5 Things That Haven’t Changed Online Since 1997 & 5 Lessons for Marketers

I’m starting to feel like I’ve come full circle. I’m back in the Internet of my teenage years, that crazy free for all that got me hooked on everything online. I’m talking about the Internet of around 1997.

I was 14 and my parents got an AOL package – just as the Internet was going mainstream. AOL had launched in the UK the year before, and I was racking up my parents phone bill as quickly as they were earning the money to pay it.

I remember my mum suggesting my first chatroom screen name, which was frankly an invitation to predators, but that particular issue wasn’t front of mind at the time (it was SECsy for those who want a chuckle, a play on my initials which are SEC). And I can still remember when and where I heard about Google (winter of 1999, in the computer lab at college).

So why is the Internet of 2012 just like 1997? Here are my top five reasons.

1. Facebook is Just a New Take on a Portal


Remember the Yahoo and AOL home pages? After you logged in they were customizable.

You could dictate what you were interested in and what you wanted to see. You joined groups of like-minded people, and there were groups available for every conceivable interest. You could chat, either with groups or one to one, with anyone who was online while you were, and when they weren’t online you could send them a message to their AOL or Yahoo inbox, which they could see form a single browser window, because everything they needed was right there in one place.

Sound familiar? Yep, Facebook is just another portal.

2. Where We Used to Have Chat Rooms, We Now Have Twitter

Real time chat with people who are interested in the same things you are, imagine that. And being able to segregate your interests, just seeing comments from people about a single focus or topic, while being able to go private when you wanted to talk about someone behind their back. Spending hours talking useless drivel about what you did today or what happened on last night’s soap.

Yep, Twitter is just a chat room with character limits (which, lets face it, is a godsend).

3. Forums are Never Ending

And strangely, forums still look the same, too. You would think someone would have 2.0’d forums up a long time ago, but nope, they’re pretty much the same as they ever were. Like a good antique, they just get better with age.

4. We’re Still Trying to Organize the Internet

What use are all those cool cat pictures if you can’t find the one you want when you want it? Google has done the best job yet, but is nowhere near perfect, so we continue to complain and whine and bitch, and we still trust word of mouth more.

Maybe one day someone will find the perfect solution, probably based on the Dewey Decimal System and peer review – hell, it got us through to the 20th century just fine and I’m pretty sure there was always just as much information in the world as there is now.

5. Google is the New AOL

Yep, Google is your portal to everything. They provide your email, your chat groups, your instant messenger, even your daily news.

Google has cornered the web and the only thing that’s missing is the ISP service (but seeing as they own your browser and possibly your operating system too soon enough, who needs those pesky ISP revenues?). They have everything all sewn up, just like AOL did back in the day. Oh yeah, AOL had search capability, too.

So What?

Yeah there are some similarities, but things have evolved and changed, and we don’t like change. Well here are five things I’ve learned from realizing that the Internet is the same as it always was.

1. Search Engines Will Never be Perfect, Get Over it

Google kind of seemed like it was perfect in the beginning. It was such a huge improvement on what had come before. But like Microsoft, Yahoo, and all of the record companies, it needs to innovate to stay current.

Social search is Google’s attempt to change how we search again, and maybe it will work, or maybe this time it will be the Goliath slayed by David? Who knows.

Really, unless you have the solution that will slay the giant, stop bitching about it, it just raises your blood pressure. Work with what you have, because something new is always around the corner.

2. Invest in Forums, They May be the Only Constant

Ah yes, forums. I first spoke about forum marketing back in 2005, and I still talk about it now.

I know the people I interact with on forums better than I know my Twitter people. We share a common, niche interest, and that gives us a bond that Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ can’t even begin to replicate, not with all the circles or lists in the world.

Forums are where you go to invest a part of yourself, not the whole, and that is very special. Build a forum, and manage it well, or join an existing one, and participate passionately. Forums are something special and will only evolve, not die.

3. The Internet Has Been, and Always Will be, Social

Any social media expert who doesn’t realize that, and who thinks that social means the big social networks, is failing. We’re humans who build communities around us. From AOL chat to live journals to blog rings.

We enjoy the intimate and exclusive relationships most. That is the true basis of social, not Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr.

4. Don’t Chase the Algorithm

Stay ahead of algorithms. Think like the search engines and social platforms think, which is simply: we need to make money, how can we best connect with people to get and keep market share, by providing the best answers, the best resources, the best experience.

If that means innovating, then innovate; if it means going old school, go old school. Challenge your expectations,

Do you really need 100,000 visitors, or will 10,000 dedicated customers who return because you know them, and provide the service that they need be just as profitable? Once you understand this you will be ahead of the algorithm, because you’re thinking like a search engine

5. Relax, It’s Nothing New

Last, but certainly not least, relax. It’s all a cycle. The Internet is a society evolving, and like the rise and fall of every empire a new one will spring from the ashes.

The same cycle happens every day, so don’t sweat it. Plan for the long term and sow your seeds now, because even if this is Internet winter, spring is always just around the corner again.

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