The Internet has gone through a whole lot of changes since Al Gore didn't invent it in 1982. It's amazing to think that there are people growing up who have never known a world without it. But even in its relatively short lifespan, the World Wide Web has changed a great deal. Sites and companies have risen and fallen like the tides as the digital landscape shifted.
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A few years ago, the Washington Post used comScore to compile data on the most visited websites from the last 20 years, giving us a snapshot of how people were using the Internet over time. We did some follow-up research to bring the data up to the present day so we could look for trends and maybe learn something. It's pretty fascinating, and can really give you some insight on the trajectory of some of the biggest businesses in the Internet age.
1996-2002: AOL Reigns Supreme
The big story in the early days of the Internet was access. Before telecom companies realized there was money to be made providing Internet service over lines they already owned, third-party companies were connecting people through dialup. And the king of the dialup world was America Online.
AOL made its name by mailing out free account-activation CDs to pretty much every residence in the United States, from Louisiana swamp shacks to New Jersey McMansions. Its subscriber base was massive; in many parts of the country, it was the only Internet access people could get.
And when you dialed in, the first website you were brought to was AOL.com. Before Reddit was the "front page of the Internet," AOL had that title, and its site was a huge traffic driver.
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The runners-up during this period are interesting. In 1996, the first text-based search engine, Webcrawler, was the second most popular site in the world. By the next year, it had plummeted to 14th place, and by 1998 was gone entirely.
Some other interesting trends during this period were the rise and fall of build-your-own web page companies. In 1998, Geocities.com was the third most popular site online, and competitors like Tripod and Angelfire also made the top 20. By the very next year, all three of them were gone from the charts.
It's also interesting to see companies and sites that made a big splash and then faded. American Greetings' site was at No. 12 in 2001—possibly the peak of the e-card business—and never hit the top 20 again.
That same period saw the debut of a few huge movers: Amazon in 1998 and eBay in 1999. Both sites would claim a place in the Top 20 for the immediate future.
Finally, Microsoft and its news and media outlet MSN both hit the chart in 1997. They would be some of the most dependably visited sites on the Web for the next 20 years, in part due to Internet Explorer making them a default home page.
2003-2007: Yahoo Takes Over
In the early days of Yahoo, the site was a manually updated Web directory. You could log on and literally see a list of other websites that got added every day. Hell, it was originally called "Jerry's Guide to the World Wide Web," for God's sake. As the Internet boomed, that concept became unsustainable and the company shifted its focus to search. From 1997 on, it was solidly in the second place spot except for a few dips and never sank lower than third, battling it out with Microsoft/MSN for the most part.
A number of acquisitions made with IPO money helped buoy Yahoo throughout the beginning of the decade. Forty percent of Chinese giant Alibaba, photo-sharing site Flickr, and previously mentioned Geocities all brought traffic in. But all good things must come to an end, and a certain search engine was about to take its place atop the charts.
This period saw a few other interesting media stories. Ask Jeeves landed at No. 7 in 2004 after buying Excite.com, iWon.com, and MySearch.com but started plummeting almost immediately. The network saw another rise in 2010 but soon realized it couldn't compete in the search space and rebranded as a straight question-and-answer site. Also during this time, we saw the results of the 2000 AOL-Time Warner merger. The combined media enterprises still hung on to spots in the top five, but their influence fell year after year.
In 2003, we saw Walmart make its debut in the top 20. The ubiquitous retailer would rise and fall over the next few decades but always enjoy a spot. And pay close attention to which site snags the 17th place spot in 2007. A little site called Facebook.
2008-2009: The First Age of Google
Google first hit the chart in 2001 at No. 11, behind sites like InfoSpace and Vivendi. It took some time before the ultimate search engine clawed its way to the top, but in 2008 Google became the most popular site on the Internet for the first time.
This wasn't just caused by its search platform, which by this point was universally recognized as the most authoritative. Much like Yahoo, it was through a system of savvy acquisitions. In 2003, it bought Blogger, giving it a sizable platform for publishers. It followed that up in 2006 with probably the smartest buy in Web history: YouTube for $1.65 billion.
That same year, we saw a new up and comer on the charts—Wikipedia, the encyclopedia anyone ccould edit. This essential resource has consistently hovered near the upper middle of the top 20 and doesn't seem likely to go anywhere soon.
Two years, later Time Warner rectified what was called by many the biggest mistake in corporate history by spinning AOL back out as a separate business. The new content-oriented AOL debuted back on the chart at No. 4 but steadily dropped in the following years.
2010: Yahoo Strikes Back
For some reason, Yahoo was able to displace Google as the most visited site on the Internet in 2010. Why is hard to figure out. The company had indulged in a typical spree of acquisitions over the last few years, but nothing that can be truly said to have moved the needle like, say, a YouTube. We can chalk this down to a platform-driven fluke that's not likely to be repeated.
This was also the year Facebook took up a permanent spot in the top 4. After experiencing massive user growth by accepting users beyond the college student demographic, Facebook became the central point of contact for millions of people, essentially making most other mass-market social networks obsolete.
2011-Forwards: The Second Age of Google
After that one brief year on top, Yahoo once again dropped to second place. It's a testament to the strength of its portfolio that, even as the main site loses relevance, its other sites continue to see lots of use. The 2013 acquisition of Tumblr was a head-scratcher for revenue but gave it a platform to reach millennials. For some reason, that's a good thing.
Bolstered by the ubiquity of YouTube as well as search, advertising, and all its other tools, Google regained the throne and doesn't seem likely to give it up anytime soon. There are few companies that have personified the Internet age, as is illustrated by the fact that "to Google something" is now common parlance, like "to Xerox a document."
It's also important to note that these results aren't taking into account the boom in foreign websites—especially in China, which has become an Internet hub in the last five years. Sites like TencentQQ, Sina, and Baidu are now sniffing towards the top half of the list, and as more of China becomes wired for Internet they'll just get bigger.
So what does the future hold for the most popular sites on the Internet? It's doubtful that we'll see much change in the top five for some time. Google is the search engine. Facebook is the social network. Amazon is the store. These companies have weathered the storm to make themselves global brands. But it's possible that there will be a new disruptor that uses the Web in an as yet undiscovered way coming soon. Virtual reality is one area where that might be possible, but we're no psychics.
It could be anything. All we know is that we'll be logging on to check it out.
Images via the Wayback Machine