Search engine optimisation (SEO) in today's world means optimising your website around Google. However this wasn't always the case. SEO has been around since the early 1990's when the first websites were developed and people wanted them to be found. SEO before Google was a lot different to the highly engineered SEO that we know today.
In those days there were lots of search engines to choose from which all worked in different ways.
SEO depends on search engines and the development of search engines in the 1990's led the development of SEO practices.
Search Engines Before Google
In 1993 the first search engines were starting to appear including W3Catalog, AliWeb and Jumpstation, (the first search engine to crawl websites, index them and search them.) In 1994 Yahoo launched as a web directory, and in the same year WebCrawler and Lycos were created. WebCrawler was important because it allowed users to search for any word in any webpage, which has become the standard for all major search engines since.
Looksmart and Altavista launched in 1995 and the competition for adpotion of search services started hotting up. Altavista was unique as it had unlimited bandwidth, allowed natural language queries, had search tips, and allowed people to add or delete their domains in 24 hours. This led to the first type of SEO activity which was submitting sites to search engines.
I started submitting websites to search engines in 1998 and at the time, SEO wasn't known as the official name for getting your website to the top of the search engine results pages. SEO was known at the time by other names including search engine registration, search engine submission, search engine placement or website promotion.
At the end of the 1990's there were many search engines for a website promoter to have their websites listed on. These included human powered directories and listings from web crawlers. As well as the ones mentioned earlier, these included Ask Jeeves, Excite, Infoseek and Lycos.
The Open Directory project by DMoz which came into being in the late 1990's was one of the main places to have your site listed. If you were here, the search engines would return your site in the search results - this was pretty much guaranteed.
So what was SEO like before Google?
Well, in terms of optimising your website, it was all onsite in those early days. Backlinks from other sites were not really a factor until Google popularised this method so the emphasis was on making sure your site was technically correct and that you included the keywords that you wanted to rank for.
This included making sure that there was enough relevant text, that the HTML tags were accurate and that there were both internal links and external links on your pages.
For more black hat practitioners it also included "stuffing" keywords into their meta description, meta tags and into the content of your site. Cloaking content from the user was also a prevalent practise; disguising text from the user but allowing the search engines to see it. In those days the search engines had limited artificial intelligence so were unable to make informed decisions as to what was legitimate content and what was spam.
Article spinning and automatic content generation became prevalent and low quality content. On some occasions, the same site was appearing 5 or 6 times in a search query and the quality of the search engines was in doubt as they were relatively easy to manipulate.
Launched to the world in 1997, Google has become the most prominent search engine of our time in the Western World. Google has quashed a lot of these bad practises to ensure that the results that are provided to end users are relevant to their queries.
Search engines and SEO have come a long way since the 1990s. Google's focus today is on connecting users to valuable content. As search engine optimiser's, our focus should be on creating technically correct websites, with great content, not trying to manipulate the search engine results for our own means.