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How were famous websites made?

A screen shot of the BBC homepage

Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Google, Yahoo!, YouTube… Most of us now use (or are familiar with) at least a couple of these famous websites. They have become huge success stories. But many of today’s most popular sites started out on a small scale before reaching the level of global domination they enjoy today...

Jack Schofield | 9th September 2010

The first websites (from the early 1990s) often consisted of one page of text, usually with a few links underlined in blue. It’s amazing what technological progress has been made in the past two decades...

Billion-dollar ideas

Yahoo! sprung to life in 1994 when Jerry Yang and David Filo, two graduate students at Stanford University in the United States, started keeping a list of new and interesting websites. ’Jerry and David's Guide to the World Wide Web’ started to attract visitors, which enabled them to raise money and launch a web directory. In 2008, Microsoft tried to buy the company for $45 billion.

Google and Facebook were also founded by students. Google was started by another pair of Stanford students, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, while Facebook was created by Mark Zuckerberg and some Harvard classmates. The story of the conception and launch of Facebook has now been turned into a movie.

eBay, now the web’s dominant auction site, started as part of a programmer’s personal website in 1995. Pierre Omidyar offered his broken laser pointer for sale, and was astonished when it fetched nearly $15. Two years later, the site hosted about two million auctions. When the company went public in 1998, Omidyar became a billionaire.

It’s probably harder to do that sort of thing today, but there are lots of venture capitalists looking for ideas to back. YouTube, for example, was started by three friends who were working for PayPal. They raised $11.5 million to launch the site. Co-founder Jawed Karim appeared in the first video, ‘Me at the Zoo’, which was uploaded on April 23, 2005. In October 2006, Google bought the company for $1.65 billion in shares.

Finding a niche

Websites become successful when they meet a need, whether it’s selling books (Amazon) or enabling people to add captions to pictures of cats ( New ideas are rare - there may be half a dozen or more sites aiming at the same market. However, a website that works well can trigger a feedback loop that drives rapid growth.

For example, if you want to auction stuff, you will go to the site with the most buyers, because that should get you the best price. If you want to buy stuff, you will go to the site with the most auctions, where you’ll get the most choice. When eBay started, most users were both buyers and sellers. The auction site had found its niche - and eBay soon dominated the market.

Some people had believed that the web’s level playing field would lead to a sort of egalitarian utopia. Instead, internet markets went the same way as other technology markets where ‘winner takes most’.

Amazon, eBay, Facebook, etc were the web equivalents of corporations such as Cisco (communications), Intel (chips), and Microsoft (software).

Not all about appearance

Some people were surprised that so many of the most popular websites were – on the surface - relatively ugly. But web design is not graphic design, and judging sites by their appearance is a fundamental mistake.

Very few people go to websites because they look nice. They usually want to get something done - book a holiday, find a restaurant, play a game. Usability, readability, reliability, speed and the quality of the content have proved to be more important than appearance.

Most big websites are continually growing and changing all the time, and very few are recording their progress. Brewster Kahle spotted the problem, and in 1996, he started the non-profit Internet Archive to take snapshots of the web. This was ambitious when the web had roughly 50 million pages, and now there are more than a trillion!

Go to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, enter the address of a website, click Take Me Back, and you can see how your favourite site has changed over the past decade or so.

Jack Schofield

Jack Schofield

Jack Schofield is a technology journalist and blogger who covered IT for the Guardian from 1983 to 2010. Before specialising in computing, he edited a number of photography magazines and books.