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There was something in Infoseek's FAQ's concerning spamming, that referenced SEO, if I remember correctly... But who know's where they got the term? There was a core group of us at SEF in the early days also... I don't think anyone will be able to come up with who originally coined the phrase, but it would be interesting if the origination could be found...
it seems that their earliest record is late 1997/early 1998
but - doing a search
"search engine placement"
Shows that THIS was one of the original terms - but it was eventually passed over as the "official" catch-phrase
a couple of years earlier....
Since "search engine placement" is a more "natural" term!
It sought of reminds one of the recent use (catching-on) of FLORIDA update to describe the "MID-NOVEMBER" re-algorithmization.