If the words GeoCities, Excite or Alta Vista mean anything to you, then chances are that the word ‘webring’ triggers a sudden pang of nostalgia. Webrings conjure up an era when finding things on the web wasn’t as easy as googling it; rather, it was an adventure wading through the abyss of this mysterious new “world wide web” in order to find information you were searching for.
Though they were never a perfect solution by any means, webrings were one method of making it easier to categorize and discover websites. They complimented the early DIY spirit of the web, enabling similar niche (and often obscure) websites to band together in order to guide visitors from one site to the next. Not everyone loved webrings but those who did fondly remember using their low-res navigation boxes to find new great places on the web.
So what exactly happened to webrings? Why are they not on websites anymore? We did a bit of digging and it turns out it’s pretty easy to identify exactly what led to their demise.
For those of you who weren’t active users of the Internet in the 90s, a webring was a box that sat at the bottom of a website, usually looking something like this:
Back then, it was much more difficult to find great content online. Websites were difficult to build, so there weren’t nearly as many options as there are today. Plus, search engines were slow to load and often didn’t provide highly relevant results. Webrings offered a solution to this problem in a unique and straightforward way.
A webring contained a list of websites that all contained a similar theme. A single moderator — or Ringmaster — was in charge of approving and adding each website to a webring. Sites participating in a webring would then place the ring’s navigation box at the bottom of their site, which would bring visitors to whichever site was next or previous in the list (depending on which option they selected). If a visitor was on the last site in the list and clicked next, the list would loop back and load the first website in the list, in essence forming a ring of websites.
The technology for webrings was owned and managed by webring.org, which was purchased by an investment firm in 1997. These investors then sold webring.org shortly afterwards to GeoCities (a popular website creation tool at the time) in 1998. This was a logical new home for the company, since many of the existing webrings were on websites that had been created using GeoCities.
These acquisitions were not noticeable to webrings’ users, since the service’s functionality did not change during this time; however, this would all change after the next big acquisition.
In January 1999, Yahoo purchased GeoCities for $3.57 billion in stock. Whereas GeoCities purchased webring.org with a clear vision of how to integrate the service into its product, for Yahoo, webrings were an extra bonus that came along with their recent purchase. The question was then not how to keep the service running for the existing community but rather how to incorporate it into Yahoo’s revenue-generating business model.
What followed were a series of events that were intended to improve the service but instead left both existing and new webrings users frustrated.
First, managing a webring now required a Yahoo account to manage. This would have been alright, provided that attention had been given towards migrating a webring’s Ringmaster into the new system. Instead, the system did not keep track of who a webring’s owner was, meaning that the first person to log in and associate themselves with a ring became its new Ringmaster. This left many rings stuck, with their original owners unable to reclaim ownership because they had been grabbed by individuals who then did nothing with them.
The next change was in direct competition with the very nature of webrings. A webring was prided on offering a free and decentralized experience. A visitor entered a webring at a random point in the list of sites and could then travel to the next site in the list, which was determined by an individual Ringmaster. Yahoo’s new navigation bar listed Yahoo Webring home page as the ring’s hub, encouraging visitors to come to that central location. When visitors came here, they would then see Yahoo’s directory of webrings accompanied by ads — not the Ringmaster’s homepage which had previously been the norm. This took much of the emphasis away from that particular webring and the role of a Ringmaster, instead placing the attention on Yahoo’s ecosystem of services.
In 2001, Yahoo gave up on webrings altogether. Most of the webrings staff was laid off in 2001, and in October they sold it to Tim Killeen, one of the early engineers who worked on the system. Though Killeen intended on returning the system to its former glory, by the time he took it over it was too late. By this point search engines had become faster and capable of delivering more accurate results.
Webring.org is still up and running today, but it is more of a relic from the early Internet than a thriving community. You can still explore different rings and hop from site to site, but most of the sites and rings are stuck in time from the 90s/early 2000s and have not been updated since. If you feel like taking a stroll down memory lane, head over to webring.org.
Or better yet, check out Hover’s very own collection of random old websites, Retro Site Ninja!