Does the history of search engine optimization (SEO) even matter? I believe it does. In an industry that suffers from lack of structure and standardization, having a fuzzy history only turns the blinds another notch dimmer. Without having a clear frame of reference for where we originated, it makes it more difficult to chart progress and locate the path to where we're going.
SEO as an industry has a lot of growing up to do, surely. It's partly the reflection of the wild west mentality that permeates the early days of the Internet, and partly the result of a lot of geeks with keys to the castle. SEO can make companies a lot of money, and with no real law in effect (only rules as set by search engine guidelines), pretty much anything goes provided you're willing to take the risk.
But this post isn't about SEO standards or the white hat vs black hat debate. This post is about the history of search engine optimization; a history that will now need to be corrected.
The Current History
Who invented the term search engine optimization? I may have a definitive answer - or at least definitive proof that the term was being used prior to the Usenet spam posting that is now referenced as the earliest known web mention in the Wikipedia entry.
Wikipedia says the following about search engine optimization:
According to industry analyst Danny Sullivan, the earliest known use of the phrase "search engine optimization" was a spam message posted on Usenet on July 26, 1997."
The Wikipedia entry references a Danny Sullivan comment where he points out a Usenet spam post using the term search engine optimization.
Here's a link to the Usenet posting with the term search engine optimization highlighted. Directly below is a screenshot of the post:
Up until now this has been the earliest known record of the term search engine optimization being used online.
Did John Audette Invent the Term Search Engine Optimization?
The Wikipedia page needs to be corrected. John Audette was using the term search engine optimization at least 5 months prior to the earliest reference on Wikipedia. Not only that, it was being offered as a legitimate service, a huge departure from the intentions of the spam message on Usenet.
Check this web page that was published in February 15, 1997 that proves John Audette was using the term search engine optimization at least 5 months prior to the Wikipedia reference:
Multimedia Marketing Group (MMG) was John Audette's online agency, founded in 1995 and the starting place for some of the pre-eminent SEO's in the industry, such as Bill Hunt, Detlev Johnson, Marshall Simmonds, Derrick Wheeler, Jeremy Sanchez, Andre Jensen and Adam Sherk. Bend, Oregon - MMG's location prior to its purchase by Tempus Group in 1999 - is still home to many of the world's best SEO shops and consultants (including AudetteMedia). It truly is the birth place of SEO.
Danny Sullivan visited MMG's Bend offices to train the fledgling team on the fundamental tactics of search engine optimization. John wanted to reach out to the premier expert in the field (Danny) to learn all he could. That was in the Fall of 1997, months after MMG began using the term SEO on its site.
Here's a services detail page that again mentions SEO and meta tags:
I urge you to play around on the old MMG archive from early 1997 and review the several mentions of search engine optimization:
It's time to update the Wikipedia entry on SEO!