Linking in the PreHistory of Search

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Once upon a time, back before Google, links still mattered.

A bust of a Prehistoric Man, likely not an SEO

They didn’t matter because they might or might not pass along PageRank, because that was a Google invention and until Google came along, links didn’t make a difference in how well or poorly a page might rank in a search engine for a specific query.

But the right link in the right place at the right time could make all the difference in the world. This was sometimes known as following the scent of information, or even more specifically, finding seducible moments.

On the thank you page of our site (the company I was working for at the time), you would see a confirmation of your order, and information about when it would be completed and when you would likely hear from us again, and where to contact us if you had more questions. There were also several links on that page to other vendors on other sites as well. We provided incorporation services and helped people to incorporate their business. Our thank you page provided links to vendors whom we trusted enough to refer our customers to, such as a tax attorney, and certified public accountant, and the small business administration.

Including those links on a thank you page after clients had finished incorporating was providing our customers with links to sites at a seducible moment, after the task, they came online for was completed (incorporating) and before they had decided upon a new task. We saw value in making a recommendation through linking to people we trusted and believed that providing those links would make it more likely that those customers would be satisfied with us enough to return to use our services again. Many did come back more than once.

It didn’t matter that the only time you could see those links was after you placed an order because they were there for you to go to in the window of time after you placed your order and before you might decide to do something else. A search engine today might never see those links because we probably wouldn’t want our thank you page being indexed.

I wasn’t an SEO back then, because we would have needed to have search engines to be SEOs, but many of us called ourselves webmasters or even web site promoters. We did have a few simple rules for ourselves when linking. One of the primary ones was, “Would we trust our clients with the site that we linked to?” That’s not a bad question or guideline to consider these days when you link, but it might not be a measuring stick that as many people follow these days. I’m surprised by some things I sometimes see linked to.

One of the early popular sites on the web was supposedly modeled after Mad magazine, at suck.com. It contained a lot of irreverent and sometimes silly tales, and a lot of links to places they found interesting on the Web. A story about the site from 10 years ago or so describes how the site was originally promoted. One of its authors went to a doctors office, and started going through all the magazines he found there, and copying email addresses of all the reporters found. Befriending those reporters and getting them involved in discussions about the site help it grow quickly.

I’m not saying that you should only link to people whom you’ve met in person. I’m also not saying that you should only link in a manner in which makes it look like you’re involved in some kind of link scheme. Exercising care when you link, to try to provide links to others based upon some level of trust in the places you link to isn’t a bad idea. But suck.com thrived even when the places it linked to might have been less than trustworthy. Of course, it was intended to be entertainment and not a trustworthy business, so it may have been held to a different standard than a site selling legal services.

One day, one of the owners of the site I worked for received an email from his sister, who sold computers for DEC (Digital Equipment Corp). She told him about a new site they had launched that we might like, called Alta Vista. It evolved very quickly into the most popular search engine of its time, and Google stole that title away from it not too much later. Once Google appeared, we had some rethinking to do about linking. We remembered ideas like the scent of information, as well as how the authors of suck.com got reporters involved in discussions of their site. We learned lots of other lessons over the years involving linking, and learn new stuff regularly.

Search engines are evolving, and we are, too.

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