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Digital Marketing in the 90s

It’s hard to believe it, but the year 1990 was 30 years ago. Back then, the World Wide Web was still growing, although Web 2.0, now better known as social media, was right around the corner. There were multiple search engines, but Google didn’t yet exist. The digital landscape was far smaller than today’s. However, the ‘90s featured the birth of several key forms of digital marketing. Let’s compare then and now.

Search Engine Optimization

In the ‘90s, black hat techniques such as keyword stuffing and cloaking were not only acceptable, they were commonplace. There was no way to get visitors to your site without listing your site in directories, running ads, or placing hundreds of keywords in your code. As the World Wide Web quickly filled up with content, finding relevant information became a challenge.

Google emerged as the poorly-named Backrub, based on the idea that backlinks to a site determined its worth. This concept delivered better results more quickly, and Google quickly established itself as the dominant search engine. Several algorithm changes later, Google prioritizes high-quality content and delivers answers right there on the search page. Now, SEO marketers work hard to achieve this elusive “position zero.”

Web Design

Early websites latched onto the aesthetic and layout of print design, using grids, columns, colored backgrounds, and gradients to not-so-great effect. Web designers gleefully used Flash animations and GIFs, and webmasters wanted to share their stats with everyone by displaying “hit counters” on their pages.

The Web definitely did not have the sleek, refined look it tends to have today. Still, if you look hard enough, you can find some of these old websites lying around. Most digital marketers, though, know the value of upgrading your site to a spiffy new design. Plus, half the users are browsing the Web on their phones, which means that responsive web design is now crucial to web marketing success.

Email Marketing

Email marketing is one of the oldest forms of digital marketing, stemming from the dreaded chain email. Marketers pounced on the opportunity to send unsolicited emails to unsuspecting recipients. The problem got so bad that legislation was passed to stop the spread of spam.

Now, email marketers can still send unsolicited emails (at least in the U.S.), but most know that building an audience organically leads to better results. Email marketing features a high ROI because it remains one of the cheapest ways to reach customers — even more so when they want to hear from you.


Blogs used to be online journals — and indeed, LiveJournal was one of the first blogging platforms. After debuting in 1999, it launched a wave of blogs about everything from movies to geopolitics. Other platforms Blogger and Xanga followed suit, and in 2003, WordPress emerged and began to dominate the competition.

Blogging took some time to garner any sort of respect, but once it did, blogs became a crucial part of many digital marketers’ strategies. Now, everyone from individuals to massive corporations has a blog that helps drive traffic to their site, and new publishing platforms such as Medium emerged to further boost the blogging revolution.

Social Media

Last but certainly not least, the ‘90s saw the birth of social media. To be fair, the big platforms we know today didn’t emerge until the ‘00s. However, the original social network, SixDegrees, began in 1996. The platform ultimately foundered because relatively few people had Internet access (hard to believe, we know), but it set the stage for platforms such as Friendster in 2002.

Now, social networks have become full-fledged social media platforms, filled with user-generated content, news, and communication tools. Marketers use social media to reach their audiences and connect all their digital content together. New platforms come out every year with varying levels of success. With its roots in the Web 2.0 platform created in the late ‘90s, social media is here to stay.

Wrapping Up

The ‘90s were an important era of growth for digital marketing. With an explosion of new search engines and ad platforms, marketers had dozens of new opportunities to reach customers with greater ease and affordability. Even though the dot-com bubble burst at the end of the decade, the groundwork was laid for the digital marketing revolution.


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