With how sophisticated Google’s algorithms have become, it’s amusing to look back to the early days of SEO: how different the game was, and all the crazy tricks people used to try.

The terms white hat and black hat didn’t come into play at first, at least not that I can recall. In the very earliest days of the internet you used to hear TV commercials that ended with stuff like “…or find us on America Online, keyword courage.”

Keyword meant something fairly different back then. Sure, it still had to do with things people typed into a search field and the sites they found as a result. But as the website owner, optimizing your content in a time when search engines weren’t good at determining “quality content” opened the door for all kinds of shenanigans.

I remember a guy telling me once how his team put several paragraphs of repeated versions of keywords at the bottom of pages in white text, so they were invisible to readers but were something search engines would pick up. “Wow!” the search engines would say, “this site talks about this keyword a lot! I’d better rank it.”

Another very similar trick was to create paragraphs of keyword-loaded text and set the font size to 0, or 1. Again, it’d be effectively invisible but still scannable in the code.

SEOlium wrote a pretty comprehensive history here, with projections for future iterations as well.

Back in the days of meta keywords…

Some SEO plugins still have the “meta keywords” as an option, but it’s not something most folks bother with anymore. This is mostly because Google doesn’t look at them because they were so badly abused years back. (Note of course that it still does look at other metadata.)

Meta keywords were essentially a comma separated list of keywords you’d place in the <head> area of your HTML. The idea was that you could [legitimately] list things your site was about to help search engines understand how to index and rank your site. Of course, since search engines were that gullible it was tempting to go nuts with the keywords.

In a lot of cases back then, people would even include big keywords that had nothing to do with their site, with the rationale of, “I want my site to show up for everything! TRAFFIC!”

As funny as it may sound, as internet porn became a big thing a lot of other webmasters used x-rated meta keywords on their pages to capitalize on the massive search volume. People would also incorporate their competitors’ branding into their meta keywords so they could capitalize on the brand recognition their peers have accumulated.

As you can tell, it was the wild west.

Keyword stuffing and images…

After Google began paying less attention to meta keywords (gamed out), the focus naturally fell to a page’s actual content. That led to paragraphs like:

“We’re the preferred used cars shop in the state, with more used cars than any other used cars guy that ever dreamed of selling used cars. Trust us, our used cars top the ratings list of any used cars magazine. You’ll be happy with any used car you buy here at Bob’s Used Cars Superstore!”

Gee, I wonder what he sells, right?

Early on like that those same folks discovered that keywords in heading tags were more significant, so everything on the page was an  <h4>, <h6>, then <h3> in random order. Even images were wrapped in heading tags. Images started to matter more for page ranking, so the same tactics applied there.

Sites full of images, often set to 1px or transparent so users couldn’t see them, cropped up everywhere.

Link Spam

By now you’re noticing the pattern. Part of why SEO has had a negative reputation is that at every stage of the game, if something worked, droves of people exploited it. You can guess what happened as the number of links pointed at a site started to matter more and more for that site’s rankings.

Here are a few things that were common old school tactics here:

  • Spam profiles on every site that allows one for free, including links to your site in them
  • Exploit social bookmarking sites to create lists of links to every page on your site
  • Create link circles with other sites, where everyone agrees to link to everyone else
  • Go nuts leaving comments on every blog under the sun with a link back to your site

Read my article on the philosophies of ranking for a break down of different approaches, such as “black hat” techniques like those listed here as opposed to “white hat” techniques. In short, you could summarize the two approaches by saying that white hat takes longer but lasts longer, whereas black hat works quickly but the results can disappear just as quickly.