Webmasters and content providers began optimizing sites for search engines in the mid-1990s, as the first search engines were cataloging the early Web. Initially, all a webmaster needed to do was submit a page, or URL, to the various engines which would send a spider to "crawl" that page, extract links to other pages from it, and return information found on the page to be indexed. Site owners started to recognize the value of having their sites highly ranked and visible in search engine results. The earliest known use of the phrase "search engine optimization" was a spam message posted on Usenet on July 26, 1997.
In 1998 Google was born and attracted a loyal following among the growing number of Internet users, who liked its simple design. Off-page factors such as PageRank and hyperlink analysis were considered, as well as on-page factors, to enable Google to avoid the kind of manipulation seen in search engines that only considered on-page factors for their rankings. Although PageRank was more difficult to game, webmasters had already developed link building tools and schemes to influence the search engine, and these methods proved similarly applicable to gaining PageRank. Many sites focused on exchanging, buying, and selling links, often on a massive scale. Some of these schemes, or link farms, involved the creation of thousands of sites for the sole purpose of link spamming.