Online advertising’s evolution over the last 30 years

It’s been thirty years since online advertising first crept into our lives, and this industry has evolved at a phenomenal rate

Thursday, 30 November, 2023

Every new year heralds some significant anniversaries, and 2023 will be no different.

It’s ten years since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, the same-sex marriage law was passed and London’s newly glazed Walkie Talkie building began melting cars.

Twenty years have passed since Concorde took its final flight, QI debuted on our screens and the Bentley Continental GT was launched.

Looking back thirty years, few people will associate 1993 as the year in which online advertising was born.

Yet today’s digital world wouldn’t exist in its current form without adverts.

Online advertising pays for the websites we browse for free, many of the apps we install, and a great deal of the online content we consume.

Yet despite its ubiquity and necessity, a constant cat-and-mouse game has been played out between advertisers and software developers to determine how many ads get through.

In the former camp, an entire industry has evolved to ensure consumers see the content their clients want, generating enough revenue to keep the internet’s wheels turning.

In the latter camp are web browsers, operating systems, VPNs and antivirus software. Their collective aim is to prevent their customers seeing banners, interstitials and other ad-based content.

From humble beginnings

Back in the days when the internet was still a fledgling concept with an uncertain future (precursors like Prestel had already failed), online advertising didn’t exist.

The first mainstream example of online advertising can be attributed to O’Reilly Media’s Global Network Navigator website, which introduced the concept of clickable adverts.

By the time GNN was bought by AOL in 1995, other firms like Enterprise Integration Technologies had begun offering online purchases using personal credit cards.

In 1994, banner adverts started appearing on websites, though it wasn’t always clear whether they were external ad content or an integral part of that site.

Within a year, consumer targeting was emerging – the process of displaying ads only to people deemed to be relevant due to known interests, browsing history or demographic data.

By 1996, return on investment tools were beginning to report and track the extent to which ads were being engaged with, providing early examples of engagement tracking.

The inevitable mistakes and missteps

If the last two sentences suggest online advertising hasn’t changed much in the last three decades, nothing could be further from the truth.

Early banner ads were often garish, with flashing GIF animations that would seem shocking in today’s more sophisticated online environment.

The late Nineties saw the literal and metaphorical rise of pop-up ads, which appeared over a webpage until users either engaged with it or clicked to get rid of it.

With increasingly small X buttons often hidden away in obscure places, pop-ups became a major irritant.

Search engines eventually killed them off by ranking pop-ups as the main SEO content of that page, instantly causing a webpage to plummet down the ranking tables.

As recently as twenty years ago, some search engines were themselves little more than advertising directories, with web page results ordered according to who paid the most money.

Most web ads were programmed in Adobe Flash, but subsequent incompatibility with web browsers (and some operating systems) heralded the end of Flash.

Constant evolution

From the introduction of video ads on YouTube (2006) to promoted tweets (2010), social media and online advertising have become inextricably interlinked.

It’s only ten years since Instagram introduced promoted posts to user timelines, and just eight years since mobile advertising expenditure outstripped desktop ads for the first time.

Today’s clickbait native adverts are baked into webpages and can be easily mistaken for official site content, despite discreet “sponsored by” or “you might also like” captions.

The EU’s GDPR regulations have significantly clarified the online experience, though they haven’t curtailed advertising to the extent many proponents had hoped.

In a market now worth an estimated $681 billion, online ads are grudgingly tolerated, though rarely loved or celebrated.

At least they incorporate sophisticated design and granular user targeting that are only possible following thirty years of refinement and experimentation.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!