The phrase “blog writing” conjures up dozens of different images depending on who you ask, and most of them would be right! A blog can be an intensely personal diary of feelings, experiences and observations just as much as it can be a highly polished portfolio of a business’s most important thought leadership contributions.
But since we’re marketers, “blog” most often refers to a specific digital marketing channel that improves your ability to rank on search engine results pages. By crafting outstanding content through blog writing services and sharing it to your business blog, you can signal relevance to search engines when someone looks up related queries.
Business blogs these days must abide by minimum standards of quality in order for this SEO strategy to work, though. Where do these quality standards come from? Well, technically they come from Google, which regularly updates their search algorithms to favor high-quality content and punish keyword-stuffing blogs that attempt to abuse the system. More accurately, the quality standards we see marketers strive to adopt today comes from the journalistic nature of early blogs from yesteryear.
By analyzing these original blogs, what they stood for and what motivated their creation, we can get an idea for how to improve our own content quality and the related SEO performance. So buckle up for a history lesson as we examine the origins of the blog and learn some important content marketing lessons along the way.
1994–1999: The Early Internet Gives Rise to Dedicated “Web Logs”
Back in the early 90s—before a flood of America Online free trial discs hit just about every household in America—the internet was mostly used by students, academics, government employees and employees of certain corporations.
Unsurprisingly, what is recognized as the very first “web log” was started by the first category: a student. Justin Hall, an 18-year-old student at Swarthmore College, wanted a repository where he could save his favorite links to online websites. He began his blog in January of 1994, which was a combination of his own personal experiences as well as a curated list of interesting links. Since “bookmarks” didn’t really exist then, and early online communities were always on the lookout for good link recommendations, it didn’t take much for Hall’s blog to take off.
Within a few years, other “online journals” began popping up. Many of them were dedicated to niche interests, such as Shack News, which began in 1996 as Quakeholio, a dedicated community for the video game “Quake.” Quakeholio’s Steve Gibson later got hired by Ritual Entertainment, the makers of “Quake,” to work full-time creating articles for their website, likely becoming the first paid blogger.
In 1997, a fellow online diarist in the spirit of Justin Hall named Jorn Barger described his journaling activities as “logging the Web.” In 1999, programmer Peter Merholz shortened the term “Weblog” to “blog.”
By the early 2000s, blogging had moved from a personal activity to a paid one. Gizmodo, Gawker and other commercialized publisher websites rode the boom in internet use through the early decade. Websites earned money by garnering substantial reader bases. Readers’ eyeballs translated to impressions for online display ads, creating an advertising revenue-based business model that some blogs could thrive off of.
2000–2007: Blogging Takes Off, But Remains Distant From SEO and Content Marketing
Early blogs had everything to do with earning readers. Whether you were running a blog for yourself or a business, the goal was generating traffic through a combination of reader retention, referrals and link promotions on other sites.
Businesses in the early age of the internet generally relied on people to either know their web address by heart or find it through a direct online search. However, some businesses caught on to the traffic search engines could bring. An enterprising HVAC company in a bustling region could use search engine optimization (SEO) techniques to associate its website with the term “air purifiers,” for instance.
Interestingly, the link between blogs and SEO was still very hazy during this time. Writing advice to aspiring bloggers in 2004, internet marketing guru Yaro Starak explained that, “search engine optimization (SEO) is an area that most bloggers will never get into in any real depth.” Instead of regarding SEO as the work of keyword stuffers, Starak describes that, “at the highest level, very technical minded people are testing and tracking things to optimize search rankings for their websites and blogs.”
Indeed, the early work of SEO was very much a technical endeavor. Early SEO blog resources like Search Engine Watch scrutinized the efforts of businesses down to the letter. “The words ‘air purifiers’ appear in the body copy twice in bold text, for no apparent reason,” they write in a 2003 case study. “In the past, Google has said that it may consider words in bold to be a bit more relevant to a page. My guess is that this is why the words were placed into bold on this page — to try and please Google.”
Articles like that one arose out of frustration with Google’s constant algorithm changes. Businesses tried everything they could to rank, including manipulating whatever content they had to satisfy the mighty Google algorithm gods.
2008–2012: Content Marketing, SEO and Blogging Intersect Thanks to a Panda
Like any good business model, blogging and SEO soon got abused into oblivion. Online retailers and ambitious local businesses began to game their search results ranking with black hat practices like keyword stuffing, invisible text and deceptive content headlines.
Similarly, online blogs proliferated while taking a huge dip in average quality. With the rise in broadband connectivity, the advent of social media and the release of the iPhone in 2007, millions of people began to read blogs daily. Eager to cash in on this traffic, poor-quality blogs wrote headlines about the day’s hottest news, seeking to trick people into clicking on their website above others and viewing ads.
Search users had enough. Those keeping an eye on internet culture predicted that content farms—websites pumping out poor-quality content to earn high search rankings—would soon reach a breaking point. “The jury’s out on whether the content farm approach will prove successful,” opined Tech Crunch’s Ashkan Karbasfrooshan in 2010, “but I am betting that in 2011, you will start to see a regression to the mean, with the very same companies who are rushing to emulate the leading content farm companies revert back towards a more balanced approach to publishing and focus on quality.”
Karbasfrooshan wasn’t wrong, but he overestimated the common sense and goodwill of the typical business that ran content farms. It wasn’t introspection that led to the slow death of garbage content, it was a panda bear.
Specifically, it was the Google Panda update in 2011. “In January, Google promised that it would take action against content farms that were gaining top listings with ‘shallow’ or ‘low-quality’ content,” Search Engine Land wrote in February 2011. “Now the company is delivering, announcing a change to its ranking algorithm designed take out such material.”
Google Panda impacted an astounding 12 percent of U.S. search results. It scrubbed content that was copied wholesale from other sites as well as content that showed signs of deliberately trying to game the system, such as through keyword stuffing.
The Panda update marked a turning point where blogging’s craftsmanship and SEO’s profit motive intersected. Don’t believe us? Just take a look at this Google Trends graph, where searches for “content marketing” rose steadily just a few months after Panda was released.
Business owners had to come to terms with the fact that search engine ranking mattered to their bottom line, but that quality mattered to Google. Suddenly, they had a strong incentive to enlist the help of content writing services that could follow the guidelines of SEO experts.
2013–Present: Trying to Relearn the Lessons Early Bloggers Taught Us for More Effective Content Writing Services
Panda was far from the last Google update that had a profound impact on digital marketing. The company has steadily updated their algorithm year after year in order to place relevant, high-quality content at the top of search results for eager search users to devour.
But just like how content farms abused the blogging publisher model, many content writing services and SEO agencies still get content writing wrong. They obsess over things like keyword usage, even though Google now explicitly states that “creating compelling and useful content” is a more effective ranking strategy than “inserting numerous unnecessary keywords aimed at search engines but are annoying or nonsensical to users.”
So what lessons can we learn from early bloggers to break out of bad content writing habits? For one, your business blog should exhibit the qualities of early bloggers:
- Passionate—Intensely interested in the topic at hand and dedicated to sharing their news and ideas with their community
- Introspective—Blogs had a strong voice and felt like they were personal, being written from the heart for an intimate-feeling audience
- Timely—Always wants to stay up to date so that the blog can provide the most relevant and late-breaking information possible
- Informative—Early bloggers didn’t just deliver updates; they also created educational resources for readers in an easy-to-digest format
- Audience-Focused—The most successful blogs always catered to their readers above all else; word-of-mouth and strong referrals from high-traffic websites were the easiest ways to earn readers before the days of social media
Above all else, early blogs had a purpose. Back in the days when there wasn’t much out there on the internet, some bloggers like Steve Gibson felt like they had a mandate to bring information to the public. Creating a new community meant that something exciting was being built—a place for like-minded people to gather, discuss things and stay up to date.
While topical blogs are a dime a dozen these days, you should still consider it your duty to give your industry niche and customer base something unique to digest. After all, your voice isn’t out there, nor is your business’s distinct perspective.
So whether you are a marketing agency considering how to write better for a client or a business owner thinking about how to squeeze the most performance out of your website content, think small to write big. When you can embrace the enthusiast mentality of early bloggers and deliver outstanding content to the loyal fans in your audience, that’s a recipe for making everyone—including your business, your readers and Google—happy.