The Evolution of Digital Marketing in the U.S.
In September 2018, SharpNet, a premier SEO company, celebrated its 20th anniversary and shed light on the rise and development of digital marketing. This reflection offers an intriguing perspective on the trajectory of the internet and digital advertising.
Two decades ago, amidst layoffs at Agilent Technology, an IPO spun-off of Hewlett Packard, one determined individual decided to take control of his destiny. Despite being married with three children, he launched an SEO company. This proved be a strategic move as layoffs subsequently struck his former department at Agilent and within a year it was completely shut down. His investment in SharpNet had paid off.
Twenty years ago, SEO was not even recognized as an industry. Hiring experienced workers was challenging due to this lack of recognition and slow broadband speeds added to the teething problems. The world was still six years away from Facebook's inception. It felt like the wild west again - only this time it was virtual reality. The internet was still young and widely misunderstood but there were pioneers who ignored critics to pave the way for digital marketing.
Initially it was Yahoo, Alta Vista, Lycos and Excite that dominated online traffic while HotBot, Ask Jeeves and DogPile were also in contention. Google made its breakthrough around 1998-1999 but remained in beta mode for some time after that. Goto.com offered Pay Per Click first before being taken over by Yahoo while Google launched AdWords in 2000 in response.
The digital industry faced three main challenges during these formative years:
(1) Security Concerns: People were initially apprehensive about shopping online but gradually grew comfortable with it as evidenced by Amazon's success.
(2) High Speed Internet: It took a lot of effort to get fast and affordable internet access across the U.S. Without high-speed internet, many online services we take for granted today would not be possible.
(3) The Dot Com Boom: This boom period led many to view the internet as "sketchy" and deterred innovators and investors alike.
Despite the challenges, the digital revolution, underpinned by the internet, could not be stopped. It was both evolutionary and revolutionary in its impact. Traditional marketing channels such as TV and print media came under attack from digital marketing. Retail outlets like Sears and Toys R Us fell out of favor while online platforms like Amazon, YouTube and Google thrived. The rise of Facebook has meant more people are socializing online than offline. As a result, businesses need to prioritize their online presence through effective web design and search engine optimization.
Amazon may not be the most transformative force on the internet but it is certainly one of the most visible monuments to its power. With no physical storefronts, it is now one of the largest retailers in the world with a market cap even larger than Walmart's.
The future of digital marketing is closely linked with that of the internet. Artificial Intelligence (AI) holds exciting possibilities for digital marketing. Already used in Google's RankBrain project/product, AI will soon permeate other sectors including finance and retail (driverless cars). Websites will become smarter with AI: they will know your preferences in terms of what to watch, read or play...even which ads you are likely to click on.
You will be able to search for anything you need on these smart websites. Even if you don't feel like searching, AI will entice you into making a purchase by showing you products that match your preferences. These websites will customise the shopping experience based on individual visitor preferences, offering a unique experience for every user. This level of personalization is unprecedented in traditional retail and sets an exciting precedent for the future of digital marketing.