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Web 1.0: What We Can Learn From Butt-Ugly Websites of the 1990s

Updated on August 30, 2014

A Web 1.0 Website, 1994

It looks ghastly, it uses an image map, and there's almost no info, just navigation. But computer screens were tiny, homepages had to be "above the fold," and websites worked differently then. We can still learn from this godawful design.
It looks ghastly, it uses an image map, and there's almost no info, just navigation. But computer screens were tiny, homepages had to be "above the fold," and websites worked differently then. We can still learn from this godawful design. | Source

When Content Was King

The web has changed profoundly, and few websites from the early days have survived. The remnants of the web's early years exist in forgotten backwaters seldom visited by web users who arrived in the last 5-10 years.

Sometimes, it's good to look back and remind ourselves how the web used to be. In most respects, it has vastly improved. But there are also methods that worked, sites that presented their content effectively, and successful techniques that we have lost in the shift from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Geocities (1994-2006), the free webhost used by millions to host our hand-built websites.

The Shift from Static to Interactive: Web 2.0

The terms "Web 1.0" and "Web 2.0" come from Darcy DiNucci's prescient article "Fragmented Future" in 1999. Tellingly, this article was published in Print magazine. We were still reading our tech blogging in printed magazines, because there weren't tech blogs or online news sources in those days.

At the time, webpages were "static," hand-coded from top to bottom. The content was self-contained. There were no reader submissions or comment boxes, no "votes" or "share" buttons. Pages did not change or incorporate new content, like ads or "related articles" in the sidebar. Websites, too, were static: an author or group of people would build them from the ground up, like a DIY carpenter building her own custom house to suit her needs, instead of a modular house with all the standard features (dishwasher, fridge, microwave, specific rooms) that houses are expected to have.

DiNucci's predictions were spot-on. In the 2000s, we started incorporating more kinds of content: videos, photos, sound, and pieces of content from other websites, everything from YouTube videos to Amazon products and prices. We implemented user interaction such as polls and comment/feedback. Instead of building our own websites, we migrated to popular, well-trafficked third-party platforms to publish our content -- anything from Twitter to Blogger -- and we started publishing articles on sites like Hubpages.

Web 2.0, the interactive, script-driven and social web, changed what kind of content we could easily share, and therefore the kind of content we tend to share.

The Web 1.0 Model of a "Homepage and Subpages"

Nowadays, few people build websites except for businesses. Instead, we post the bulk of our content on online publishing sites. Apart from Tweets and status updates, our content usually takes the form of single-page articles and posts, tightly focused on one topic.

Whereas in Web 1.0, the standard way to present content was to have a homepage, which consisted of an introduction to the topic plus navigation links, and subpages covering aspects of the topic in more detail. Here's a few examples:

In all these examples— humble and clumsy as they are— the "homepage plus subpages" model allowed the author to share richer, more detailed, and more in-depth information on each subpage. In Web 2.0, instead, the basic unit is a post, which only allows us to skirt the surface. It's harder to give expert-level information in Web 2.0.

Takeaway Lesson: I suggest that we may at times want to adapt the web 1.0 "homepage plus subpages" model in order to present more useful, richer, and more in-depth content. Blogs will let you do something similar, but the basic structure of blogs is to group posts chronologically, not by topic; you need to choose well-thought-out categories. (My Mom, who has a web 1.0 mindset, used Wordpress to create an educational website using only categories and static pages, not blog entries – that's going a bit too far, but it shows what's possible.)

Expert (or Informed Amateur) Information

In the early days of the web, it was illegal to earn money on the internet (a government-funded research tool). Instead, the goal of web pioneers was to create websites of useful or interesting information. For the first time we could share our expertise, hobbies, interests and passions with more people than we knew, in a different way than we could with printed books. We hoped that if we all built and contributed something to the web, we would then be able to enjoy and benefit from everyone else's contributions.

That meant our sites were in-depth, dedicated to their topic, and designed from the ground up for that topic, rather than using modular "publish anything" tools like Hubpages. For example, see the search tools of the Perseus Library on which I worked from 1993-1996. The tools are tailored to the content found on that website, and are made for students and researchers studying that particular kind of content.

Takeaway lesson: Nowadays, we mostly write brief articles and link out to Wikipedia or other expert sites for "more information," lest our content outgrow our web 2.0 readers' short attention spans. But sometimes, we should be the experts who create the expert sites with more in-depth, detailed, and rich information and/or tools best suited to that topic. The site doesn't have to be professional or scholarly. It could be for knitting wool socks, or any other topic you can imagine. An in-depth site draws visitors because its content exists nowhere else on the web.

Creating Websites Without Readers in Mind

Wait, what? Why would we want to design webpages withou considering our readers? Surely, readers were the reason for publishing, even in Web 1.0?

Well, yes. However, for the first ten or so years of the web, apart from the occasional guest counter or guestbook, we knew nothing about our readers. We had no idea who was reading our websites, or even how many visitors we had. We didn't have Google's search query data to tell us why people had come to our website and what phrases (keywords) they were looking for.

Instead, we simply built websites to cover the topic. We didn't take into account reader feedback, whether a topic was likely to attract readers, or what the popular searches were on our topic. We created content, and designed our websites, with one directive, one goal, one purpose, one driving principle: the topic itself. It, not readers, determined what content we included, how we organized our website, and every aspect of our online work.

Takeaway Lesson: Obviously, now that we can hear back from our readers, we should pay attention to them. We should consider user experience. But let's not forget: our goal isn't simply to attract visitors and satisfy them. Our goal is to cover a topic well. How we go about doing that depends on our topic, not only our readers.


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    • Casey Strouse profile image

      Casey Strouse 6 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Yep, basic sites still have their place. My top-earning affiliate sites are really basic ugly templates that I created in 20-30 minutes. Only certain topics require beautiful sites and even then it's questionable how much aesethics matter.

    • Greekgeek profile image

      Ellen 6 years ago from California

      Oh, hello fellow former classicist! One of the best things about classics back then, I thought, is that it was so quick to grasp the potential of technology. We'd been dealing with the oldest of the old technologies, so everything -- even a fountain pen -- was "new technology" to us. I think that helped us understand sooner how text searching and a new way of displaying information were going to help research make great strides forward, even in a humanities field far from the number-crunching of "computing."

      My only problem, I confess, is that it was my first job, it was a new frontier, and I didn't yet have the skills I have now to come up with ideas for projects on my own and DO them. I spent a lot of time beta testing, tinkering with the interface to make it more user-friendly, adding hyperlinks and doing other small "work with what my peers are developing" jobs because I couldn't yet say, "Heeeey, what if Perseus had THIS tool?" and make it happen. There was a lot of freeform improvising in that room!

    • Brainy Bunny profile image

      Brainy Bunny 6 years ago from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

      I am so excited to find someone who worked on the Perseus project from the beginning! I was an undergrad in those years (not at Tufts), and it was such an exciting time of technological innovation in classical studies. I always envied the people's knew who were involved with it (at a later time), and although I haven't worked in my field for more than ten years, I still look up info on Perseus all the time.

    • American_Choices profile image

      American_Choices 6 years ago from USA


      I am updating my website and taking down the expensive flash that I erroneously invested in. It is helpful to see the change and I believe it is a good change. I feel that once I get my website updated it will be time to revamp it once again but now this time for the mobile web pages. Love the Internet - as a small business it gives me so much more exposure. And you struck a note with me - sometimes the owners of the website are the experts and should take pride in their expertise. Very well done. I love the "take aways" - that was my mantra when I was teaching communications at the university.

      Voted up and useful.

    • Greekgeek profile image

      Ellen 6 years ago from California

      I'd heard of it before, so I just Googled "Capstone Hubpages" and found it, not realizing it had been hidden. I've taken it off this Hub, though, as there's no point in mentioning something that's out of operation. I appreciate the heads up!

      (Heads up. Head's up. ARGH. What is the grammar rule?)

    • Howard S. profile image

      Howard S. 6 years ago from Dallas, Texas, and Asia

      Please correct me if I'm wrong, but one has to know the url for that specific program (through links that will always persist) in order to find it. It used to have it's own expandable slot on the comprehensive FAQ.

    • Greekgeek profile image

      Ellen 6 years ago from California

      Well, drat. Thanks, Howard. I'm sure Marisa and Darkside are right. (Looking at the program's FAQ, which is still up, it looked like a daunting application process.)

    • Howard S. profile image

      Howard S. 6 years ago from Dallas, Texas, and Asia

      It is my understanding that the Capstone Program has been discontinued. I can find no official statement to that effect, but Marisa Wright and Darkside have said it, and they are authorities on it. (I am unsure about the foundational Flagship Program, but a search reveals no recent activity.)

    • Savva Pelou profile image

      Savva Pelou 6 years ago from London

      a very detailed and informative hub but can i just add, web 2.0 goes well beyond "fragmented future". That article established the phrase "web 2.0" and let out some predictions. Although correct, we have greatly exceeded all expectations. Web 2.0 goes well beyond the WYSIWYG editors found on hubpages, it is the "behind the scenes" that truly power web 2.0, javascript, asp, .net, jquery, html5, css2 and css3