The 20 Internet Giants Dominating the Web (1998-Present)
With each passing year, more and more of the population no longer remembers images loading a single line of pixels at a time, the deafening sound of a 56k modem, or the early dominance of web portals.
Many of the top websites in 1998 were news aggregators or search portals, which are easy-to-understand concepts. Today, brand touchpoints are often dispersed between devices (e.g. mobile apps vs. desktop) and a variety of services and sub-brands (e.g. Facebook’s app constellation). As a result, the world’s largest websites are complex, interconnected web properties.
The above visualization, using primarily data from ComScore’s US Multi-Platform Properties ranking, shows which of the internet giants have evolved to stay on top and which have disappeared into internet lore.
America moves online
For millions of curious people, the legendary AOL CD was the key that opened the door to the World Wide Web in the late 1990s. At its peak, an estimated 35 million people accessed the Internet through AOL, and the company skyrocketed the dot-com bubble, topping $222 billion in 1999.
The AOL brand may not carry the cache it once had, but the brand has never been completely forgotten. The company continued to evolve, eventually merging with Yahoo after Verizon acquired both iconic online brands. Verizon had high hopes that the company, dubbed Oath, would become a “third option” for advertisers and users fed up with Google and Facebook.
Unfortunately, these ambitions were not realized as planned. In 2019, Oath was rebranded to Verizon Media and eventually sold again in 2021.
A city of gifs and weblogs
As internet usage began to reach critical mass, web hosts like AngelFire and GeoCities made it easy for people to create a new home on the web.
GeoCities in particular had a major impact on the early internet as they host millions of websites and give people the opportunity to actually participate in the creation of online content. If it were a physical community of “homepages,” it would be the third largest city in America after Los Angeles.
This early online community was in danger of being wiped out for good when GeoCities was permanently shut down by Yahoo in 2009, but fortunately the non-profit Internet Archive made extra efforts to keep a thorough record of the pages hosted by GeoCities.
From A to Z
In December 1998, long before Amazon became the well-oiled retail machine we know today, the company found itself in the midst of a massive Christmas crisis.
In the real world, employees drove long hours and even slept in cars to keep goods flowing, while Amazon.com Online had become one of the largest sites on the web as people began to get used to the idea of selling goods online to buy . Demand grew as the company began expanding beyond books.
Amazon.com has become the most successful retailer on the Internet.
– New York Times (1998)
Digital Newspaper Rack
Meredith will be an unfamiliar brand to many people looking at today’s top 20 list. While Meredith may not be a household name, the company controlled many of the country’s most popular magazine brands (People, AllRecipes, Martha Stewart, Health, etc.), including their sizeable digital footprints. The company also owned a number of local television stations across the United States.
After acquiring Time Inc. in 2017, Meredith became the largest magazine publisher in the world. Since then, however, Meredith has divested many of his most valuable assets (Time, Sports Illustrated, Fortune). In December 2021, Meredith merged with IAC’s Dotdash.
When people have burning questions, they increasingly turn to the Internet for answers, but the variety of sources for those answers is shrinking.
As late as 2013, we can see that About.com, Ask.com, and Answers.com were still among the largest websites in America. Today, however, Google seems to have cemented its status as the universal source of answers.
As smart speakers and voice assistants continue to permeate the market and influence search behavior, Google is unlikely to face competition from companies not already in the top 20 list for the foreseeable future.
New kids on the block
Social media has long outgrown its fad and is now a digital thread connecting people around the world. While Facebook quickly climbed into the top 20 by 2007, other social media-dominated brands took longer to grow into internet giants.
By 2018, the platforms of Twitter, Snapchat, and Facebook were all in the top 20, and you can see a more detailed and updated breakdown of the social media universe here.
A tangled web
Today’s Internet giants have evolved well beyond their ancestors of two decades ago. Many of the companies in the top 20 operate multiple platforms and content streams, and for the most part they aren’t household names.
Some, like Mediavine and CafeMedia, are services that manage ads. Others manage the distribution of content like music, or manage a constellation of smaller media companies, as is the case with Hearst.
Finally, there are the tech giants. Notably, in 1998, three of the top five web properties were in the top 20 list. In the fast-paced digital ecosystem, that’s remarkable staying power.
This article was inspired by an earlier work by Philip Bump published in The Washington Post.