Happy Birthday Internet: How online marketing has evolved

The Internet has changed a lot over the years, and while online marketing may have become more sophisticated, many of the principles remain the same.

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There were a lot of cool things in the 90s. Mr. Blobby, Pat Sharp, Zig and Zag, Pogs, Super Mario, East 17, Pugwall’s Summer – and of course, the birth of the Internet. What a time to be alive.

This week, Internaut Day marked the 25th anniversary of public access to the Internet. Obviously, the Internet has changed a lot over the years, and while online marketing may have become more sophisticated, many of the principles are the same.

I’ve taken a look back over some marketing milestones that wouldn’t have been possible without good old Tim Berners-Lee.

Image source: http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk

Nice one, Tim.

The early years: 1993-1995


For a couple of years, not a great deal happened in terms of digital marketing. Then, a law firm called Carter and Siegel sent out what is now referred to as being the first ever spam email, touting their wares to a couple of thousand Usenet discussion groups.

The husband and wife legal team claimed to have gained 1,000 new clients and “made $100,000 off an ad that cost them only pennies”. This lead them to set up a company that helped others send out spam as well as penning several books on the subject. It all went tatas up a few years later though, when a judge disbarred Canter in part for illegal advertising practices and the business was dissolved in 1998 after repeatedly failing to file annual reports or pay its incorporation fees. Whoops.

The dot-com boom: 1995-2000


These were the worst years of my life thanks to being at secondary school, but were the best times for snazzy new businesses making the use of ‘the web’ and new technologies. People went completely mental for the Internet and made huge investments into online businesses. Some worked – but most didn’t – and it all came crashing down in 2000 when the bubble finally burst.

During this time, search engines began to emerge, firstly with Yahoo and Alta Vista (who?), and Ask Jeeves (now Ask.com) followed shortly after. Google and MSN joined the party, and the term ‘search engine optimisation’ (AKA SEO) was born.

SEO was nothing like it is today. Back then, it was easy peasy lemon squeezy to get a site to the top of page 1 – and keep it there – by deploying some tactics that make modern-day SEOs’ toes curl.

Keyword stuffing in content, hiding keywords, putting every relevant term imaginable into the meta keywords, mega spammy links, paid links, link farms – basically, anything now considered ‘black hat’ totally worked. And when Google introduced Page Rank, everyone began manipulating rankings further by scoping out links from high PR sites.

During this time, people started to get into blogging; what began as an online journal has now evolved into a serious way of making money (and getting loads of sweet free stuff) for bloggers all over the world.

Google also introduced Google AdWords – a pay-to-play way of reaching the top of search results. It allowed anyone to buy ads that could appear on Google and across its network of partners. Originally, ads were sold on a cost per impression basis, rather than cost per click.

Recovery, innovation, and the calm before the storm: 2001-2010


10 years in any industry is a long time, but the growth in the number of people with Internet access coupled with advances in technology and social media allowed businesses to reach new audiences in ways they’d never been able to before. The move from dial-up to broadband and new mobile technologies like WAP and 3G provided people with faster access to the internet, and access on the go.

In the early noughties, social media sites LinkedIn, MySpace and Facebook all launched, along with others that are not around (or barely used) today. In 2006, Twitter joined the party.

Google was busy during this period, launching Google Analytics in 2005, and rolling out personalised search and real-time search results. They gained some serious market share during this period, and ended 2011 with 83% global market share.

YouTube also launched on Valentine’s Day 2005, and was purchased by Google in 2006.

Everything was pretty awesome. And then…

Google fights spam, social media goes mental, and Smartphones take off: 2011-2015

google era paint

Google Panda, an algorithm developed by Google to prevent sites with thin content, low-quality content/spun content, sites with high ad-to-content ratios, and a number of other quality issues rolled out in Q1 2011. And everyone panicked. Sites were wiped out overnight – but there was another black and white creature of doom to come. A Penguin.

Google Penguin came along in April 2012, and as well as penalising sites that linked from spammy sites, it also destroyed entire link networks, making high volume, low-quality linking with keyword stuffed anchor text a thing of the past.

This lead to sites being handed manual penalties by Google which resulted in some websites being completely de-indexed from search results. Recovery was commonly achieved by conducting a thorough analysis of a backlink profile, sifting through the toxic links, and submitting a grovelling letter to Google’s Search Quality Team in the form of a reconsideration request. All good fun.

For those that had the penalties removed, rankings would usually bounce back to a degree (providing there were at least some good links to begin with and the site itself wasn’t utter pap); for others, it was game over and recovery is still a struggle years later. In October 2012, Google released the Disavow Tool, which allows webmasters to remove links they think are doing them harm even if a manual or partial penalty is not applied.

In more Google news, Google+ launched, even going as far as to force you to sign up when opening a YouTube or Gmail account. Shockingly – everyone hated it, and it created a huge mess for digital marketers trying to tidy up multiple Google accounts for clients. As part of this, they also introduced the now-defunct Google Authorship markup – a part of a much wider initiative known as schema.org that was rolled out to provide a common set of schemas for structured data markup.

With Google clamping down on spam, lots of old-school SEO agencies crumbled, unable to think of ways to keep clients on board now that there was no way of cheating the system. This gave rise to SEO agencies that had focused on research, content and PR-led approach, and the term ‘inbound marketing’ and ‘content marketing’ became popular – it was now all about earning links and building brands.

The increase in social media did help this approach along and digital marketers were quick to realise this. Better quality content, and content in different mediums including audio, video, and graphics all became more popular, and could be used across channels to maximise exposure.

New social media platforms, including Instagram, Snapchat and Pinterest – which focus on visual content – all become absolutely massive. With the rise of new platforms, came the demise and eventual death of many others.

Smartphones and the evolution from 3G to 4G and 5G saw m-commerce take off in a huge way. There are now more searches made on mobile devices than desktop – Google identified this relatively early on and made huge changes to AdWords to support mobile advertising, and later made even bigger changes with the introduction of Enhanced Campaigns.

In line with the huge increases in e-commerce, Google’s previously free Google Shopping was integrated with Google AdWords too. This was the final blow for a lot of small businesses who had been struggling to compete with bigger brands, as cost per click could be very, very high for some products.

What’s next for the Internet?: 2016 and beyond


The Internet of Things (IoT) is a term that has been bubbling for a while with the advent of wearables and Smartphone technology allowing people to be connected to the Internet at all times. Virtual reality is becoming closer and closer to being an actual reality, and AI chatbots are already being used by online businesses to answer customer queries in place of people.

Personally, I think that the focus for winning the Internet will continue to be on delivering quality content, a great user experience, and a personalised service to users. Whether it’s people that continue to do this – or whether we find that in time technology can do this better – is an utterly terrifying possibility that could happen in the next few years.

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