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The History of Website Design: 30 Years of Building the Web [2021 Update]

May 13, 2021
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The History of Website Design_ 30 Years of Designing the Web [2021 Update]
 
When we were first introduced to the internet, IT departments built and managed the majority of websites due to the complexity of the programming. Today, website design has become an industry all on its own. Great web designs have led some businesses to grow and prosper while bad web presences lead others to fail. Your website is much more than a validation tool. Today's web designs require more than great image placement. Designers must consider load speed, content placement, and SEO optimization, not to mention designers must now consider how a website looks on multiple screens.
 
For many of your prospective customers, it's your digital front door. Let's take a journey through the past 20+ years and look at some of the most influential website designs and how they have impacted the entire industry.
 

 

1991 - The beginning...

Welcome to the world wide web. CERN, the first website, went live in November 1992. The Web was publicly announced (via a posting to the Usenet newsgroup alt.hypertext) on August 6, 1991. The very first website was 100% text-based. The default blue hypertext was the only splash of color. In the early days of the web, just getting a page up was exciting all on its own.
 
The first website

HTML

In the early days of website design, the only real way to add structure was through the power of the <table>. With so much limitation, many of the early sites were pretty basic. The original purpose of tables was to create structure for numbers, but designers quickly used them to create site structure. The problem was these structures were very fragile and difficult to maintain. There were some benefits, such as the ability to align elements vertically. Tables also paved the way for the grids of the future.

html tables - website design history

 

1993 - The Launch of Search

Just two years after the launch of the World Wide Web, we got introduced to ALIWEB! ALIWEB (Archie Like Indexing for the WEB) is considered to be the first Web search engine. They opened for business in November 1993 providing users with helpful links to the web's best content. In just two years, you start to see how design is coming to life. The goal of ALIWEB was to help users find helpful information. They wanted users to be drawn into the site's links. Using a colored background, they drew your eye to the more important elements of the page.
 
The First Search Engine

 

1993 - The Birth of the Landing Page

MTV Launched its website in 1993. VJ Adam Curry ran the site unofficially and personally at first. MTV was an early adopter of landing pages. This was the image you saw when you landed on their site in 1993. Big difference from just a few years before. Can you imagine how long this took to load? According to a study by MIT researcher Matthew Gray, by the end of 1993, there were 623 websites. The internet was taking off and so was design.
 
The First Landing Page

 

1994 - Using Ads to Add to Your Design

The online marketing world is much older than many think. While many sites became overcrowded with ads during the 90s, Hotwire, now known as Wired, did a nice job of adding the world's first banner ad into their site's header in 1994. Notice how design is becoming much more complex. This page had very little text, but more design elements to engage the users. The Internet continued to boom. By mid-1994 there were 2738 websites, according to Gray's statistics, and by the end of the year, more than 10,000.
 
The beginning of online marketing

 

JavaScript - Unleashing the Power

The future of the web was shaping quickly! JavaScript helped designers overcome the limitations of static HTML by allowing them to bring some motion to the web. This gave birth to the "pop-up" window. The problem is that it has to load on top of the existing page, which causes sites to load slower. Many of the early functions of JavaScript were later able to be accomplished through CSS. Today, JavaScript is still going strong, most notably with the front-end version known as JQuery. 
 

1996 - The Next Frontier

Internet users more than doubled in the year 1996 to 36 million users worldwide. CNN's 1996 year in review is an iconic web page. Using text, images, and ads, CNN presented a balanced site design with great usability for the mid 90's. In 1996, we saw the number of websites grow from 25,300 to 257,601, taking the average user per website from 1908 to 301.
 
Website Design History
 

Flash - The Golden Age of Web Animation

Flash changed the landscape of website design. For the first time, designers could create any shape, add animation and develop more engaging sites than ever before using one single tool. End page would compact all of the information into a single file to be loaded. The main issue was that not every web user had a Flash plugin installed and Flash sites took much longer to load. The age of Flash brought us splash pages and animated intros. While Flash is still being used, its downfall came from the lack of being "search friendly" and its heavy consumption of processing power caused Apple to leave it behind in 2007's release of the iPhone. 
 
SpaceJam Website
 
 

1998 - The Future King of Search in Born

The internet in 1998 started to look a little more like the internet we see today. Google Beta went live on September 4, 1998. Compare this design to the earlier search engine ALIWEB. Instead of opting for a link-filled page, Google chose the minimalistic route. I think we can all agree it worked well for them.
 
Google Search is Born
 

Cascading Style Sheets - A More Flexible Way to Create

Shortly after the creation of Flash, CSS made its way onto the scene. As more and more users were going online, speed was becoming a big issue. The thought behind CSS is simple: separate content and presentation. The content of the site was in HTML and the style of the site would be coded in CSS. The early struggle for CSS was the result of poor browser support. Luckily it fought through the early years and is still in full use today. CSS may be the most important "language" a web designer needs to know! 
 

2000 - The Online Economy

While Y2K brought fear of a potential melt-down, the year also ushered in a whole new way of doing business. Paypal, the world's leading online payment company, started in 1999, but it was the year 2000 that PayPal really took off. Y2K was also a great year for web development. As more and more businesses were going online, having a great-looking website was starting to become more than a want, it was becoming a need.
 

The Online Economy

 

2003 - Let's Blog About It

Up until the year 2000, website design was much more of a technical field handled by company IT departments. In 2003 that all changed. Wordpress, which is now the world's leading content management system (CMS), was launched in 2003. Wordpress was estimated to have been installed on approximately 2,000 blogs as of May 2003. As of January 2015, more than 23.3% of the top 10 million websites now use WordPress. WordPress is free and CMS based on PHP and MySQL. Features include a plugin architecture and a template system.
 
Blogging is Born
 

2004- Your Space

MySpace became a place for users to create their own profiles and connect with other online users. But even more, they allowed their users access to HTML editors in order to customize their profiles. Many aspiring web designers got their early exposure to HTML using the MySpace platform.
 
History of the Web
 

2006 -The Facebook Goes Public

While Facebook originally launched in 2004 alongside MySpace, it was reserved only for college students and you had to have an .EDU email address to even get access. In 2006 Facebook went public and altogether changed social media and how the public used the Internet. While MySpace allowed users to custom code their pages, Facebook opted not to give their users this ability. It led to a simple, consistent look throughout the network. Facebook focuses their design around their brand. Everything about their network said something about Facebook. Their users connected with their brand and quickly became evangelists of the site. Today Facebook is the most visited site in the US and has over 1 Billion users world wide. This all done with a simple, clean cut and branded web design.
 
History of the Web
 

The Mobile Era

Mobile devices and smart phones have changed the way people use and think about the web. In 2007, most sites were not "mobile-friendly" by any standard. Furthermore, using the web on a mobile device was often frustrating. This forced web designers to create a better approach to mobile web design. This new frontier posed many questions. Should a mobile site be scaled down? Should we create standards for mobile? How do we speed it up so users don't waste data? The answer came in the form of the 960 grid. Bootstrap and Foundation became the base for the new mobile web world. 
 

2007 - The Mobile Revolution

On June 29, 2007 the first iPhone was released ushering in a new era of web design. While users had been surfing the web on very basic browsers prior to the invention of the smart phone, most found it to be to frustrating and unnecessary. While Apple didn't invent the SmartPhone, they did make it main stream. Apple has always been known for their products and their designs. In 2007, they showcased their brand online with this smart and simple design.
 
History of the Web
 

2009 - Images Get Social

By the end of the first decade of the new millennia, the Internet had saturated every part of our culture. Flickr was named one of Times 50 best websites of 2009. Created by Yahoo, Flickr gave people a place to store and share their photos online. Flickr was the first site to use collaborative tagging. The idea is that if everyone is allowed to tag everyone else's uploaded photos, then a rough-and-ready categorization will naturally emerge from the wisdom of the crowd. This is what "made" Flickr.
 
History of the Web
 
 

Responsive Design

As mobile internet use increased, mobile design became #1. In 2010 a brilliant and driven web designer named Ethan Marcotte challenged the way mobile website design was being approached. Instead of creating a separate mobile site, he proposed that the same content could be used, but in different layouts and designed depending on screen size. This was the birth of Responsive Design. 
 
From a technical standpoint, we still use HTML and CSS, so it is rather a conceptual advancement. The main benefit of Responsive Design is the content parity, meaning that it's the same website everywhere.
 
responsive design
 

2014 - The Rise of Inbound

With a growing online economy, businesses were looking for more ways to interact and connect with prospects. Online ads and pop-ups had been frustrating users for years and there were now more ways than ever to block these interruptions. Instead of marketing at prospects, smart marketers decided to try a new approach. By offering advice and engaging prospects with their website, marketers could now nurture leads into customers. Inbound was born. Hubspot's software has helped thousands of companies worldwide. Their number one lead source? Their website. The interactive design and CTA's above the fold have been tested and proven. Many of today's marketing sites look to Hubspot for design ideas. Many more have moved onto their COS platform. This design shows the move towards using the full page and how text is an important part of design.
 
Rise of Inbound Marketing
 

2015 - Growth-Driven Design 

As of December 2015, there were more than 935,000,000 websites published as a part of the world wide web. Google began to make consistent algorithm adjustments to combat black hat linking tactics. With so many platform improvements the competition to be found organically on the internet became more and more challenging.  
 
By this time, even traditional brick-and-mortar stores understood the need for a strong digital presence. More than that, many websites were becoming a company's "best salesperson". 
 
Growth Driven Design takes a systematic approach to SEO optimization to help ensure that companies are spending time attracting the right visitors and closing better leads, which results in a better ROI and faster revenue growth. The best businesses understand that their website is never "finished." Instead, they work with marketers to ensure that their website adapts and grows with their users. 
 

2016 - Social Media and White Hat Backlinks

Social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn, YouTube, and Pinterest, all functioned as search engines much like Google and Yahoo. This increased the demand for content and marketers were stretched further every month. 

Relevant internal and external backlinks are a vital part of helping Google understand your website's context and authority. The need for white hat backlinks also increases the pace at which companies begin pushing content on social.  The metrics to accurately measure the ROI of social selling are not fully understood, however, sales professionals believe in the power of social selling.

backlinks

2019 - Data-backed OmniChannel Marketing: SEO Optimization is Key

Today's marketers understand that a company's website is often the first opportunity they will have to connect with a potential customer. Complementary colors, an eye-catching logo, and pages that present the mission of the company are all important. Web design must also incorporate clear navigation, relevant content, and images that relate to the products or services. 

Load time is an essential part of the overall design and cannot be ignored. With millions of websites to browse, a slow site is not worth waiting for these days. 

Each page must incorporate SEO optimization on all images as well as meta descriptions and title tags. A great design may look nice, but it will not help Google find you.

As Google continues to tweak their algorithm for semantic search marketers who stick to SEO best practices and track their progress using Google Analytics, they will be able to make small adjustments based on insights about how their website ranks in search, organic traffic, referring sites, and the most popular pages on their website. 

2020 - Website Builders

During the pandemic, there was a significant surge in global searches for the term “build a website”. For example, in African nations, the query, ‘how to build a business website’ saw a 110% rise. Businesses worldwide searched to find out how to either improve and update their existing website or build a new one in order to retain customers and attract new ones as much of the globe shifted online.

Website builders are the perfect solution for businesses to create a digital front door to showcase their services and sell products. We’ll talk about WordPress, Wix, and Webflow and highlight some of the key differences between them.

WordPress is a content management system (CMS) and remains a dominant player with 60.8% of the CMS market, powering 41.4% of all websites with continual growth year after year. The biggest advantage to WordPress is the fact that it’s open-source, self-hosted, and free to build in. This means that you have full control over your website compared to any other website builder today. The only costs incurred are for a domain name, hosting plan, and if required, plugin upgrades to pro versions. WordPress is jam-packed with SEO-friendly themes, plugins, and tools. When all of the WordPress SEO features are utilized, your site is a big step closer to the top of Google's SERPs

The only potential downside to WordPress is that you have to manage the site yourself or hire your hosting provider or a marketing agency to maintain the site for you.

Wix continues to be a market leader. It’s a fully hosted cloud-based website builder with a drag and drop interface that offers monthly payment plans. The company hosts 2.3% of all websites worldwide and is fairly easy to navigate with hundreds of design templates to choose from. 

Wix has been notorious for having poor SEO options, from a terrible URL structure to not being able to add alt attributes, to name a few issues. According to a 2019 article released by Wix, they’ve created a new suite of SEO tools, making big improvements for their users.

Webflow is a website builder and hosting company that more than doubled its market share in 2020 and continues to grow in popularity. They offer over 100 templates, marketing tools, e-commerce, and more all under one roof, plus versatile plans from free to Pro. The downside to using Webflow compared to WordPress is free vs. paying monthly fees and less control over your website.

When making the decision about what website builder or CMS to choose for your business, it will depend on a number of factors, from your budget, to your needs and priorities, to what SEO features are available, to who will be responsible for the website design and maintenance. There are so many options to choose from that it will take time and research to determine what works best for your business. 

At SMA Marketing, we specialize in website builds and rebuilds and website care that includes maintenance, updates, and hosting. Reach out to us today and we’ll be happy to help you!

Editor's Note: This post was originally published in May 2016 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness. 
Website Redesign Project Plan
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Ryan Shelley, CPBI

By Ryan Shelley, CPBI

Ryan is passionate about helping companies make a more personal connection online with their customers and prospects. He is a regular contributor to Search Engine Land, the largest and most popular SEO news site on the web. His works have also been featured on the HubSpot Blog, Business2Community and by LinkedIn Marketing Solutions.

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