In March 2015 dot-com domains turn 30 years old, and coincidently I will as well. The first “.com” domain was registered on March 15, 1985, some 6 years before the launch of the world-wide-web in 1991, and since then nothing has ever been the same.
Like many Millennials now entering their middle ages, I’m nostalgic for nearly everything from my youth, including the old websites we grew up browsing. So I thought it might be fun to surf down memory lane, comparing the top websites from back-in-the-day with their modern counterparts. Combining tools like the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine (which catalogs snapshots of the web) with publicly available data on web usage in the U.S., here’s a look back at the top websites in 2005 compared to those in 2015:
Google (2005 rank: #5)
Yahoo (2005 rank: #1)
MSN/WindowsLive/Bing (2005 rank: #3)
Facebook (2005 rank: N/A)
YouTube (2005 rank: N/A)
Amazon (2005 rank: 7)
Microsoft (2005 rank: 2)
AOL (2005 rank: 4)
Wikipedia (2005 rank: unknown)
Ask Search Network (2005 rank: unknown)
Back in 2005 Google was still the new kid on the block, quickly gaining popularity as the best search engine around, attracting 69 million unique visitors to its website in January 2005. Google had only recently IPO’d and was yet to release more killer apps like Gmail and Google Maps, but even then it was easy to see how Google would become a daily web destination as users moved from browsing portals (like Yahoo and MSN) to searching the web. Today Google represents many more roles than just search, with it’s website alone receiving 141 million unique visitors in January 2015 (not even including all its mobile web and app users).
Yahoo has been on a bit of roller-coaster over the last decade, leading this list with 95 million monthly visitors only 10 years ago. Building on its strength as a web directory and portal, Yahoo aimed to become everyone’s homepage to the web. But as new media properties competed with Yahoo’s offerings, and as social media emerged as a hub for online activity, Yahoo’s lead dipped as low at #4 on the web. More recently as more of these online activities moved to mobile, Yahoo’s rank in terms of web traffic has actually risen back, while simultaneously Yahoo continues making inroads with mobile users as well.
Like Yahoo, Microsoft’s digital portfolio has changed significantly over the last decade, but unlike Microsoft.com (or other parts of their business), their web offerings have grown slightly since 2005. Take Bing, which grew out of MSN’s search engine to take on Google’s search business, which has since grown to become the #2 search engine in the US, powering everything from Yahoo.com’s search results to Xbox searches and personal assistant Cortana’s answers on Windows phones. Looking only at web activity, MSN still attracts a loyal following of monthly visitors, slightly up from 2005 with 100+ million monthly uniques in the US alone.
At a time when Friendster and Myspace were the pioneers of social networking, Facebook was just a blip on the radar screen. In 2005 Facebook had just reached a milestone by crossing 1 million unique visitors per month, but was still limited to college students in the US. Of course the rest is history, and by the time the social network held it’s IPO it was the second most visited website in the world. So how has Facebook slipped to #4 in terms of web traffic? Today Facebook’s users spend more time on smartphones and so Facebook has embraced everything mobile, following their audience to make the leading smartphone apps. Needless to say Facebook isn’t losing their users anytime soon, but it does go to show how much the web has changed within the last decade.
In March of 2005 YouTube.com’s founders had just recently registered their domain, and it’s website wouldn’t yet launch to the public until late 2005. Seemingly overnight YouTube took the web by storm, bringing streaming video into the mainstream without requiring extra plugins/apps (ie Real Player). Less than a year later Google bought YouTube for the then unheard of $1.6 billion, earning mockery from VCs and analysts. In hindsight it was a bargain for a site we can’t seem to use the web without, carrying its loyal audience to smartphone screens and increasingly into our living rooms.
You might not realize it by looking at Amazon.com then vs now, but the “everything store” has come a long way over the last decade. Back then Amazon only needed 35 million monthly visitors to be the #7 ranked website, and during the last 10 years it’s even fallen out of the top 10 periodically, with traffic peaking around the holiday shopping season. These days Amazon has become an everyday shopping destination for 87 million Americans using the web, with record quarterly revenues of $74 billion in Q1 2015, compared with a modest $3.5 billion during the same time in 2005.
The last decade has not been great for Microsoft, as the company has ceded ground to Apple and Google for some of it’s core businesses while falling behind in the mobile market as well. That’s reflected in these web stats, as Microsoft.com was a destination for most web users in 2005, browsing their site for the latest software and patches as well as support back when 90+% of PCs ran Windows OS. Among the top 10 websites, this is only one to receive less traffic in 2015, even as web access has become nearly universal.
Some of you might be surprised to learn that AOL is still around, but the ISP has carved out a niche of its own as a web portal. In fact in 2005, AOL.com re-launched as a beta website, in attempt to broaden its audience beyond the millions of dial-up subscribers it brought to the web back in the day. Today AOL attracts about the same number of web visitors (around 70+ million) each month as it did back in 2005, and has broadened its web business to include everything from TechCrunch to The Huffington Post.
In 2005 Wikipedia was a radical idea for crowdsourcing knowledge, rather than the internet institution we sometimes take for granted today. Perhaps that explains why it’s difficult to find reliable measurements for how much traffic the site received back in 2005. Since then, Wikipedia has become an indispensable resource, often the first stop for web users in their search for more information about public figures, corporations, and popular culture.
While Jeeves is no longer around, Ask.com is still alive. However this ranking reflects some 49 million monthly visitors to all of IAC’s websites in this network which includes About.com, Ask.fm, and Dictionary.com among many others. This reflects the unique way advertising used to be sold as networks of related websites, similar to how the print publishers used to sell ads across their portfolio, but with programatic advertising following users across sites and screens, these ad networks may soon become a thing of the past.
Notable mention: eBay (2005 rank: 6)
Notable mention: Weather Channel (2005 rank: 10)
eBay has carved out an enduring niche for itself on the web, drawing about as many monthly visitors today (about 50 million uniques) as it did back in the day. In 2005 eBay ranked as the #6 web destination in the US, and they still hover near the top 10 websites overall, having survived challenges from retailers and e-commerce startups over the years.
Among the top 10 sites in 2015, you can find your local forecast on at least half of these sites. While there are more ways to check the weather today, thanks in part to APIs like WeatherUnderground owned by The Weather Channel, traffic to Weather.com remains about the same as it was in 2005 with around 25+ million visitors each month, good enough to rank it among the top 50 websites to this day.
The Websites That Time Forgot?
As you can see, a decade can be an eternity on the web, especially for those websites which burst the internet’s bubble within the last 10 years (RIP Myspace). Here’s one more look back at those websites which were left behind:
Mapquest (2005 rank: 9)
Real (2005 rank: 8)
Before Google Maps took over the world, Mapquest was still the best way to look up turn-by-turn directions, and was noted for it’s printable maps. In fact when Google Local debuted in 2004 it included Mapquest to provide directions to it’s search results. Back then Mapquest was still good enough to attract 33 million unique users each month, but now it’s owned by AOL and still online for curious web users.
For those of us who remember using Real Player back in the day, I think I speak for everyone when I say: good riddance! In fact the only reason their website ranked among the top 10 back in the day was the frequent updates their aging tech required. In hindsight it seems obvious that Real couldn’t compete with iTunes or Amazon (or even piracy). Streaming has come a long way since 2005 when nearly half of Americans still used dialup, so I was genuinely surprised to find Real.com is still in business. Even the late Steve Jobs was surprised, asking under oath “Do they still exist?” It’s unknown just how many people still visit their website, much less use their streaming tech now that consumers have moved beyond PC browsers to mobile and tablet apps.
So what lessons can we learn in terms of marketing strategy and planning from the last decade on the web? Online marketers must follow consumers wherever they go, it’s clear that consumers will migrate to websites which give them relevant or personalized information, whether that comes through providing the best search results (Google) or through social signals (Facebook). The most visited websites remain more broad in focus, as consumers prefer using mobile apps for more specialized tasks such as maps and weather. Between 2005 through 2015 web activity peaked for many of these websites, and in 2014 time spent using smartphone apps surpassed time spent surfing the web in browsers. Still these stats show that the web is far from dead, giving marketers a valuable opportunity to reach consumers who visit these websites every day.
What websites do you remember visiting back in the day? Feel free to share your old favorites and any left out of this list in the comments.