From Strings to Things: The Evolution of Search


Finding information through search engines has become such an ingrained aspect of most peoples’ daily lives that few people ever step back and look at how it has changed throughout the years. From the earliest days of search and the ten blue links all the way up to today’s conversational search and knowledge graph, search engines have grown and evolved at a rate that is on par with everything else in the technology field. Let’s take some time to look back on the history of search.

Early Days – The earliest days of search were a messy time. Not only were search engines dealing with a severe lack in quality content, but most engines were still trying to figure out how to best access information and provide accurate search results.

The solution that they came up with was to look for exact matches of words inside of companies’ websites. The use of these exact match words (keywords as they are now known) provided the best option at the time for quickly locating relevant information on a user query; however, this keyword usage led to a bevy of problems for the search engines, and an abundance of opportunities for early black-hat SEO specialists.

If a search engine is only using keywords to justify relevance in a website, then manipulating that engine’s results is quite easy. All early SEOs needed to do was to put relevant keywords on their sites more than their competition. So if you want to be on top of the search engines for auto mechanics, all you needed to do was make sure the keywords “Auto Mechanic” showed up on your website 100-150 times. If your competition put in this keyword 200 times, then you would need to update your site and add the keywords in an extra 100-150 times.

As you can clearly see, this becomes a problem for customers viewing a business’ site. There is no way to include the keywords “Auto Mechanic” 300 times on a website while keeping it easy to read and understand. What we were left with was a bunch of sites that were almost impossible to navigate through, and the search engines quickly realized that this was not a best practice.

“Keyword Stuffing” as this technique is now known was one of the earliest black-hat SEO tactics, and it is one of the main reasons that SEO still has a negative reputation in modern times. The search engines realized that they could not just use information provided on a website to decide search rankings, and they began searching for a more-efficient alternative. This became the next stage in search evolution, what I will refer to here as user justified search results.

 Link.fwLinking Up – These early search engines knew that they could not rely on keywords alone to dictate their rankings, so they started looking at other factors that could establish a website’s relevance. What they decided was that better sites tended to have other sites and users linking to them.

The search engines figured that they could look at how many links at site had to it, and this would give them a better idea of the quality of the site. This seems right in principle: a truly great site will have many followers that want to share the website and link to it. It was at this time that the engines started to assess data relating to how many people clicked on a search result.

If the engines found that users were clicking on a certain site disproportionately to the other sites in a particular field, then they would raise that site’s search rank. Both of these tactics seem justified; however, once again the black-hat SEOs were able to easily manipulate their results. If links become a main factor in a site’s search ranking, then the answer is simple: Create as many sites as possible, and link them all back to your main site.

This led to the black-hat tactic of “link farming.” Seos at this time would create massive “farms” of thousands of websites, and then companies would pay them, and these SEOs would link all of these farm sites to their client’s site. This would provide said company with thousands of new links in a few days, and their search rankings skyrocketed accordingly.

With regards to clicks on a site dictating rankings, this is where all the popups and spam first came from. Black-hat SEOs would do anything in their power to get client’s sites, or redirected sites onto user monitors. It didn’t matter if the user liked the site or hated it, as long as they clicked on the pop-up, its purpose was served.

Once again, the search engines saw the flaw in this and had to design a solution to get rid of spam and improve search results. This led to the creation of more content-specific search engines; what is now referred to as vertical search.

Getting Vertical – In vertical search, engines could focus on a specific genre of information (news, shopping, auto-industry etc.) instead of having to index the entire Internet for information. This provided more specific search results and a better user experience, for those that knew what it was. What we found was that even though these great vertical search options were available, users still ended up doing a horizontal search in the regular old search bar of sites like Google and Yahoo.

It was during this time that search engines also began to assess the quality of site links instead of just the quantity. It used to not matter who or what was linking to or clicking on your site. As long as the clicks and links were there, your search rankings would go up. In this next evolution, engines started looking at the reputation and quality of these linking sites in just as much detail as they looked at the main search sites.

During this time, search engines began to locate these link farmers and spammers, and the dropped associated sites accordingly. This did not immediately kill off spam and pop-ups (they are still around today as I’m sure you know), but it did drop the effectiveness of these tactics.

This hopefully will one day cause these spammers to give up once they see that their outdated tactics are doing nothing for them or their clients. These spammers and link farmers gave the field of SEO a bad reputation that still exists today even though the grand majority of SEO specialists are an honorable breed.

This change in search engines started giving users a more specific search experience, but the engines were not satisfied stopping there. Google and the other search engines decided that localized personal search was the way of the future, and they began working on the next phase: Personalized results.

 I am Special.fwPersonalize Me – In this next evolution of search, engines like Google realized that they could access past user searches and a user’s location, and this information would aide in providing the user with relevant results.

At this time, when a user lived in California and typed shoe store into Google, they would not receive results for shoe stores across the US.

Ideally this user would only receive results for shoe stores in their local areas unless they chose to broaden their search to include more national references.

Also, if this user constantly checked and monitored the converse website, then the search engines would favor Converse in the provided search results. What this user is left with is the closest shoe stores to his/her location, with Converse ranking at the top of the results.

This was a revolution in search results, and though some people thought this was a little creepy and big brotherish, most people enjoyed receiving relevant, localized results. At this time, however, the search engines were still viewing the search terms as a collection of words, and they still had to look for word matches to these queries.

This was not the most efficient way to search for information, because the engines could only provide results that were relevant to the keywords used in a search. The search engine could not easily associate those terms with other related queries, so users would have to type in multiple search terms to find information on a related topic.

This is where the most recent evolution of search has come in. Google has now rolled out Knowledge Graph; an intuitive extension of machine learning in modern times.


Strings to Things – With the creation of Knowledge Graph, Google went from viewing search queries as an unrelated collection of words to seeing searches as an “Entity” that had numerous bits of information associated with it. When using Knowledge Graph and typing in the search term “Will Ferrell” Google does not just examine the keywords “Will” and “Ferrell” and look for matches.

Instead, Google is able to recognize that Will Ferrell is an entity; he is a comedic actor that has been in numerous movies. He has a specific age, height, and weight. He has a wife, and she who is a related entity, and his wife has a whole separate set of facts and statistics associated with her. Now when Google searches the web for Will Ferrell, it no longer needs to provide just sites that have the words Will Ferrell in them. Instead, Google provides movies Ferrell has been in, actors related to Farrell, and many other related facts and information related to him.

Along with this, Google has also compiled a massive amount of facts, statistics, and information about the world in general. Because of this, they no longer need to direct users to external websites for queries about simple information. It used to be that if you wanted to convert 15 kilograms to pounds, you would have to type this into Google. Google would then provide a listing of conversion sites that you would have to navigate to and then conduct your conversion on their site.

This is no longer the case. Now, when you type “15 Kilograms to pounds” you are immediately greeted with the correct answer right at the top of the Google results page. This is great for users, but businesses that rely on providing simple facts and statistics to users are now being weeded out. Users have no need anymore to visit these types of sites, if Google provides the information the user wants on their search page.


Talk It Out – The most recent evolution of search consists of hyper-personalized search results, and conversational search. Google recently took applicants for their Search Field Trial in which users would allow Google to access their Gmail, Google+, Google Calendar, and Google Drives to provide the most personalized search results possible.

With this feature, users can type in “When is my next flight?” or “When is my next appointment?” and Google will immediately provide those answers directly from the user’s personal information.

This provides an all-inclusive search world where Google becomes the all in one repository for anything that a user would possibly want to know.


 star trek.fwAlong with this, Google has also made it their main goal to develop a “Star Trek Computer.” This would be a “perfect personal digital assistant” that could satisfy every user need without that user ever having to type or look at a monitor.

Just like Captain James T. Kirk, future Google users will be able to talk to their tablets, laptops, phones, or glasses just as they would talk to a teacher or mentor. Ideally, they will be able to ask Google any question they have, and Google will quickly be able to provide the perfect result, spoken back in a pleasant female voice.

I did a complete analysis of Google’s “Star Trek Computer” HERE if you would like more information. Google is certainly still in the early stages of these last two evolutions, but they will be here before you know it.

If you are in the field of SEO or content marketing, it is vital that you understand the potential impact and implications that these evolutions will have on your online campaigns. As search results get more and more personalized, SEO and content marketing will need to get more creative to stay on top of the competition.

SEOs must be able to clearly define their client’s products or services as “Entities” and provide the most effective schema markups so Google can quickly and easily locate the information it is seeking

Final Thought – Search engines have come a long way since their earliest incarnations, and these evolutions are far from over. This is an exciting time for search; it seems like the “future” is here now.

With the planned release of Google Glass and other wearable tech the world will soon resemble some of the distant futures laid out in the great science fiction tales of our time. All these changes can seem daunting to anyone that relies on exceptional search rankings for their business, but anytime change comes, it brings with it opportunities for us to grow and evolve.

The companies that can accept these changes in stride will prosper; those that keep clinging to the old days of black-hat spam and pop-ups will find themselves drowning with no life raft in site.

Fringe Digital Marketing Agency is always interested in hearing your thoughts and opinions. What do you think about the evolution of search? Is something relevant to this discussion that I have left out here? If so, please comment below and let the world know. Thanks!