What Rules the Web

Visual Capitalist depicts which internet firms have developed to remain at the top, and which have fallen away or merged with other companies during the last two decades up to present.

We’ve been a fan of Visual Capitalist before, as the insight that Iman Ghosh put together about Zoom’s meteoric rise during COVID, really reflected how media helps us consume and understand data. This time, I’m personally blown away, as a life lesson we’re constantly preaching visually comes to life, in one of their latest looks at what data can show us.

The Web’s Top 20 Internet Giants

A Glimpse of the World Wide Web

Think about the era prior to Google and Amazon. Our experience with the internet was defined by AOL, newsgroups, and bulletin boards; we experienced the internet thanks to (already) millions of sites, but websites were largely only known to people because the web address was shared, or key word associated with the brand.

As the e* predecessor of lingo evolved into i*, and “world wide web” changed to “internet,” the first wave of the world beyond early adopters found themselves online. Around 1998 (in hindsight no surprise), the first major innovation from entrepreneurs trying tackle the “problem” of discovery emerged at scale – how to find what’s online.

This was my experience with the early internet. I don’t find myself among the earliest pioneers venturing online but it was in 1995 that my first articles found their way to a website in HTML, and just a few years later, I was a purple-blooded Yahoo!

Visual Capitalist depicts which internet firms have developed to remain at the top, and which have fallen away or merged with other companies during the last two decades up to present.
Visual Capitalist depicts which internet firms have developed to remain at the top, and which have fallen away or merged with other companies during the last two decades up to present.

As Nick Routley brought this visual to life, you might appreciate how it caught my attention to see Yahoo! prominent on the right. Not so much so the left, where I’d expect to see it in 1998, but that in this era of Facebook and TikTok headlines grabbing our attention, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who would utter “yahoo” when asked of the Giants that Rule the Web.

While Yahoo! caught my attention, a far more striking trend prompted this article.

The Giants of the Internet From 1998 to Today

2019 marked the 30th year of Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal to persuade CERN’s administration to embrace a worldwide hypertext system termed “Mesh,” and ultimately renamed the “World Wide Web.” Berners-Lee’s concept set the groundwork for the modern web, which is now such an intrinsic part of people’s lives that it’s all too quick and easy to take for granted and impossible to imagine life without it.

While Berners-Lee’s 1989 proposal is widely regarded as the beginning of what many refer to as the internet (even though the web is only a method of accessing it), it wasn’t until later that individuals could truly connect to the internet effectively.

You’ve Got Mail

Jeran Renz / Wikimedia Commons

It’s easy for those of us in Media to remember fondly how Netflix revolutionized the disc in the mail but it was the now legendary AOL compact disc that arrived first at our homes; the key that unlocked the door to the World Wide Web for millions of inquisitive individuals in the late 1990s. At its peak, AOL connected an estimated 35 million individuals to the internet, and the firm soared to stratospheric heights during the Dotcom bubble, reaching a value of $222 billion dollars in 1999.

While AOL’s brand may lack the allure it once had, it never entirely fell into obscurity. The corporation developed over time, eventually combining with Yahoo! after Verizon’s acquisition of both renowned web companies. Verizon had great aspirations for the firm, named Oath, to develop into a “third alternative” for marketers and customers frustrated with Google and Facebook.

Regrettably, such aspirations did not pan out as expected. Oath was rebranded Verizon Media in 2019, and was ultimately sold again in 2021.

Notice in Routley’s visual, Yahoo! skips a beat and disappears in 2018 only to return with a new look as it reclaims a title

As internet use grew to critical mass, web hosts such as AngelFire and GeoCities made it simple for anyone to establish a new home online. 

GeoCities, in particular, had a significant influence on the early internet, hosting millions of web pages and enabling users to engage directly in the creation of online content. I was there (I’ll have to look in a Wayback Machine archive to see if I can find my old Geocities page). If it had been an actual community of “home” pages, it would have been America’s third-biggest city, behind Los Angeles.

If you look more closely to the list of 1998, you see only a few real outliers the likes of Geocities. Aside from the outliers, the similarity between most? Search engines, indices, and directories all, this was the era when entrepreneurs recognized the problem inherent in a booming and virtual internet: billions of sites that no one could find. How to solve that? Search.

That is of course, except for another obvious outlier. The company that stands out highlighted throughout the ages of the internet. A company often today even considered a major search engine, it’s part of your smarthome, and it’s streaming your music and TV: Amazon.

By the way, GeoCities was officially shut down by Yahoo! in 2009, but fortunately, the nonprofit Internet Archive made special efforts to compile a comprehensive archive of GeoCities’ hosted sites.

Long before Amazon developed into the well-oiled retail powerhouse that it is now, the firm experienced a major Christmas season crunch in December 1998.

Staff worked long hours and often slept in cars to keep the supplies flowing. Demand increased significantly as the firm expanded its services beyond its start in media (selling books).

Outliers or Trends?

A few other companies should catch your attention as readily as mine. Meredith is striking, an unfamiliar name to many readers of today’s top 20 list. While hardly a household name, the business owned a number of the country’s most successful magazine brands (People, AllRecipes, Martha Stewart, and Health, to name a few), maintained large digital footprints of their own, and operated a great many local television networks around the United States.

Meredith became the world’s biggest magazine publisher in 2017 with its purchase of Time Inc and yet in short order sold a number of its most valued properties (Time among them, as well as Sports Illustrated and Fortune). Still reasonably breaking news, Meredith joined with Dotdash under Joey Levin and Barry Diller’s IAC/InterActiveCorp in December 2021; we’re already in need of an infographic update.

What happened to all the companies of 1998? From about 1995 until around 2005, as individuals had pressing problems, they increasingly turned only to the internet for solutions. We saw the Dictionary and Encyclopedia die as Wikimedia open sourced the world’s information; and notice how quickly, Google‘s innovation of search engines made previous efforts obsolete.

Come 2013, About.com, Ask.com, and Answers.com, remained among the most popular websites in the United States but as the late 90s helped us uncover what’s to be found online, in the early 00s might be best characterized as when the world learned to sell online, and the toe of media giants dipped in the water, hinted at things to come.

Social Media Sites or the new Internet?

Long past its trendy stage, social media has evolved into the shared digital thread that connects people worldwide; being more than a feature or website on the internet, social media emerged from about here in our past, as the next generation of the internet (Web 2.0). While Facebook rocketed into the top 20 by 2008, other social media-infused firms took time before becoming internet giants.

By 2018, Twitter, Snapchat, and Facebook’s umbrella of platforms ranked in the top 20. Still dominant names and sites most pure social media was quickly replaced by the giants of today; social media isn’t really a site or app but rather the convergence of the internet with media, MediaTech; a singularity if you will, as the internet finally fully realized what creates most value in the world.

A Singularity?
A moment in time when technology has become so advanced that humanity undergoes a dramatic and irreversible change.

Ever-evolving Web Exposes What is Most Valued

Now, thirty-three years after Tim Berners-proposal Lee’s for the World Wide Web, the internet has expanded well beyond anyone’s imagination, “The hope would be to allow a pool of information to develop which could grow and evolve with the organization and the projects it describes.”

What’s easily overlooked is the trend over the years, validating the life lesson I mentioned that we cover extensively:

From the late ’90s efforts to aggregate the internet, commerce emerged and seemed to dominate the ’00s while media companies dabbled what the internet was yet to become. Social Media found its role on the internet, about a decade ago, and the evolution was so substantial that commerce consolidated and subsided, as Web 2.0 made the internet a matter of media.

Three decades later, it’s reasonable to say that the web has expanded and changed, continuing to alter our lives for the better – and for the worse. We can only wonder what the decades to come will bring but hopefully you can visualize what drives the capital, media is how we experience the internet. Developing a company, even a startup, with the internet in mind, means appreciating that you’re a media company, if you hope to be known at all, and to be valued to a greater degree.

Today’s Most Valued

Google – Media
Microsoft – Media
Yahoo! – Media
Facebook – Media
Amazon – Media
Comcast NBCUniversal – Media
Disney – Media
CafeMedia – Media
Viacom CBS – Media
WarnerMedia – Media
Apple – Media -ish (iPhone…)
Hearst – Media
Freestar – Media (Freestar? Really?)
Universal – Media
Meredith – Media
WMX – Media
The Weather Company – Media
USA Today – Media
Mediavine – Media

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Comments on What Rules the Web

  • Dylan Robichaux

    This looks awesome!

    • Paul O’Brien

      It’s such an incredible visual of the history of the internet, and a hint at the future of it

      • Dylan Robichaux

        Paul companies that manage and distribute content?

        • Paul O’Brien

          Companies that communicate, teach, and produce our culture

  • Bobnificent

    Wow. No twitter in today’s column.

    • Paul O’Brien

      Right? Seems surprising, but then when think about, what has happened is that many of the existing major media companies, simply too 15-20 years to catch on to the fact that this is an internet world.

      By comparison to a ViacomCBS, WarnerMedia, or NBCUniversal, Twitter is an app.

What Rules the Web

by Paul O'Brien time to read: 7 min