The History of Digital Marketing

By Gregory Smyth

One of the most striking examples of an evolutionary "arms race" occurred, and is still occurring, on the great open savannahs of Africa, where herds of antelope, wildebeest and other herbivores roam, preyed on by lions, leopards and cheetahs. Here the evolution of one species drives the evolution of another. As wildebeest grew larger horns and gathered in herds for protection, so lions grew more powerful and evolved cooperative hunting techniques. When antelopes grew swifter, cheetahs adapted, becoming the fastest of all land animals. The predators change to keep up with the prey, and the prey then change to elude the predators.

The history of Digital Marketing is much like that of the evolution of predator and prey on the African savannahs. If we imagine the Search Engines as herbivores grazing the vast plains of the Internet, then Search Engine Optimization experts can be seen as leopards or cheetahs, cunningly stalking their prey and expertly adapting as the Search Engines evolve to always keep up with their prey (an image many an SEO geek would love to be true!)

The truth actually isn't all that far removed from the cheetah/antelope analogy. The major Search Engines are always evolving, and organizations involved in SEO do have to be able to adapt their strategies quickly and effectively to keep getting results. Every time a major Search Engine upgrades its algorithms (which is frequently), it necessitates changes in Digital Marketing campaigns. It's not just the Search Engines that Digital Marketing experts have to watch - the rise of Web 2.0, in particular social media, has changed the way content is created and access on the Internet, and this in turn has changed how organizations promote their products online.

The history of Digital Marketing is to a large extent a product of the history of the Internet in general and Search Engines in particular, as marketers have adapted to keep abreast of changes and keep up with the way the major Search Engines rank web pages. Major changes include, in chronological order:

1991 - Introduction of a network protocol called "Gopher", one of the very first network query and search tools. Gopher was for a couple of years widely used, but usage has now fallen off, with barely 100 Gopher servers now indexed.

1994 - Launch of Yahoo, which was formerly known as "Jerry's Guide to the World Wide Web" after one of its founders, Jerry Yang. Within its first year, Yahoo received over 1 million hits. Lycos also launched in 1994. The same year saw the first meeting of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) which is now the main international standards body for the Internet, and which sets many of the architecture and coding standards that Search Engines use when assigning a quality score to a website. It was also about this time that companies first began optimizing their websites to attain higher Search Engine rankings.

1995 - Launch of Infoseek, a popular early Search Engine that has since closed down. Launch of Inktomi, which has since been acquired by Yahoo. AltaVista became the exclusive provider of search results to Yahoo in 1995; but this situation has now been reversed, with AltaVista currently using Yahoo technology. Also in 1995, Excite acquired two Search Engines (Magellan and WebCrawler) and went public.

1996 - More new Search Engines and search tools launched, including HotBot, LookSmart and Alexa.

1998 - The launch of even more Search Engines, with some big new names appearing for the first time. Google was incorporated as a private company in September 1996 by Larry Page and Segey Brin; 8 years later when Google went public it was valued at US$23 billion. Microsoft launched its MSN Search Engine in 1998, whilst Yahoo launched Yahoo Web Search.

2001 - The Internet bubble burst, wiping out a number of smaller Search Engines and leaving the field free for more successful organizations such as Google and Yahoo to consolidate their position.

2004 - The first Web 2.0 Conference was held, at which a new direction for the Internet was mapped out, with an emphasis on user-generated content and openness of information. An explosion in the number of websites meant that Google's index contained over 8 billion web pages by 2004.

2006 - Search Engine traffic grew to an astonishing 6.4 billion searches in the month of March alone. Microsoft launched Live Search, to replace MSN Search and to compete with Google and Yahoo. New hybrid websites combining both directories and online articles first appeared, among them DexterB.com, a clear indication of the rising importance of syndicated content in Digital Marketing. 2006 also saw one of the biggest upsets in SEO history, when Google banned BMW Germany and Ricoh.de for one week for using "black-hat" SEO techniques.

2007 - The rise of Social Media is currently changing the landscape of the Internet, with the predictions of the first Web 2.0 conference now becoming a reality as user-generated content becomes increasingly important, influencing both consumer opinion and Search Engine rankings. The way users access the Internet is also changing, with mobile devices becoming increasingly prevalent, allowing Internet usage on the move.

If one thing is clear from the above (albeit brief) history of Digital Marketing, it is that change is rapid and far-reaching. Many of the most successful early Search Engines have fallen out of favour, or are defunct entirely. The way Search Engines rank website is changing all the time, and is now increasing influenced by Web 2.0 channels and social media. Digital Marketing professionals have to keep up with these changes, and keep a wary eye on the future to spot emerging trends and the development of newer, smarter Search Engine algorithms. After all, nobody can afford to get left behind in the evolutionary race.