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Identifying the birth of online marketing depends upon whom you ask and how you define the practice. Computer history buffs may say it started in the late 1970s, when people uploaded small classified ads or business newsletters to a local bulletin board system over a phone line and a 300-baud modem. Others, who equate online marketing with search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM), may say it began in 1997, when search engines were the primary source of traffic for hundreds of thousands of websites. Some may even say it began in the early 1990s with the first graphic banner, or in 1994, when a legal firm first advertised its services to several USENET newsgroups.
Whatever the true origins of online marketing are, one thing is for sure: Internet marketing has endured a number of significant changes over the years and there isn’t any indication those changes will stop. Let’s see what happened to it over time.
Remember when the typical website was little more than an electronic brochure? Known as “brochureware,” this 1-3 paged entity was the paper equivalent of a company’s brief product inventory and contact information. Today, this same website probably stores a thousand or more web pages neatly organized into interest driven categories, complete with interactive forms, free software downloads, live chat screens, community discussion boards and more. At some point in online marketing history, “more” indicated “professional” or “authoritative,” and as marketers, we adopted the theory that a bigger content inventory improved that perception.
Well, actually they got more complicated. Then they got simpler. Over time, that brochureware we mentioned above morphed into a bombardment of links to everything on a single website. It wasn’t uncommon to see a homepage point to 30-40 different internal web pages because it was the way companies fed their products and services to search engines. Between 1999 and 2005, things started to calm down thanks to two important inventions: the sitemap and the mobile device.
With a sitemap, websites no longer needed to market everything on the homepage. They could, instead, list relevant links in a separate file specifically designed for search engine spiders. That simple little tool freed up the homepage and removed the feeling of being overwhelmed with information — a rather prevalent complaint of yesteryear’s consumers.
The mobile internet wasn’t that popular until about 2001, when the BlackBerry launched. Its small screen and keypad prompted the development of the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) – a method of delivering sales content exclusively to mobile devices. Today, we use smartphones, tablets and notebooks to access online stores. As a result, more and more websites increasingly simplify the method in which they present an inventory and the visual design of that inventory.
Personalization, that is, delivering product information based on a person’s browsing history, started around 2003, and it grew to an unimaginable size thanks to today’s social networks. But it had a rather simple start. At first, the marketing method relied on form submissions and maybe a few browser cookies here and there. Currently, marketers gather consumer information from a huge conglomerate of cloud computing networks all in an effort to predict and deliver on perceived and/or location-based purchase habits. All one has to do now is be at the right place at the right time to get a custom advertisement delivered on their iPhone, PlayStation game console, or pair of Google Glasses.
It’s a strategy that sells convenience alongside desired products and services, and it’s a strategy that has come a long way since the first classified ad, email newsletter and USENET post. What was once only dreamt about has become an expected way of business. And for some of us, it has become a way of life. Thousands of online marketers hire telecommuting employees from all around the world, expanding both their reach and their resources.
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