Over the last month or so I’ve been starting to get nostalgic. As the first decade of a new century closes and a new one opens, I’ve been reflecting on how this has been the era of the Internet and how society has experienced a paradigm shift in the way we consume media, buy stuff, engage with our friends and family, how we learn, how we work. Nothing seems to have remained untouched.
At the turn of the century I was still with Freeserve, the Internet Service Provider that I was fortunate to have been a founding executive of with my great friend Ajaz Ahmed (now Chairman of Quba.) Freeserve transformed the use of the Internet in the UK by removing the monthly subscription fee that ISP’s like AOL had traditionally charged until then at an average price of £14.99 per month (this was over and above the call charges you had to pay per minute when you dialled up on your standard telephone line to connect to the Internet.) With the monthly fee removed Internet usage in the UK shot upwards and users were getting speeds of up to 64K through ISDN. Back then we agonised over page weights and download times. We were still developing for 365 colours and 800x600 screen pixels back then! Freeserve was born at the start of the Dotcom boom, but what made it successful was that it was backed by Dixons Stores Group. With its out-of-town PC World superstores and Dixons on the high street the Internet was now readily available to traditional consumers rather than the more tech savvy end of the market which had previously made up the bulk of early adoption of the Internet in the UK.
It was because of the massive acceleration in the take-up of Internet access by mainstream consumers that I got to work with some pretty amazing cutting edge US based technology companies that had realised there were now opportunities to be had in a rapidly expanding UK marketplace, and came knocking at our door.
As I write this blog I’m literally sitting in a piece of history. It’s a Herman Miller Aeron chair which was ‘acquired’ for me from the offices of GoTo (which later changed its name to Overture Services, which was in-turn bought by Yahoo!). When I look back and try to identify the one most influential technology and marketing based idea of the decade I have to say Pay per click (PPC) advertising. And it was GoTo, a small start-up out of a Pasadena, California based incubator, IdeaLab, which introduced the concept of paid search to the Internet in 1998. Freeserve agreed a deal with GoTo to provide PPC for us in the UK. The deal was worth £2 million a year in revenue back then. A drop in the ocean by today's standards!
But it was another start-up based in Menlo Park, California where PPC formed the crucial final piece of a jigsaw which would ignite the Internet revolution across the World. Founded in 1998 by Sergey M. Brin and Lawrence E. Page, the story of Google is well documented. Suffice to say a couple of post-grad researchers looking to create a natural search algorithm based on authority (the quality of a website being measured by the number of relevant websites linking directly to this) added the magic ingredient of PPC to their formula. And the rest, as they say, is history.
When Freeserve was sold in 2001 (for £1.6 billion to Wanadoo) I had only just started to become aware of Google as an interesting start-up but in an industry dominated by Yahoo! Search. Over the years we’ve witnessed the development of a search engine cold war, where companies have been both adversaries and allies at one time or another. Yahoo! changed search partners three times in the last ten years, starting with Iktomi Corporation, (which was eventually bought by Yahoo!), then Google, and now – through a defensive alliance with Microsoft aimed at competing with Google – Bing!
You have to admire Google. With their acquisition in February 2003 of Blogger, at the time the largest community of bloggers (based on a simple to use blogging tool), Google showed an almost prophetic understanding of the value of user generated content. With hundreds of thousands of bloggers to market to, in June 2003 Google released their AdSense platform which allowed these very same bloggers to embed Google advertising on their individual blogs and for the bloggers to take a revenue share of every ad click. But it's been with their incredibly successful AdWords platform that Google have made their real mark. In the first half of 2009 search engine advertising overtook traditional TV advertising spending for the first time. Earlier in 2006 with their acquisition of YouTube, the largest user generated video upload site, Google showed that they had traditional broadcast media squarely in their sights.
Where the early and middle part of the decade had been dominated by the rise of Google and the resulting search marketing industry born from this, it’s the latter quarter of the decade where user generated content and the rise of social networking has continued the transformation of the Internet landscape with the emergence of the social media phenomenon. You'll have had to have been hiding under a rock to not be familiar with the Internet rock star brands Facebook and Twitter. But what’s really exciting is that it's as we approach end of the decade we're witnessing a real tipping point triggered by social media. Rage Against The Machine beating X-Factor Joe McElderry to Christmas number one on the back of a Facebook and Twitter Campaign; Facebook receiving more site visits than Google on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; and Pepsi announcing the pulling of their traditional TV advert slot from Super Bowl in favour of a $20 million digital and social media campaign.
As the new decade dawns there’s not doubt in my mind of the intrinsic importance of the connection between search engines and social media. They're truly symbiotic and therefore there's the need to optimise for both in unison to achieve online success in the future. It’s also going to be the norm that when considering online marketing, the wisdom of crowds and the comments they make about your brand whilst online will have as much, or indeed more, influence on the decision making process of your potential customers as any traditional direct marketing you’ve done to date.
2010 will be about engaging in conversation with your target market - about listening as well as just talking.
I feel privileged to be immersed in the digital media sector here at Quba, and I look forward to the coming decade with the wide-eyed wonderment of a child!