Have you ever wished for a nostalgic retrospective on the heyday of SEO, featuring some of the biggest names in the world of search, all condensed into a 40-minute video with an admittedly cheesy title?
If so, you’re in luck, because there’s a documentary just for you: it’s called SEO: The Movie.
SEO: The Movie is a new documentary, created by digital marketing agency Ignite Visibility, which explores the origin story of search and SEO, as told by several of its pioneers. It’s a 40-minute snapshot of the search industry that is and was, focusing predominantly on its rock-and-roll heyday, with a glimpse into the future and what might become of SEO in the years to come.
The movie is a fun insight into where SEO came from and who we have to thank for it, but some of its most interesting revelations are contained within stories of the at times fraught relationship between Google and SEO consultants, as well as between Google and business owners who depended on it for their traffic. For all that search has evolved since Google was founded nearly two decades ago, this tension hasn’t gone away.
It was also interesting to hear some thoughts about what might become of search and SEO several years down the line from those who’d been around since the beginning – giving them a unique insight into the bigger picture of how search has changed, and is still changing.
So what were the highlights of SEO: The Movie, and what did we learn from watching it?
The stars of SEO
The story of SEO: The Movie is told jointly by an all-star cast of industry veterans from the early days of search and SEO (the mid-90s through to the early 2000s), with overarching narration by John Lincoln, the CEO of Ignite Visibility.
There’s Danny Sullivan, the founder of Search Engine Watch (this very website!) and co-founder of Search Engine Land; Rand Fishkin, the ‘Wizard of Moz’; Rae Hoffman a.k.a ‘Sugarrae’, CEO of PushFire and one of the original affiliate marketers; Brett Tabke, founder of Pubcon and Webmaster World; Jill Whalen, the former CEO of High Rankings and co-founder of Search Engine Marketing New England; and Barry Schwartz, CEO of RustyBrick and founder of Search Engine Roundtable.
The documentary also features a section on former Google frontman Matt Cutts, although Cutts himself doesn’t appear in the movie in person.
Each of them tells the tale of how they came to the search industry, which is an intriguing insight into how people became involved in such an unknown, emerging field. While search and SEO turned over huge amounts of revenue in the early days – Lincoln talks about “affiliates who were making millions of dollars a year” by figuring out how to boost search rankings – there was still relatively little known about the industry and how it worked.
Danny Sullivan, for instance, was a newspaper journalist who made the leap to the web development in 1995, and began writing about search “just because [he] really wanted to get some decent answers to questions about how search engines work”.
Jill Whalen came to SEO through a parenting website she set up, after she set out to bring more traffic to her website through search engines and figured out how to use keywords to make her site rank higher.
Rae Hoffman started out in the ‘long-distance space’, making modest amounts from ranking for long-distance terms, before she struck gold by creating a website for a friend selling diet pills which ranked in the top 3 search results for several relevant search terms.
“That was probably my biggest ‘holy shit’ moment,” she recalls. “My first commission check for the first month of those rankings was more than my then-husband made in a year.”
Rand Fishkin, the ‘Wizard of Moz’, relates the heart-rending story of how he and his mother initially struggled with debt in the early 2000s when Moz was still just a blog, before getting his big break at the Search Engine Strategies conference and signing his first major client.
The stories of these industry pioneers give an insight into the huge, growing, world-changing phenomenon that was SEO in the early days, back when Google, Lycos, Yahoo and others were scrambling to gain the biggest index, and Google would “do the dance” every five to eight weeks and update its algorithms, giving those clever or lucky enough to rank high a steady stream of income until the next update.
Google’s algorithm updates have always been important, but as later sections of the documentary show, certain algorithms had a disproportionate impact on businesses which Google perhaps should have done more to mitigate.
Google and webmasters: It’s complicated
“Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] were fairly antagonistic to SEOs,” Brett Tabke recalls. “The way I understood it, Matt [Cutts] went to Larry and said… ‘We need to have an outreach program for webmasters.’ He really reached out to us and laid out the welcome mat.”
Almost everyone in the search industry knows the name of Matt Cutts, the former head of Google’s webspam team who was, for many years, the public face of Google. Cutts became the go-to source of information on Google updates and algorithm changes, and could generally be relied upon to give an authoritative explanation of what was affecting websites’ ranking changes and why.
However, even between Matt Cutts and the SEO world, things weren’t all sunshine and roses. Rand Fishkin reveals in SEO: The Movie how Cutts would occasionally contact him and request that he remove certain pieces of information, or parts of tools, that he deemed too revealing.
“We at first had a very friendly professional relationship, for several years,” he recollects. “Then I think Matt took the view that some of the transparency that I espoused, and that we were putting out there on Moz, really bothered him, and bothered Google. Occasionally I’d get an email from him saying, ‘I wish you wouldn’t write about this… I wish you wouldn’t invite this person to your conference…’ And sometimes stronger than that, like – ‘You need to remove this thing from your tool, or we will ban you.’”
We’ve written previously about the impact of the lack of transparency surrounding Google’s algorithm updates and speculated whether Google owes it to SEOs to be more honest and accountable. The information surrounding Google’s updates has become a lot murkier since Matt Cutts left the company in 2014 (while Cutts didn’t formally resign until December 2016, he was on leave for more than two years prior to that) with the lack of a clear spokesperson.
But evidently, even during Cutts’ tenure with Google, Google had a transparency problem.
In the documentary, Fishkin recalls the general air of mystery that surrounded the workings of search engines in the early days, with each company highly protective of its secrets.
“The search engines themselves – Google, Microsoft, Yahoo – were all incredibly secretive about how their algorithms worked, how their engines worked… I think that they felt it was sort of a proprietary trade secret that helped them maintain a competitive advantage against one another. As a result, as a practitioner, trying to keep up with the search engines … was incredibly challenging.”
This opaqueness surrounding Google’s algorithms persisted, even as Google grew far more dominant in the space and arguably had much less to fear from being overtaken by competitors. And as Google’s dominance grew, the impact of major algorithm changes became more severe.
SEO: The Movie looks back on some of Google’s most significant updates, such as Panda and Penguin, and details how they impacted the industry at the time. One early update, the so-called ‘Florida update’, specifically took aim at tactics that SEOs were using to manipulate search rankings, sending many high-ranking websites “into free-fall”.
Barry Schwartz describes how “many, many retailers” at the time of the Florida update suddenly found themselves with “zero sales” and facing bankruptcy. And to add insult to injury, the update was never officially confirmed by Google.
Fast-forward to 2012, when Google deployed the initial Penguin update that targeted link spam. Once again, this was an update that hit SEOs who had been employing these tactics in order to rank very hard – and moreover, hit their client businesses. But because of the huge delay between one Penguin update and the next, businesses which changed their ways and went on the metaphorical straight and narrow still weren’t able to recover.
“As a consultant, I had companies calling me that were hit by Penguin, and had since cleaned up all of their backlinks,” says Rae Hoffman.
“They would contact me and say, ‘We’re still not un-penalized, so we need you to look at it to see what we missed.’ And I would tell them, ‘You didn’t miss anything. You have to wait for Google to push the button again.’
“I would get calls from companies that told me that they had two months before they were going to have to close the doors and start firing employees; and they were waiting on a Penguin update. Google launched something that was extremely punitive; that was extremely devastating; that threw a lot of baby out with the bathwater… and then chose not to update it again for almost two years.”
These recollections from veteran SEOs show that Google’s relationship with webmasters has always been fraught with difficulties. Whatever you think about Google’s right to protect its trade secrets and take actions against those manipulating its algorithms, SEOs were the ones who drove the discussion around what Google was doing in its early days, analyzing it and spreading the word, reporting news stories, featuring Google and other search companies at their conferences.
To my mind at least, it seems that it would have been fairer for Google to develop a more open and reciprocal relationship with webmasters and SEOs, which would have prevented situations like the ones above from occurring.