Do you remember the days when most advertising was limited to billboards, flyers, newspapers, radio, and television? When people spent a fortune to reach a proportionally tiny number of people most of whom had no interest in what they were selling anyway? The world changed massively with the advent of the internet – and yet looking at what has happened between then and now, almost as big a change has taken place again. The reach that advertisers can achieve has increased exponentially even as costs have gone down. How did it all happen?


In the early days of digital marketing, it was all about search engine optimization. The first search engine, Archie, was launched in 1990, eight years before Google. Simple in design, it had no tools with which to assess the quality or usefulness of a site beyond how often it featured the terms a user was looking for, so sites were stuffed with keywords. As it started using backlinks to assess value, the practice of link farming emerged. It wasn’t until the early years of the 21st Century that search engines started to develop effective tools for identifying sites that were trying to cheat the system. Today’s SEO is much subtler and original content is king.

Social media

Early forms of social media – essentially Usenet and various private forums – never really took off as natural homes for marketing because users vigorously defended them against spam. The arrival of Facebook in 2004, with YouTube and Twitter following hot on its heels changed everything. That’s because it enabled the personalization and targeting of marketing materials in a way that aimed to give everybody what they wanted. This has been increasingly refined over the years to the point where it can now incorporate up to the minute individual users’ information.


Websites have been part of digital marketing since the early days, gradually moving from text only to text and simple graphics, then text and images, and now frequently incorporating video. The way their code has expanded in the process has been a big driver in the move to faster personal computing. Informative text retains a place, as anyone using a guest blog post service to keep customers coming back will know, but the look of sites has changed once again over the past few years as responsive design has become necessary in order to reach customers using multiple device types.

Big data

As the internet has grown, so has the volume of information it can reveal. Now that we also have the computing power to analyze it, market research has ascended to a new level. Instead of being limited to polls and surveys, we can watch patterns of customer behavior unfolding in something increasingly close to real time. This lets marketers anticipate consumer trends like never before and it has made agile digital marketing a must for those who are serious about staying ahead.

The history of digital marketing is a history of humankind coming to understand itself better and growing more and more able to directly connect those who have something to sell with those who already want to buy it. What happens next is likely to take us to places we can’t yet imagine.

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