I Was So Wrong in 1996…

It’s that time of year – the time when we sprain our neck trying to look backwards and forwards at the same time. Your email inbox, like mine, is probably crammed with 2021 recaps and 2022 predictions.

I’ve given up on predictions. I have a horrible track record. In just a few seconds, I’ll tell you how horrible. But here, at the beginning of 2022, I will look back. And I will substantially overshoot “a year in review” by going back all the way til 1996, 26 years ago. Let me tell you why I’m in the mood for some reminiscing.

In amongst the afore-mentioned “look back” and “look forward” items I saw recently there was something else that hit my radar; a number of companies looking for SEO directors. After being out of the industry for almost 10 years, I was mildly surprised that SEO still seemed to be a rock solid career choice. And that brings me both to my story about 1996 and what was probably my worst prediction about the future of digital marketing.

It was in late 1996 that I first started thinking about optimizing sites for the search engines and directories of the time: Infoseek, Yahoo, Excite, Lycos, Altavista, Looksmart and Hotbot. Early in 1997 I discovered Danny Sullivan’s Webmaster’s Guide to Search Engines. It was revelatory. After much trial and error, I was reasonably certain I could get sites ranking for pretty much any term. We had our handful of local clients ranking on Page One of those sites for terms like “boats,” “hotels”, “motels”, “men’s shirts” and “Ford Mustang”. It was the Wild West. Small and nimble web starts ups were routinely kicking Fortune 500 ass in the digital frontier.   

As a local agency that had played around with web design while doing traditional marketing, I was intrigued by this opportunity. Somewhere near the end of 1997 I did an internal manifesto where I speculated on the future of this “Internet” thing and what it might mean for our tiny agency (I had just brought on board my eventual partner, Bill Barnes, and we had one other full-time employee). I wish I could find that original document, but I remember saying something to the effect of, “This search engine opportunity will probably only last a year or two until the engines crack down and close the loopholes.” Given that, we decided to go for broke and seize that opportunity.

In 1998 we registered the domain www.searchengineposition.com. This was a big step. If you could get your main keywords in your domain name, it virtually guaranteed you link juice. At that time, “Search engine optimization” hadn’t emerged as the industry label. Search engine positioning was the more common term. We couldn’t get www.searchenginepositioning.com because domain names were limited by the number of characters you could use.

We had our domain and soon we had a site. We needed all the help we could get, because according to my prediction, we only had until 2000 or so to make as much as we could from this whole “search thing.” The rest, as they say, was history. It just wasn’t the history I had predicted.

To be fair, I wasn’t the only one making shitty predictions at the time. In 1995, 3Com co-founder Robert Metcalfe (also the co-inventor of Ethernet) said in a column in Infoworld:

“Almost all of the many predictions now being made about 1996 hinge on the Internet’s continuing exponential growth. But I predict the Internet, which only just recently got this section here in InfoWorld, will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.”

And in 1998, Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman said,

“The growth of the Internet will slow drastically, as the flaw in ‘Metcalfe’s law’ becomes apparent: most people have nothing to say to each other! By 2005, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s”

Both of those people were way smarter than I was, so if I was clueless about the future, at least I was in good company.

As we now know, SEO would be fine, thank you very much. In 2004, some 6 years later, in my very first post for MediaPost, I wrote:

“I believe years from now that…2004 … will be a milestone in the (Search) industry. I think it will mark the beginning of a year that will dramatically alter the nature of search marketing.”

That prediction, as it turned out, was a little more accurate. In 2004, Google’s AdWords program really hit its stride, doubling revenue from 1.5 billion the previous year to $3 billion and starting its hockey stick climb up to its current level, just south of $150 billion (in 2020).

The reason search – and organic search optimization – never fizzled out was that it was a fundamental connection between user intent and the ever-expanding ocean of available content. Search Engine Optimization turned out to be a much better label for the industry than Search Engine Positioning, despite my unfortunate choice of domain names. The later was really an attempt to game the algorithms. The former was making sure content was findable and indexable. Hindsight has shown that it was a much more sustainable approach.

I ended that first post talking about the search industry of 2004 by saying,

“And to think, one day I’ll be able to say I was there.”

I guess today is that day.

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