15 years in digital marketing - and the change has been massive

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15 years in digital marketing – and the change has been massive!

By piranha

17th August 2016

These days, there is so much to digital marketing and so many different possible roles and ways to do the job. If you’re a digital marketer nowadays, you might do content marketing, pay per click (PPC), search engine optimisation (SEO), social media optimisation (SMO), social media management (SMM), advertising, copywriting, branding, blogging, traffic building, email marketing, social media listening, mobile marketing, reputation management, customer service live online, or a combination of some, or even all, of these. There’s a whole alphabet soup of possible roles and techniques out there, and an equally dizzying array of software to help you do it.

In the last 15 years, we’ve come an awfully long way, and the changes that have taken place have been nothing short of mind blowing when you think of what we casually take for granted now, and what we had (and were happy with!) way back in the early noughties.

What did digital marketing look like back in 2000?

I’m sure I’m supposed to say something along the lines of ‘ah, the good old days’ here, but, honestly, I think we’re living in them now and, with all the technological breakthroughs on the horizon, the future of digital marketing is only going to get more and more exciting.

In 2000 itself, digital marketing was all about CRM systems to manage all that customer data and figure out how best to market to people, email marketing, bought banner ads on suitable websites, good sales copy to sell products and services, finding ways to drive traffic to ads and websites, and Search Engine Optimisation. SEO did, however, often consist of keyword stuffing, and one of the tricks back then, which will absolutely get you banned to the farthest nether regions in Google nowadays.

23rd October 2000 saw the launch of Google AdWords and the birth of PPC, where marketers paid a monthly amount and Google actually managed their campaign for them, though Google did follow that quickly with the Google AdWords self-service portal, so that businesses could manage their own campaigns. This was an amazing milestone for marketers where, for the first time, it was possible to pay for the exact keywords you wanted for your business only when people clicked on your ad, rather than hoping that someone might click on a banner ad on someone’s website that you’d already paid for, regardless of results.

If we’d gone back even further to the time when marketing meant buying a database of addresses, paying for printing and postage, and sending out a mailshot with no idea who would even open it, never mind actually buy, the difference in price alone was all but miraculous for marketing budgets, with the added bonus of being able to track the results right in the dashboard.

In 2000, Yelp didn’t exist and the Yellow Pages paper copy business directory was a veritable brick of a thing which dropped heavily through your door and measured around two or three inches thick, because most businesses were not yet on the internet.

Compared to what we have available now to reach potential customers, 2000 was practically the stone age! You’ll have noticed that, so far, there’s no mention of social media marketing or mobile, because Facebook, Twitter and the smart phone were all yet to come.

Over the course of the decade, and right up to the present day, change has happened at an amazing rate. Follow through the timeline below to see how far we’ve come!

The timeline:



Google launched its Toolbar, which allowed anyone to see a website’s PageRank right on the toolbar itself. Webmasters compared how they were doing with their competitors and started to look at how they could improve, leading to SEO as we know it.


  • eBay expanded into Europe by buying iBazar.
  • eBay bought PayPal and integrated it into its existing service.
  • LinkedIn was founded, offering businesses a place to network and connect online, as well as sell their services.


  • Google bought Blogger, extending its reach, and by 2006, moving all of it on to Google-operated servers.
  • Email marketing took a hit with the introduction of the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (the “Privacy Regulations”). Previously, you could buy databases of email addresses and market to them, even if the end user hadn’t signed up to your list, but this act put a stop to that for ethical marketers, with email lists now legally requiring opt in.
  • Google’s Cassandra update took a swipe at those hidden text keywords and linking between co-owned domains.
  • WordPress was launched to the world, with a simple, free way for any business of any size to create their own website, with search engine friendly permalinks, simple installation, and, by May 2004, support for user-designed plugins.
  • We Yahoo buy Overture and enter the pay per click market.


Facebook launched, though it was initially only for students at Harvard.


  • YouTube launched.
  • Google added personalised search and XML site maps.
  • Google Analytics launched, giving amazing statistics on traffic, pages clicked, browsers used, keywords searched for and more.
  • The way people shopped changed, as users started to research what they wanted online before making a buying decision, increasingly bypassing the salesperson role. This meant marketers had to try and catch up with the new shopping dynamic.


  • Twitter launched.
  • Facebook now allowed open registration for anyone 13 years and up with an email address.
  • Slideshare launched, for sharing of PDF files, PowerPoint, videos, and webinars, either privately or publicly.


  • Marketing automation began to come in to catch up with the way people were now buying. Companies such as Act On and Marketo brought in products that were made by marketers for marketers.
  • 2007 also brought Facebook Pages as part of the new Facebook Ads, allowing brands to create a page for their own company, match it to the branding on their website, and create content to increase engagement and drive traffic back to their website, as well as place social ads, and track them via the dashboard.
  • Google+ launched, getting everyone very excited about the possibility of rising in the search engine rankings by having a profile on a platform launched by the biggest search engine of them all. Google Hangouts also beat Facebook to a video chat feature.
  • the iPhone launched, with touch-screen operation.
  • The hashtag appeared on Twitter, with the # sign turning any phrase that followed it into a searchable link. A boon for marketers wanting to follow conversations, competitors, news and mentions of their own company, whether for engagement or social listening.
  • Google produced the Android mobile operating system for free.


  • The first Android mobile phone, the G1, was launched.
  • Hootsuite, social media account management software, was launched as BrightKit initially, giving marketers the ability to manage multiple accounts all in one place, without having to continuously log in and out of each one.


  • Becoming a Fan arrived to Facebook, allowing users to follow their favourite celebrities and companies, and marketers to target content to people they knew were interested.
  • 2009 also saw Facebook contests and promotions being given wider use, allowing companies to further engage, both with current fans and potential new ones.
  • Allowed @ tagging of friends on Facebook – a marketer’s dream if users could be persuaded to tag their friends to engage with a brand.
  • AdBlock launched, giving marketers something to think about in terms of spending on internet ads, which might well not be seen.


  • Retargeting became a trend, with websites adding a cookie on the user’s visit, so they could pop up with ads for their product on other sites. Great for marketers but prone to being a creepy experience for the user.
  • The Apple iPad is launched.
  • Android brings out phones with the same touch-screen capability as the iPhone.
  • March 2010 saw the launch of Pinterest, which gave an incredible outlet for visually oriented businesses (and their marketers) to showcase their products. Artists, fashion designers, architects, photographers, interior designers, wedding planners and more could create mood boards to show off their work and drive traffic to their websites.
  • Samsung produced the Android Galaxy tablet.
  • Google Instant arrived, with search suggestions in the drop down box as the user typed.
  • Instagram launched, offering users photo and video sharing on their mobile phone, as well as through other social platforms, such as Flickr, Facebook and Tumblr.
  • Both Bing and Google confirmed that they had begun to use social signals to determine ranking.


  • For the first time, mobile phones outsold PCs.
  • Snapchat launched, for private photo messaging, with disappearing chat.
  • Google Panda update was released by Google which focuses on the quality of a website and it’s content.


  • Slideshare was bought by LinkedIn.
  • Facebook bought Instagram, hoping that all those addicted fans could be monetised at some point.
  • Facebook launched its IPO, and 2012 was also the year Facebook really started to push its ads, hoping to prove that its IPO was worth it. The larger photo viewer offered more ad space, with larger ads on the newsfeed, the login page and the log out page.
  • Facebook brought in the Ad Exchange, putting ads in front of users based on browser history and personal information, and for marketers a bidding system for higher CPMs.
  • Google Penguin update was launched resulting in many thousands of websites being de-ranked over night due to spam link building activities. Penguin looks at all your off-site activities.


Facebook took on Twitter and began to allow hashtags on its platform.


Facebook bought Oculus VR, clearly believing that, after mobile, virtual reality could be the next big thing.


  • Periscope launched and was immediately acquired by Twitter, adding live streaming to the marketing mix.
  • Blab launched, with a live streaming chat between up to four people, with viewers able to watch, comment and even request to join in.
  • Introducing Rankbrain. Google announced that machine learning had become part of the algorithm which is now the third most popular ranking factor. In short, Rankbrain makes sure your website page matches the users intent.

2014 – 2016 – Mobile phones have added larger screens, larger memories and so many apps of all kinds, from payment by phone to social media sharing, and mobile marketing is now hugely important for businesses, with Google using website responsiveness on all devices as one of the factors for ranking high in the search engines.

Over 2015 and 2016, Facebook introduced Facebook Live.


Coming right up to date, Google have unveiled their Showcase Shopping ads, where a business can pick a series of images to appear in the search engine ranking, depending on keywords.

You’ll note that the timeline doesn’t cover every social media app, purely because there are so many, and this would be the length of a novel if it did, but there are more ways to connect with potential customers now than ever before. The challenge now is to find what works for you!

In 2016 we have more marketing and social media apps than we can shake a USB stick at, with LeadPages, ClickFunnels, CoSchedule, and Meet Edgar to name but a few. And, if Photoshop is beyond your budget or skillset, it’s no longer a problem, with a plethora of apps specifically designed for marketing and sharing on social media, such as Canva and PicMonkey.

With the advent of faster computers, bigger storage, cloud computing and the internet, big data gives us retargeting, buyer personas, personalisation, information on buying habits and accurate assessment of whether a marketing campaign is likely to work.

For the future, if Facebook think the next big thing is virtual reality, then that’s a pretty safe bet, and with an increasingly connect world via the Internet of Things, marketing may be able to reach ever further, perhaps into the home via suggested items on our digital shopping list and targeted ads on our home appliances. Whatever happens, it’s sure to be an exciting journey.

Now, more than ever, marketing to our customers is a two-way conversation, not a monologue of ads, and there’s a digital marketing strategy available for every size business and every budget.

With digital marketing changing so fast, I just wonder what the next 15 years will have in store for us all!

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