The History of Digital Marketing

By Gregory Smyth

The history of digital marketing is much like that of the evolution of predator and prey on the African savannahs. If we imagine search engines as antelope herbivores grazing the vast plains of the internet, then SEO experts are the leopards or cheetahs, cunningly stalking their prey and expertly adapting as search engines evolve. The predators constantly evolve to keep up with their prey (an image many SEO geeks would love to be true!).

But the truth actually isn't all that far removed from the cheetah/antelope analogy. Major search engines are always evolving, and organizations involved in SEO need to adapt their strategies quickly and effectively to continue achieving 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:

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 more than 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 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 Sergey Brin; eight 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 positions.

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 more than 8 billion web pages by 2004.

2006 - Search engine traffic grew to an astonishing 6.4 billion searches in the month of March, 2006 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. The year 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 websites is changing all the time, and is now increasingly 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.