Updated: Sep 3, 2019
Back at the start of the Millennium the 'big' search engines that most people were using were Lycos and Excite. Of course, back then a very small percentage of the UK population had access to the internet and those that did had a slow 'dial-up' system.
Websites were one or two pages with basic information to allow them to load quickly (within 20 seconds). SEO practices back then were to 'hide' as many keywords on a page as possible, so the website was found for those searches without making the page look to spammy for visitors.
In 2002 Google launched something called 'AdWords' and it was predicted to be the death of SEO, as people could pay for prominence, on the now the number 1 website for starting internet searches.
In 2003, Yahoo purchased Inktomi, AltaVista and FAST, which was basically the end of all of the 'smaller' search engines. Google started to stamp down on 'spam' practices and websites. At the same time Google realised that 'AdWords' were not going to kill off SEO and that in fact the 'natural listings' encouraged visitors back to their search engine platform. Google started to recognise 'professional SEO' experts and promoted good SEO rather than spamming SEO.
2004 saw the first website 'banned' from the internet as Google took action against websites that were spamming them. They also took legal action against the "SEO Company" responsible.
To rank a website in 2006 you just needed links back to your website and so buying links / link exchange was all the rage and most websites had a web page where they would list companies and links to their website (I am still amazed how many websites continue this practice).
Between 2004 and 2008 Google, now was the only real "player" in the search engine world, started taking action against poor linking practices and companies and started tightening up on spam and buying links. The 'Noughties" ended with all "naughty" SEO practices being practically stamped out, as Google concentrated on ranking websites based on their content and it's relevance to the search being carried out.
Between 2010 and 2015 we started to see the search engines take notice of 'Social Media' sites and soon the results were filled with Twitter 'tweets' in the results. (I can still see the face of one of my customers when searching Google for his business, and the whole first page of the search results were compiled of tweets of a Twitter conversation that two members of staff had been having about how terrible the company was!)
Videos and images were also brought in to the search results with the Google 'Caffeine' update.
Google introduced "personal search results" with the websites shown in the search results based on your previous searches and websites you had visited before. This caused a 'bit of a stir' in the SEO world as customers claimed their websites were "top of Google" for any search they did related to their industry, just because they had visited their own website many times before, so Google of course fed them back the website for all relevant searches. This can still be a bit of an issue until you show them the new 'Google Incognito search'.
The focus on ranking websites was on being found for BIG keywords. A 'Plumber' in Bristol would want to rank for that search, and so that was the focus.
Google 'Panda' and 'Penguin' updates figuratively killed off 'link exchanges' with huge penalties for websites who had irrelevant links pointing towards them. At the same time Google introduced "no follow links" to allow websites to provide relevant links to other websites and information without penalising either party. It was the start of "safe linking". Quality and relevant content was now the key to ranking in the search engines.
A report by the 'Office For National Statistics' in 2014 stated:
38 million adults (76%) in Great Britain accessed the Internet every day, 21 million more than in 2006, when directly comparable records began.
Access to the Internet using a mobile phone more than doubled between 2010 and 2014, from 24% to 58%.
74% of all adults bought goods or services online, up from 53% in 2008. Clothes (49%) were the most popular online purchase in 2014.
Of all adults in Great Britain, 67% are aware of Internet storage space services, but the take up of these services to store data is much lower at 35%.
In Great Britain, 22 million households (84%) had Internet access in 2014, up from 57% in 2006.
Fixed broadband Internet connections were used by 91% of households.
The UK was now (almost) internet savvy and usage of mobile phones to visit websites was huge.
The biggest change to the search engines in 2015 was the 'penalisation' of websites that were not "mobile friendly" - a mobile friendly website has different information for the smaller screen to make it easier for the user to read and understand. In ensuring that users got the best experience Google started ranking mobile friendly or responsive websites (where the website automatically changes its size and format to fit the screen) higher in the rankings.
The UK population were using their mobile phones for local searches, and local companies could at last gain an advantage over the large corporates or 'national' companies on the internet.
The introduction of 'semantic search', where Google brings back websites in the results not based on the keywords, but the content on a page, again changed the way SEO agencies looked at working on websites. Ranking for the 'Big' keywords, such as 'Plumber Bristol' became less important, as internet users became more savvy with their searches. 'Long tail keywords', and as many as possible, started to grow website visitors and more importantly, conversions.
In years gone by working the content and structure of a website was enough. Now, there is so much more to do to not only rank a website in search engines, but to get customer engagement. A better description of the service would be 'digital marketing'.
Old practices, as mentioned earlier, meant 'big' keywords were key to ranking. A focus on a single keyword per page or even for a whole website would rank the business and back then it was all about 'rankings'.