3 Websites that once ruled the Internet

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Do you remember the internet before Google? For many people it seems a difficult thing to even imagine.

But it did exist (sadly I was there!) and in those heady days, armed with your trusty 28.8k modem, there were many fantastic sites to visit and use (just remmeber to check no one is using the landline before you connect).

In this post we are going to remember 3 of the biggest sites that once ruled the internet and find out what happened to them and why.

In those days every time you ventured onto the internet it started with a familiar sound. For full immersion, please press the play button below!

1. AltaVista

Launched: 15th December 1995 | Status: Defunct

AltaVista was Google before Google. It was created by researchers at Digital Equipment Corporation to try and make it easier to find files on a network. It was mainly built to showcase the power of the Alpha 8400 TurboLaser computer system which was able to run databases extreamly quickly (for the time) and index each and every word on the internet.

It quickly became many peoples starting point on the internet. Daily visitors rose rapidly from 300,000 at launch to more than 80 million per day after only a couple of years. Impressive figures, even more so when you consider the internet only had a fraction of the users it has today and it's estimated only around 100,000 websites. To put that into perspective, according to tekeye, today there are over 1.8 billion websites.

So what happened?

To be blunt, meddling and money. Instead of focusing on search the company forged ahead adding features, that while innovative (free email, shopping links, news) slowly erroded its userbase. It's once beautifully minimal front page became a jumble of competing links and banners all begging to be clicked. In 1998 computer manufacturer Compac aquired AltaVista but its fate was sealed. It's possibly true that AltaVista was effectively doomed not by itself, but by the rise of a fledgling search engine called Google.

What happens if I visit the site today?

Today a vist to www.altavista.com returns a 'page can’t be found' message. Astonishing for a domain name that was once sold for $3.3 million.

2. AOL (America Online)

Launched: February 1991 (founded 1983 as Control Video Corporation) | Status: Live!

America Online as most people remember it began in February 1991 with the launch of AOL for DOS (Windows 3.1 was still 14 months away from being released!). Prior to this the company had a strange history involving a myriad of early online games, play-by-mail games, interactive fiction, chat rooms and had even proposed the idea of buying music online which was rejected by the ever forward-thinking record companies.

A year after AOL for DOS came AOL for Windows and the explosion of its popularity. By 1997 half of all internet connected users in the U.S. were connecting through AOL. Much of the sucess was down to the insane numbers of 'free AOL trial CDs' that the company was distributing. At one point it was estimated that almost half of all Compact Discs being made were destined to be these trial discs. Some offices and homes literally had drawers full of them and many were used as coasters. Some of the 'rare' designs can now sell for pretty high prices on eBay!

By 2000 AOL was seemingly unstoppable. On 10th Jan that year it merged with Time Warner to become AOL Time Warner - the largest Media company in the World.

So what happened?

Broadband Internet happened and AOL were very slow to start offering it to their customers. Coupled with an increasingly difficult corporate culture, the company saw a rapid decline in its userbase. By the early 2000s when the dot.com bubble burst AOL Time Warner was reporting record losses. In 2002 the company lost $99 billion which remains the largest one-year loss in U.S. corporate history.

Rebranding, massive layoffs and huge changes to the business model followed. Many of the services AOL had previously charged for were now being offered (and being done better) by other companies for free.

Today AOL still exists as a web portal. It's now a subsidiary of Verizon, has headquarters in New York with a respectable staff number of 5,600. Bizarrly papers filed by the company in 2017 show that 2.1 million Americans still pay AOL for its dial-up internet services. We are still scratching our heads over that one.

What happens if I visit the site today?

If you visit www.aol.com today you still get AOL. We can't seem to find the button for ordering a disk though!

3. Friends Reunited

Launched: 30 June 2000 | Status: Closed on 26 February 2016

In the year 2000 MySpace was the undisputed king of social networks. It was also fairly impenetrable to anyone above the age of about 16. For many internet users (or surfers, to use another piece of old internet jargon) their first experience of an online social network was Friends Reunited.

It was conceived and built by a married couple, Steve and Julie Pankhurst and their friend Jason Porter in Barnet, Hertfordshire. It enabled people to register for an account (costing £7.50 per year!) and reconnect with former school friends.

The site was an immediate success and by 2002 boasted over 2.5 million members. It was bought by the British TV company ITV for around £175 million in 2005 and turned into a brand. We had Friends Reunited music compilations, recipie books, TV shows and books. The website was literally everywhere.

There was even a song released in 2006 by the band The Hussy's called (and about) Friends Reunited.

So what happened?

Facebook happened. From 2007 - 2008 the site lost half its users which prompted it to finally abondon its subscription fee. Of course it was far too late by then. During 2008 traffic to www.friendsreunited.co.uk grew by 1.2% - Facebooks growth was almost 2,500%. Later that year ITV sold the service for a reported loss of £150 million on its purchase from only 4 years before.

What happens if I visit the site today?

The domain www.friendsreunited.co.uk times out if you visit.

About the Author

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Mike Mingard


Mike is a designer at Optima Systems. He grew up in West London and now lives by the sea. His first love was music which led to jobs in recording engineering and a number of years as a front of house sound engineer and theatre stage manager. Having been taught the basics of HTML while at university he continued to develop websites as a hobby. It wasn't long before he realised the hobby was the more rewarding pursuit. More about Mike.

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