Today we want to put aside the most technical and boring issues and try to tell a light story, that closely concerns our work and our business (and also our brand!). Let us take a look at the origins of the word SEO to define the search engine optimization, to find out who coined the term and when, but also who tried to “take over” it with the request of a trademark and who, finally, we must thank for blocking the attempt.

The origins of the term SEO

The chronology of the history of the SEO is not easy to detect and we must therefore rely on the voices of some of the pioneers of the work in the digital sector; in particular, the most credible theory compared to the paternity of the name is that claimed by Bob Heyman in an (old) article on Searchengineland, in which he recounts and traces back its baptism.

The beginning of the word should go back to the summer of 1995, when the internet marketing agency Cybernautics – founded by Heyman with his partner Leland Harden – found himself working for an American rock band, Jefferson Starship. The website created by the developers of the agency appeared only on the fourth page on a search engine (we are in the pre-Google era!) for the query “Jefferson Starship” and the manager of the band called at night to complain about the situation.

The word SEO was born in 1995

The story is also reported in the book “Net Results: Web Marketing that Works“, published back in 1998 by Rick E. Bruner, which also reports an excerpt of the phone call more than angry received by Bob: Basically, the band was on the road and the manager wanted to show a club promoter that Jefferson Starship were so hip that they had their own website. Unfortunately, he could not remember the precise URL (www.jstarship.com, now defunct), so he resorted to a search engine but, to his considerable annoyance, the home page of the group does not come close at all to the top positions of the results.

The next morning, Bob rallied the Cybernautics team and explained that “mastering the art of placement within search engines was a new priority of the company”, calling this new field Search Engine Optimization and assuming shortly the first SEOM (Search Engine Optimization Manager).

The effects of the first SEO work

The article also describes what were the first optimization interventions on the band’s website: at the time, organic search results were dominated by keyword density, meaning they simply evaluated the number of times the keyword appeared on the web page. The Cybernautics designers had worked more rationally, without exaggerating, but by doing so the exact keyword Jefferson Starship appeared less frequently than the fan pages on the band.

Bob Heyman then had the intuition of having his designers insert the words Jefferson Starship on the page with a tiny black writing on a black background (basically, a tactic that now falls into the Black Hat SEO!) and, from there, soon, the site’s ranking soared to number one, to the satisfaction of the band, manager, and agency itself.

Controversies on the name

Since then, the term SEO has become a kind of shared heritage of the community of operators, which has contributed both to the spread of the word and to the growth of activity. Yet, between 2007 and 2010 there was a case that risked changing history, with Jason Gambert’s attempt to claim paternity on the SEO and even claim a trademark on this acronym.

Jason Gambert’s trademark attempt

In short, the unknown Gambert – who, as it was told at the time, had no visibility in the SEO community nor a reference website – had applied for the registration of the SEO brand to the US agency that deals with this issue, the United States Patent and Trademark Office. After a series of refusals, in 2008 he managed to get his application accepted, which would then be processed and analysed in view of the final decision.

Gambert proclaimed himself the inventor of the word SEO, which he first used by email in 2007, and its intent was to patent the term to prevent agencies from selling SEO processes that did not meet the requirements and standards set by Gambert himself and the supervisory committee he would set up. And so, if he had won, the word SEO today would not have the same meaning or indicate the same activity, because in practice he would have decided (and his BBB) what it should indicate and contain.

The reaction of the SEO community

The SEO community, at its dawn but still quite lively, discovered this story in an almost casual way thanks to Sarah Bird, General Counsel of SEOmoz (today’s Moz), who recounted from its company blog about the attempt of Jason Gambert and invited everyone to the action.

Other than SEOmoz, Arteworks.biz, Jonathan Hochman and Rhea Drysdale also opposed the trademark request and, after a long series of appeals, hearings and bureaucratic procedures, it was the latter that asserted its reasons and won, on the behalf of the whole community.

Who is Rhea Drysdale, the savior of the SEO

23 at the time and active in the SEO sector since 2004, Drysdale decided to invest time and money to counter the attempt to register the trademark of Gambert on behalf of the entire digital industry. And while the other oppositions were rejected by the USPTO, she held on for two years, until March 11, 2010, when the US agency officially stopped registering the Gambert brand and accepted her argument.

It took her two years and nearly 20.000 dollars (personally spent) to fight this battle and, at the end of this grueling affair, she then got the right recognition from the community, who has contributed a campaign of donations to restore at least the economic investments.

The father of the SEO and the savior of the name

And so, if we can use the term SEO regularly and freely today, we owe it (probably) to Bob Heyman, who in 1995 coined the term, and certainly to Rhea Drysdale, who exactly 10 years ago managed to block the attempt of appropriation of Jason Gambert.

Two names that we must learn and remember, as well as surely thank!

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