Oct 152008

Correcting the History of Search Engine Optimization

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."

Wikipedia references the earliest known reference to SEO

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:

Usenet spam mentioning SEO in July 1997

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:


February 1997 page from MMG on the Wayback Machine

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.

Search engine optimization listed as a service from MMG on 2/15/97

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:

MMG was offering SEO in early 1997

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!


14 Responses to "Correcting the History of Search Engine Optimization"
Great post, very interesting.
Adam Audette says:
Danny just emailed me a post of his which somehow I missed this month: http://searchengineland.com/who-coined-the-term-seo-14916.php Looks like SEO was invented prior to John's use, sometime in 1995. Check out the book Net Results for more juicy tidbits. However, it doesn't contain any actual documentation - just anecdotal evidence.
Nick Wilsdon says:
Yep but these historical posts are very useful. If only to show how rediculous Jason Gambert is to try and patent the phrase (based on his claim of first usage in 2007).
Simon says:
Oh, that's a shame after all your detective work! Still, either way, it's better to know it didn't all begin with a spammer...
Andre Jensen says:
Nice screenshots. Good to know that in 97 SEO at MMG was "including meta tags." Good times. -Andre
John Audette says:
I'm totally open to documentation earlier than what Adam has provided. But the book, Net Results, was published March 17, 1998 and recounts an event from 1995. It's informative, but it doesn't provide concrete documentation equivalent to what Adam has provided here. It would be nice to have emails or somesuch from that time. The computer that I used when launching MMG in 1995 is somewhere in my attic. This inspires me to dig it out as I think everything is still on there. When I'm done with it, maybe I should give it to the Smithsonian. In any event, Jason whatever his name is, is irrelevant. - John
Mani Karthik says:
Ahha...very interesting news there Adam...Hope the Wiki will be corrected soon. (I followed a sphinn story.) Cheers! Mani
Adam Audette says:
@Mani thanks. Here's the Sphinn entry (on the home page today): http://sphinn.com/story/79220
Adam Audette says:
To update everyone: the reference cited above in the first comment contains no actual documentation. This may in fact (until proven otherwise) be the earliest known reference to SEO. Cool!
Wpromote says:
Very interesting post.
Kyle says:
That is why this site is filled to the brim with free tutorials like this one on search engine optimization. When you create real value and give it away for free, people want to link to your site - and they do. People want to tell their friends and colleagues about your site - and they do. ============== Kyle http://www.widecircles.com
SEO Specialist says:
Thank you for the post, this is very interesting. Especially SEO junkies like me knowing the roots means understanding deeper about SEO. It really fascinates me how it began and just for the three words it becomes a big issue in the World Wide Web.
Oh, that’s a shame after all your detective work! Still, either way, it’s better to know it didn’t all begin with a spammer…
Damien says:
Fun to read it !

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