20 Years in SEO: A Journey through Time with AWR

Dec 7, 2023


min read

Celebrating two decades in SEO this year: LinkedIn, Skype, Safari Internet Browser, Adobe Creative Suite, WordPress, and drumrolls please… Advanced Web Ranking (AWR)! 🎉 

Even Google recently threw its 25th-anniversary bash. Time sure does fly in the digital realm.

For some, the past twenty years might evoke the feeling of the SEO Stone Age, but for us, it feels just like yesterday when we embarked on this thrilling journey. 

Join us as we reminisce about two decades of rankings, algorithms, and the rollercoaster of Google updates. And at the same time, let’s celebrate some of the people who have been huge contributors to the SEO industry over the years. We are so grateful to be able to call them our friends and have them around as mentors and experts in the SEO industry.

What the internet looked like 20 years ago (2003)

Back to the year 2003. Altavista and AOL were kings, and PageRank was the metric of authority. Yahoo was the emerging star of search engines, and the landscape lacked the behemoths we know today – no Facebook or Twitter (though it was pretty good, we must admit). 

The Internet was a wild frontier, unexplored and rife with opportunities and challenges.

When we first launched Advanced Web Ranking in 2003, there were barely any tools available for SEO. There was no Google Analytics, no Search Console and SEO communities were just starting to form.

CEO of Rusty Brick
Started with SEO in 2001 (22 years)

I started the Search Engine Roundtable on December 2, 2003 - so just about 20 years writing about search. I’ve written close to 50,000 stories since, which is crazy.

AWR, initially a desktop software, allowed users to submit websites to search engines and monitor listings in web directories – ah, the good old days of directories! And it looked nothing like today's sleek interface.

Advanced Web Ranking v2.6, back in 2004

Advanced Web Ranking v2.6, back in 2004

Ian Lurie, who’s been rocking SEO for 23 years now and doing digital marketing for way longer than that, was one of AWR’s first users, back in 2004, and a power user across time. He creatively used AWR beyond our expectations, gaining great advantages for his clients.

Consultant, Ian Lurie LLC
Started with SEO in 2000 (23 years)

I got serious about SEO in 1999/2000, so that's (Ian takes off shoes and socks to count that high) 23 years.

I'm actually a digital marketer. SEO sucked me in because, well, it sucks everyone in. Google owns marketing and marketers.

So I'm not sure I'd say I was attracted to it. It was the best thing for my clients at the time. It continues to be important, so I keep at it.

The industry grew more complex (2003-2008)

In the first five years since AWR’s launch, the SEO industry saw Google Maps and YouTube coming on the scene, as well as the first major search revolution with Google Universal, and free tools like Google Trends, Google Analytics, and Search Console (which was called Webmaster Tools back then). Shortly after, Twitter and Facebook shook the digital space and changed how we do marketing forever.

The digital marketing field was rapidly growing and SEOs were getting creative testing tactics that would rapidly earn results.

Aleyda, an industry icon and a dear AWR friend, was a web designer and front-end developer back then. One of the things that she was looking into was a way to drive more traffic and sales to the sites that she built.

When we asked her what SEO tactic was used back when she started, but which is not working anymore, here's what she had to say:

Founder, Orainti
Started with SEO in 2007 (16 years)

Trying to rank for every searched query permutation by indexing internal search results pages or tag pages without paying attention to content cannibalization or duplication issues.

Back then, Miracle was transitioning from a background in documentary filmmaking to becoming a prominent figure in the industry. Her openness to testing new ideas and adapting to change reflects the spirit of innovation that defines SEO.

Here’s what she said when we asked her what SEO tricks used to work like magic before and are nowadays obsolete:

Head of Organic Search, John Lewis
Started with SEO in 2009 (14 years)

All of the keyword spam.  Keyword density, keywords in footers, and keyword clocking was another one. People would just list a bunch of keywords on a page but make the text color white so the users couldn’t see them but search engines could read them) and let's not forget guest posting, and buying directory links.

SEO teams were also getting more numerous and diverse, so that’s when (back in 2008) AWR released its Server edition that would allow users to work together on the same projects from different computers. How many of you remember this user interface?

Advanced Web Ranking v6.3, back in 2008

Advanced Web Ranking v6.3, back in 2008

Google got serious with algo updates (2009 - 2012)

Webspam soon became an issue that Google needed to address, so the first algo updates targeting webspam, Google Panda (2011) and Google Penguin (2012), started to roll, cleaning up the web and causing webmaster forums to explode with complaints. Barry Schwartz always kept track of the hot search marketing community discussions on the Search Engine Roundtable.

Lily, an expert in Google’s Search Quality Guidelines and EEAT, started her SEO career in 2010, just before the two algo updates. Looking back to that era, she recalls:

Director of SEO, Amsive Digital
Started with SEO in 2010 (13 years)

PBNs and link farms used to work wonders, for one thing, but also, just over-optimizing keywords (even meta keywords!) worked well too. Google has gotten so much better at identifying SEO spam over time.

Areej also got into SEO when Panda and Penguin were at their game, in 2013. With over a decade of experience in the industry, she went on to establish one of the most influential SEO communities, Women in Tech SEO, an embodiment of progress and positive change in the industry. She shared that:

Founder of Crawlina
Started with SEO in 2013 (10 years)

I remember the Disavow File being a big deal when I first started. As an agency, we used to sell Link Audits to clients in our services, and we'd comb through their backlink profiles and add a whole bunch of domains to the disavow file.

Meanwhile, AWR was also revolutionizing itself, with a brand new modern look and an all-in-one approach, integrating links, analytics, social tracking, content audit and optimization in addition to rankings. 

 Advanced Web Ranking v8.0, back in 2011

 Advanced Web Ranking v8.0, back in 2011 

And soon enough AWR took another transformational leap forward into AWR Cloud, the first edition of the SaaS rank tracker that AWR is today.

Since then, AWR has tracked more than 48M keywords and generated 7.6M reports for 77k users.

One of the first AWR Cloud versions

One of the first AWR Cloud versions

Next-level SERPs (2014 - 2019)

This was the age of major updates in Google algorithms, like Mobilegeddon, RankBrain, E-A-T and BERT, that took search to a whole new level.

In December 2022, E-E-T became E-E-A-T, and has since become a major criteria in assessing content quality. You can find more insights about E-E-A-T from Lily Ray, who is one of the well known experts in this field.

As search became more sophisticated, the need for search analytics also grew stronger. It was then when research studies started to appear, trying to fill-in the information gaps left by Google and all the available tracking tools. AWR chimed in, with a set of free research tools:

Head of Organic Search, John Lewis
Started with SEO in 2009 (14 years)

I am happy with the openness in the industry and how willing people are to share ideas and tactics. It is an industry where you learn by experience and sharing is invaluable. [...] The constant evolution of the SEO industry is one of the things I like about it. However, I am sad about how much more difficult measurement has gotten but I do think the industry adapts to change quite well.

Where we are now (2020 - present)

The last few years, with the world going through a pandemic and recovering from it, have brought to new heights the importance of the digital space and the work SEOs do to ensure businesses' visibility in increasingly crowded, diverse and dynamic SERPs.

To bring insights on the pandemic's impact on search, we released a new research tool - the Free Search Demand Trends Tool (2020), that helps people get a sense of how search demand is shifting in time.

Lately, AWR has seen many improvements such as:

And you can always find out the latest changes on our website.

Keywords Ranking Dashboard in AWR

Keywords Ranking Dashboard in AWR today

And we promise to continue to innovate to bring you more insights into your data, such as using AI to get a deep understanding of your keyword ranking data. Stay tuned!

Valuable lessons and SEO stories

We'll wrap this 20 year journey with some amazing stories we got from the SEO experts who joined AWR in this celebration. They were gracious to share some "oops" moments from their professional journey that turned into valuable lessons.

Director of SEO, Amsive Digital
Started with SEO in 2010 (13 years)

I was still pretty young, and in an important in-person meeting in NYC with a client. Someone very important asked me a specific technical question about SEO. I thought I knew the answer, which I said out loud, but then immediately realized I might have said something wrong. I spent the rest of the meeting with my head spinning, knowing I might have given wrong information. I went back and forth about whether to clarify what I said, or take it back. 

When I got back to my desk, I researched the question and learned that the answer I gave was indeed, slightly wrong. I later clarified things with the client, but I realized I never ever wanted to give a client advice or information I wasn’t sure about. I learned how to caveat everything I ever present to clients, making clear what I know and don’t know, or how I arrived at the information. 

Almost nothing is certain in SEO and no one knows everything. Be honest with your clients about what you do and don’t know, and always ask them if you can do research and get back to them with the right answer.

Consultant, Ian Lurie LLC
Started with SEO in 2000 (23 years)

Not sure I have time to write them all down. 

Biggest management mistake I ever made was trusting a creative agency when they said, "Oh, yeah, we know SEO, we get it." The resulting shitshow was embarrassing for me (I let them run amok) and resulted in me getting fired. Lesson learned - don't be afraid to be a little pushy. Make sure your partners have a real tactical plan.

Biggest tactics mistake I ever made was getting into content spinning. Yeah, you heard me: In 2002-04 or so I was all over content spinning. I'd write ten versions of something and spin it into 100, spray them all over the internet and get links. Oy. Fortunately, none of my clients suffered for it, but I had a few affiliate sites that got obliterated. Lesson learned: No tactic is forever, and if you're doing something purely for SEO, you're probably going to go down in flames at some point. Nothing wrong with some short-term SEO chicanery, but be ready for the consequences.

Founder, Orainti
Started with SEO in 2007 (16 years)

A few moments that I remember have to do with not paying attention to HTTP headers related configurations or not documenting issues that were reverted after flagging them and then argumenting that they never existed. Always check those headers and screenshot every finding!

Head of Organic Search, John Lewis
Started with SEO in 2009 (14 years)

A client wanted to change the entire URL structure to bring all pages on the blog closer to the home page. The content on the blog pages was really good. I also wanted to keep the blog structure clean and separate. I just didn't think the effort of redirecting over 200 pieces of content was worth it. The client went ahead and did it anyway and saw really good results.

I learned a valuable lesson, to be open to testing new ideas. In this industry, it really depends on the unique circumstances of the website, industry etc. Just because you haven't had the opportunity to apply a technique in a particular setting doesn't mean it's not effective.

You are sharing your subjective opinion, not the objective truth.

CEO of Rusty Brick
Started with SEO in 2001 (22 years)

I had some people come to me asking why their rankings dropped only to quickly look and see that they were blocking Google either through the robots.txt file or their server had rules to block Googlebot.

Do you have any SEO-life stories that you'd like to share? Join the conversation on X and let the memories flow. We’re all ears for your exciting stories!

Use the #AWR20Years hashtag and get a chance to win a fun & geeky anniversary gift! 🎁

To infinity, and beyond!

No matter how many times SEO was proclaimed dead, just like it’s now dying once again, killed by SGE and AI, it managed to transform and thrive. We here at AWR, promise to keep up with the latest trends and innovations!

Here's to another two decades and beyond! 🚀 #AWR20Years

Infographic Twenty Years in SEO - Advanced Web Ranking

Article by

Dana Zavaleanu

Dana leads the marketing team at AWR. Having 13+ years of experience in the industry, she's an all-round digital marketer, with a focus on search analytics and content. Say hello @dana_zavaleanu

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