marketing mix.

It's rare to witness evolution as it happens. Let's look at what a few short years of professional SEO has given us.

Getting Thrown in the Mix

Once an afterthought to many of our clients, SEO has slowly become a big part of the overall marketing strategy. Maybe these clients have just woken up to the idea of free traffic, or maybe their marketing teams have finally become savvy about the online landscape. Either way, strategic SEM benefits the users, clients, and agencies involved.

After having to justify itself for so long, it's good to see SEO as a regular in many a client marketing mix.

Becoming On-Site Evangelists

Now that marketers understand the value that SEO can add to their bottom line, they need to navigate the nuanced waters of proper optimization. Unfortunately, they sometimes make mistakes that can land them, intentionally or not, in the realm of black hat marketing.

The role of the SEO agency has grown from just fixing a client's site to championing proper on-site optimization. We educate as we address site issues and put client Web sites back on the right track.

Even better, we're now brought into client Web projects much earlier, often before the site is even built. Being given the chance to create a search-friendly site from the ground up is a fantastic indicator of client trust and of the legitimacy of the profession.

Building Connections

As SEM matured, it headed off to high school, and we left the confines of our home pages to build links and connections with others. Link building marks a major turning point for SEO, not because it hadn't been done in the beginning, but because of the level of sophistication it has achieved.

Our desires to build link popularity and the illustrious Google PageRank have created a boom in SEO strategy, marrying SEO to public relations and sales strategy. This is when SEO truly began to permeate every facet of the Internet. Every site could be a partner; every page presented opportunity.

Link building was the step in evolution SEO needed to move from a strictly technical discipline to an accessible marketing discipline. In short, it was the element we need to make SEO understandable to the layperson (not that I don't think 301 redirects are great).

Joining the Conversation

Back to high school again, the burgeoning social media scene gave everyone a voice... and they used it to gossip. SEO became about harnessing this online water cooler to build relationships with key communicators, create buzz, gauge consumer opinion, and create new links to receptive audiences.

And content was once again king. A new breed of social media marketers emerged to generate Digg effects and build followings for clients through audience tailored articles and viral materials. Users digested content that interested them, bloggers received grist to churn out new posts, and client sites slowly slid up the SERPs.

Making It in Film

Remember when MTV first hit the airwaves to the tune of the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star"? Well, now the video star uses a Webcam. The popularity of sites like YouTube, and the creation of new sites like FaceSpook (which creates a 3D movie of images you upload), means that video will continue to play a large role online.

Now that everyone's a mini-Spielberg, it's up to SEO professionals to ensure that our clients' content isn't lost in the shuffle. With this newfound responsibility comes a new set of optimization tactics focused on boosting this content's visibility in Google and all the other video engines. And we might just sneak a link in there for good measure.

Going Universal

Once long ago, there were creatures known as the Top 10 Search Results. These once-pure content pages ruled the SERPs without fear of indented listings or local search feeds. But times have changed.

The proliferation of images, video, books, and news has flipped the concept of search results "real estate" on its head. Now you'll likely be served images, video, news, or books along with the list of links for your query.

SEO must to go beyond the text-on-the-page approach and encompass all digital assets. This will continue to gain prominence and importance, making it even more important to take a holistic approach to your SEO marketing program.

Upward and Onward

This progression is so astonishing because it didn't happen over a series of decades or ever years. SEO has evolved into more than what it was 24 months ago. As Google slowly expands its ability to read Flash objects, as mobile search begins to pick up steam, as new search engines hit the ground running, SEO shows no signs of stunting its evolution.

Ensuring you get the best ROI for your marketing program means taking advantage of all the different flavors of SEO. And, like in high school, the most popular technique today may be yesterday's news in the next few months.

Join us for SES San Jose, August 18-22 at the San Jose Convention Center.

About the author

William Flaiz is vice president of search engine optimization (SEO) and web analytics at Razorfish (formerly Avenue A | Razorfish). In this role, he oversees the firm's global SEO and web analytics practice that services clients across the US, Europe, and Asia.

William manages a staff of more than 30 account services partners, analysts, and strategists, in defining the needs and providing solutions that help clients to measure and optimize their web site investments.

William joined the Philadelphia office of Avenue A | Razorfish in 2002 to establish the web development practice there and, within six months, he led the development of an award-winning healthcare portal for eMedicine. During this time, he managed the creative, user experience, and customer insights groups, growing the revenue and staff dedicated to web development projects, which accounts for approximately 1/3 of the office's revenues today. More recently, William served as vice president of operations for the Philadelphia office, overseeing all agency planning and financials.

William taught classes on web development and the Internet at various universities in Philadelphia, and has served as a judge for the eHealthcare Leadership Awards for the past three years. He has spoken at industry conferences and authored articles for industry publications, including MD Net Guide, the Center for Business Intelligence pharmaceutical series, and the Nashville Advertising Federation.

William earned a B.S. in accounting and finance and MS in information systems from Drexel University.