A brief and not-so-kind history of web advertising

By August 14, 2014 One Comment

You could chart the history of web advertising like this (quotes from Adrian Saunders/

  1. Display ads from Yahoo and AOL: “Incredible returns! Trackable analytics on reader behavior! Just like the print ads you know and love, only cheaper and with better metrics!”
  2. Google Adwords, Demand Media: “Publish what you want, when you want, and make a living through Google Adwords! Build a business outside of the stranglehold of portals! Show readers ads that they’ll actually want to click! Keep optimizing the hell out of your stuff and you’ll turn this into a business any day now!
  3. Facebook and Twitter: “Forget everything but social, where people read and consume content based on other people’s recommendations! Build up social capital, focus on “sharing” and watch your amazing work go viral! You’ll receive more traffic than you’ll ever need to make the business work!”
  4. Mobile: “Everything before was a falsehood, the reality is that everyone is on their phones now. Mobile is where advertising is really going to take off…”

And now the new hotness is content marketing and it’s close cousin native advertising, ref A16Z’s investment in Buzzfeed).

The analysis above is a bit unkind in that entrepreneurs have built businesses on the back of display ads, Google Adwords, social and mobile, and critically it ignores search advertising. However, there’s more than a grain of truth in it. Nobody is enamoured with display ads anymore, everyone understands that unless you have massive traffic you only make pennies from Google Adwords, and mobile has already taken a big chunk out of desktop social (albeit that much of it is mobile social).

Ultimately the important question is: is web advertising moving forward?

For me the answer to that is a clear ‘yes’. Search marketing is the most efficient way of connecting people with things they want the world has ever seen, social is developing into a great way to connect people with things they might want to buy but don’t know exist, and now content marketing allows brands to build authentic and high value relationships with potential customers. Moreover, from a startup perspective you can make these channels work at the small scale you need in the early days of your business.

That said, there is a constant feel of “emperor’s new clothes” about the web advertising world and it’s important to look beyond the hype.