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I was armed with a copy of FrontPage (Vermeer) and had a bit of help from some local programmers. It took a few months to build a website and a year before I could even put my hands on it. They wouldn't let me edit until I could prove that I was "able" to do so. :)
At the time, it was definitely a benchmark for the client. We were light years ahead of his competition and set the stage for future things to come.
I missed the very beginning of it all which I believe was around 1994 April when WebCrawler and Yahoo! came on the scene. I remember starting when Inktomi, Excite and AltaVista were the top three. That was in late 1995. I didn't really become active in the community until 1998 at SEF.
When did you start?
Today it would be a huge budget site, back then we were thrilled we managed to wrap text around an image and could have a downloadable movie of their latest TV ad (which was about the size of a postage stamp and would have been quicker to put on CD and post to everyone who tried).
Google was a made up,unknown word. You could still go to the pub all afternoon and hide from clients as mobiles weren't that widespread and email was pretty unknown. Blissful.
Many existing websites were text only and used default font and colour schemes - swathes of Times New Roman on a grey background in my case. Some used small GIF images and a few used those new-fangled JPG thingies.
Almost all the sites I looked at were badly designed, most had poor spelling and grammar, tag soup was everywhere, and factual accuracy did not seem to be a priority. Some things never change.
As I had a background in graphic design and wrote good English I found it relatively easy to trump the little competition that existed in my niches, and soon found one of my sites promoted in the national press. I still shudder when I look at the markup I wrote, but at least my sites always worked in both Netscape and Explorer, and I never once used a BLINK tag.
I remember AltaVista dominating search, but there were many other engines to submit a URL to back then. Most were dreadful portal affairs, though there was one called Northern Lights that was not so bad. When Google was launched it was a breath of fresh air, and though I never consciously did any SEO in those days my main site very quickly took the number one spot for its primary keywords, and held it for many years (until it was eventually usurped by Wikipedia).
While all this may make some readers think I am a veteran, I still feel like a student - there is always something new to learn, and that is what keeps me interested.
Fortunately, a lot of the answers can be found on WebmasterWorld...
[edited by: Samizdata at 11:08 pm (utc) on Jan. 22, 2008]