Things I Miss from 1990s SEO

Me at my desk in the 1990's, AOL cd, certifications, Al Gore, guitar, coffee

If you were doing SEO in the early days and still are, at some point, the nostalgia machine will kick into overdrive and make you pine for the good old days.

I feel lucky to have witnessed the rise of SEO back in the 1990s—and live to tell the tale.

I’ve been wanting get a few things out about what performing SEO in the 1990s was like. Not that I’d want to go back and give up all the advancements made since then, I just can’t help but miss some of the stuff.

1. The Coming of Age of SEO

We’ve come a long way.

But back in the roaring ’90s, everyone was just making their first steps in SEO. It a time of daring SEO experiments when digital mavericks ran the show. Such excitement!

People were getting rich quick because of their SEO skills. The rules of the game were not as clearly defined as today, with plenty of white spots on the map left for you to figure out on your own.

Organic search felt untamed—you had to approach SEO like Clint Eastwood walking into a gunfight: calm, collected, and always thinking one step ahead.

Thanks to primitive search algorithms, not a single SEO technique was off-limits: the good, the bad, and the ugly. All of them worked.

Keyword stuffing, doorway pages and eventually link bombing began to be things you would seriously consider spending time on. Just pick your target and enjoy the ride (anyone except George W. Bush). It was just a lot of fun.

SERPs were a constant surprise. For instance, you could submit a search for the cheapest laptop to buy in Atlanta and end up visiting the website of a law firm based out in Australia just because it had your keyword somewhere on its page.

2. The Authentic Search

How Authenci City became a ghost town

Remember when you could put a keyword or two into the search box and get a simple list of results to explore in the form of 10 blue links?

In the 1990’s you could.

Today you might search and see ads, shopping, searches related to, people also searched for, “showing results for instead” search results, content scraped from Wikipedia and various snippets that we optimize for today taking up the majority of the results page. And that don’t always feel in line with Google’s historical objective “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

3. The Competition Among Search Engines

As I walk along the graveyard of search engines that could have made it, the endless stream of names keeps popping up in my head: AltaVista, Infoseek, Netscape, Ask Jeeves, Excite, Lycos, HotBot, Dogpile, MSN Search and, of course, AOL and Yahoo.

Some were hoping to hit it big while others were happy with their small slice of the search pie. With only a few exceptions, most fell into oblivion. But one thing unites them all: they were all ground into the dirt by the boot of Google.

But seriously, anyone, just give me a viable alternative to Google. Holding an 80 something percent global search market share in its tight grip, Google has been successfully maintaining its hegemony over the rest of the search engines for the last decade—with no sign of that changing anytime soon.

I have never understood Microsoft’s strategy with Bing (not going all the way to be a real search engine) and why Apple didn’t want to compete with Google in the search realm. I believe both companies lost out time by not doing it.

4. The Ad-Free SERP

As Google has been gradually pulled into the vortex of rampant commercialism, organic search has been steadily inching away from being a free-for-all and turning into a pay-to-win game where those who have the deepest pockets win.

Why? Well, the answer is simple: up to four ads are placed at the top of the results page, right before the organic results. That’s a far cry from the stance on ads the founders of Google took at the very beginning:

“…we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.”

I just can’t stop thinking of the days when basic SEO tactics could defeat Fortune 500 budgets in organic search results.

5. Equal Opportunities for Large and Small Brands

David stands up to Goliath agency
SEO skills could defeat goliath ad budgets

At the dawn of the SEO era, you were just as good as the competitor next to you.

In the eyes of search engines, you could rank for something just as easily as Amazon could and had a solid fighting chance against multibillion-dollar corporations in the battle for free organic traffic.

The Google Vince Update that rolled out in 2009—the update favoring big brands over small websites in organic search—made life for the small website owner or blogger even tougher.

6. Laughably Cheap Keyword Domains

Back in the ’90s, you could easily register a meaningful dot-com keyword domain name for what you’d spend at a nice restaurant.

Premium domain prices can range from the cost of a premium-class trip to the Bahamas to your arm, leg, house, kids, and dog for the privilege of having a two-word keyword in your dot-com domain name.

Now, especially when clients ask about registering domains, it seems there are no search phrases that you can register on a dot-com domain that have any value. The good ones are either in use or for sale at a premium.

So if you have a niche keyword you want to own because it perfectly describes your business, you have to choose a nonstandard top-level domain or tack an additional word to it.

7. Old-School Meta Tags

Few folks can remember the meta tag craze that took place in the late 1990s. Back when even a toddler could abuse search algorithms, using a whole bunch of meta tags was supposed to help systematize web pages.

Most of them—abstract, generator, email, author, copyright, revisit after, etc.—turned obsolete years ago. Even the keyword meta tag, the bread and butter of any old-school SEO back in ’99, has long ago left the scene.

Before the days of CMSs, when you basically had to build every page in HTML and insert all those tags manually, I even took part in developing a free meta tag generator.

“Metty” had “support for 33 meta tags,” which seems kind of silly today and would be a complete waste of time.

Just maybe one of those search engines would understand how much better you were than the competition once they saw that your site had the right Dublin Core meta tag!

8. Web Directories

DMOZ Web Directory

Directories used to be the building blocks of the Web, gathering thousands of websites under one roof.

What’s more, they sent lots of traffic if you played your cards right.

And now?

Well, when was the last time you searched for an answer using a web directory?

That’s a rhetorical question.

“Be wise enough to learn from the past, shrewd enough to capitalize on the present, and clever enough to prepare for the future.” ? Matshona Dhliwayo.

Thankfully, search engines don’t stay the same. But by looking back, we can appreciate the incredible changes SEO has undergone in just a few decades, the decades that shaped the industry we know—and love—today.

Did I miss anything?

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3 Responses

  1. I can’t say I was doing SEO in the 1990s since I started the next decade, and even from the 2000s I miss the mostly Ad-free SERP and heat maps that show the eyes jump right over the ads into the more trusted search results.

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