The 20 Internet Giants That Rule the Web (1998 – Today)
With each passing year, an increasingly large segment of the population no longer remembers images carrying one pixel row at a time, the poignant sound of a 56K modem, or the early dominance of web portals.
Many of the best sites in 1998 were news aggregators or search portals, which are easy-to-understand concepts. Today, brand touchpoints are often spread between devices (such as mobile versus desktop apps) and a myriad of services and sub-brands (such as the Facebook suite of apps). As a result, the world’s largest websites are complex and interconnected web properties.
The above visualization, which primarily uses data from ComScore’s US multi-platform characteristics rating, looks at which internet giants have evolved to stay ahead, and which have faded into internet lore.
America Moves Online
For millions of curious people in the late 1990s, the popular AOL CD was the key that opened the door to the World Wide Web. At its peak, an estimated 35 million people gained access to the Internet using AOL, and the company drove the dot-com bubble to dizzying heights, reaching a valuation of $222 billion in 1999.
The AOL brand may not have the cache it once did, but the brand hasn’t quite faded into obscurity. The company is constantly evolving, finally merging with Yahoo after Verizon acquired both of the legendary online brands. Verizon had high hopes that the company – called Oath – would develop into a “third choice” for advertisers and users fed up with Google and Facebook.
Unfortunately, those ambitions did not materialize as planned. In 2019, Oath was rebranded as Verizon Media, and was eventually sold again in 2021.
City of Motion Pictures and Web Records
When Internet use started 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, greatly influenced the early Internet, hosting millions of websites and giving people a way to actually participate in creating content online. If it was an actual community of “home” pages, it would have been the third largest city in America, after Los Angeles.
This early online community was in danger of being permanently erased when GeoCities was finally closed down by Yahoo in 2009, but fortunately, the non-profit Internet Archive made a special effort to create a comprehensive registry of pages hosted in GeoCities.
From A to Z
In December 1998, long before Amazon became the well-oiled retail machine we know today, the company was in the midst of a massive holiday season crisis.
In the real world, employees would tow long hours and sleep in cars to keep the goods flowing, while online Amazon.com became one of the biggest websites on the internet as people started getting comfortable with the idea of buying goods online. Demand soared as the company began expanding its offering beyond books.
Amazon.com has grown into the most successful online merchant.
– The New York Times (1998)
digital magazine rack
Meredith is going to be an unfamiliar brand to many people who look at the list of the top 20 brands today. While Meredith may not be a household name, the company has been in control of many of the country’s most popular magazines (People, AllRecipes, Martha Stewart, Health, etc.) including its large digital footprint. The company also owns a large number of local television networks across the United States.
After its acquisition of Time Inc. In 2017, Meredith became the world’s largest magazine publisher. Since then, Meredith has divested many of her most valuable assets (Time, Sports Illustrated, Fortune). In December 2021, Meredith merged with IAC’s Dotdash subsidiary.
When people have pressing questions, they increasingly turn to the Internet for answers, but the variety of sources for those answers is shrinking.
As recently as 2013, we could see that About.com, Ask.com, and Answers.com were still among the largest websites in America. Despite this, Google appears to have cemented its place today as a global source for answers.
As smart speakers and voice assistants continue to penetrate the market and influence search behaviour, Google is unlikely to face any competition in the near term from any company that is not already on the top 20 list.
New children in the building
Social media has long gone beyond its primitive stage and is now a common digital thread connecting people all over the world. While Facebook quickly jumped into the top 20 by 2007, it took other brands that were infused with social media even longer to become internet giants.
By 2018, Twitter, Snapchat, and Facebook were all among the top 20, and you can see a more detailed and up-to-date breakdown of the social media world here.
Today’s internet giants have evolved far beyond their predecessors two decades ago. Many of the companies in the top 20 run many platforms and streaming content, and often, they aren’t household names.
A few of them, like Mediavine and CafeMedia, are ad-managing services. Others manage the distribution of content, such as music, or manage a set of smaller media properties, as is the case with Hearst.
Finally, there are still the tech giants. Remarkably, three of the top five web properties were in the top 20 list in 1998. In the fast-paced digital ecosystem, this is some great staying power.
This article is based on previous work by Philip Pump that appeared in the Washington Post.