September, 2018 was SharpNet’s 20th anniversary. We completed two decades of continuous operation as an SEO company, and witnessed an amazing thing: The birth and evolution of the digital marketing industry. Below are my personal reflections of where the internet and digital marketing have been, are at today, and where it is all going.
20 years ago, I was a process engineer working for Agilent Technology, an IPO spun-off from Hewlett Packard. My associates at work were getting laid-off all around me. Married and with three young kids, I put my fate into my own hands and launched and SEO company. Six months later the layoffs hit my old department at Agilent, and within one year it was all shut down. Launching SharpNet was the best gamble of my life.
20 years ago, it wasn’t called SEO. Back then, we didn’t have an acronym. When I filled out insurance paperwork for my company, there wasn’t a checkbox that described our industry. There were no experienced employees to hire, broadband sucked and it was a year before we could “Google it.” Facebook was still 6 years away, Zuckerberg was only 13 years old. It was the wild-west again, but from a virtual perspective. The internet was young, untapped and very misunderstood. I was one of those original pioneers that braved this new era, shrugged-off the nay-sayers and helped forge a new “digital” frontier.
In the beginning it was Lycos, Yahoo, Alta Vista and Excite. Some others tried like HotBot, Ask Jeeves and DogPile (yes, DogPile) also had their moment in the spotlight. Google launched as a company in 1998, but remained in beta. Late in 1998, Google got more attention and by 1999, most people had heard of it. I still remember the day that my Brother in Law (Reece) ask me if I had seen Google yet. When I first looked, I wasn’t all that impressed. The first Pay per Click innovation came from Goto.com, who evolved into Overture, and they were acquired by Yahoo. Google responded by launching AdWords in 2000. SharpNet was offering PPC management services before PPC hit either Google or Yahoo. I still chuckle when clients ask if we offer “paper clip” services, it has happened twice in 2018.
There were three major hurdles that the digital industry faced:
(1) Security Concerns: When you could finally make a purchase online, people were afraid to. I think everyone freaked-out a little when making their first online purchase. Eventually we all overcame, after-all just look at Amazon.
(2) High Speed Internet: It was a Herculean achievement to get fast and affordable broadband across most of the USA. Without it, the Internet would have never bloomed. We couldn’t stream movies, Amazon would load… very… slowly… and well, forget smart phones and GPS.
(3) Dot Com Boom: The internet was always “sketchy” to people through the first decade and the Dot Com Boom added injury to insult. For a few years, investors fled, innovators stopped innovating and that “sketchy” feeling lingered even longer.
One of my favorite people (Jeannie), a 17 year SharpNet sales professional, was once in a conference room with board members of a large music label in Nashville. They were scared because of the rapid transition of music from vinyl and CDs to digital downloads. One board member ask her “how do we stop it?” Jeannie responded “stop what?” “Well” the board member replied, “the internet… how do we stop it?” “Um…” Jeannie replied “you can’t. You get online or you’ll die.” We all know that music is alive and well, but it is also almost entirely online. iTunes, Pandora, Spotify, I Heart Radio and others like them are all how we listen to music today. I’m not sure I even have a CD player. There may be one in my mom’s attic.
The internet was too great of a feat to be derailed, though many have tried or denied. Its biggest challenges were just small speed bumps, and it is still picking up momentum. The internet and its side-kick digital marketing were a technology revolution. It was a revolution like an evolution, and it was a revolution like a war. Digital marketing was a direct assault against traditional marketing channels like Print and TV. While Amazon soared up, we watched Sears and Toys R Us fall. While YouTube and Google ascended, we saw newspapers and magazines wither. People “Facebook” more than they scrapbook, and when was the last time you used a phone book? Adapt or die, because people love their Internet, and digital marketing is how we monetize it. As a business owner, don’t under estimate the importance of both search and social marketing. Give it serious attention, in addition to your “online appeal.” Having a nice, professional website is just as important as it is for a grocery store to be clean at tidy. Odds are, people will find your website before they find your store, before they meet you, and before they purchase from you.
While Amazon is not the greatest achievement of the internet, it may be the most visible monument. Without a single storefront, it has become the 7th largest retailer. More impressive, it has the largest market capitalization of any retail store, including Wal-Mart… and it is just warming up.
So where will digital marketing go from here? Digital marketing will follow the path of the Internet. Wherever the internet goes, so will digital marketing. The newest revolution to the Internet is AI (artificial intelligence). Google is already using it through their project/product named RankBrain, but the technology will spread through the retail world, financial world, automotive world (driverless cars) and much more. Websites will become smart with AI, knowing what you want to watch, read and play… and which ads you’re most likely to click on along the way.
If you want something, you can search it, and if you’re not searching, AI will be luring you in. This is why Amazon will win the revolution between traditional retail and digital retail. Not only is it super convenient, it will also be super smart. Think about it, a smart website will have the ability to display the products that you are most interested in and most likely to buy. These website literally rearrange themselves just for you. A different person, a different experience. This is equivalent of Wal-Mart rearranging their entire store a different way for each customer that walks in the door. It is impossible. That’s a good thing, I supposed, because I would much rather see ads about VR Headsets than the Shamwow, and I really don’t want to deal with the Wal-Mart parking lot on my way to those VR headsets.
I’d like of give a big hearty-THANK YOU to the SharpNet staff and customers that have been on this incredible ride. Our best days are still ahead of us.