A visit directly to Yahoo Geocities reveals that one can no longer obtain new accounts. Going to the site’s Help Center turns up some terse questions and answers. Yahoo will actually be closing the site “later this year.” Existing accounts have not changed – yet. More details will be coming “this summer,” and they’ll include such matters as how to save the data in your Geocities account. Users can keep their Geocities email addresses.
Yahoo noted that it doesn’t offer another free web hosting service, but encouraged Geocities users to move “to our award-winning Yahoo! Web Hosting service.” It is in fact offering a substantial discount. It’s a good thought, but frankly, the venerable search engine would be lucky to see even half of its Geocities users sign up. A search on Google for free web hosting turns up well over 40 million hits. Given this diversity, why should anyone pay to stay with Yahoo?
The answer to this question, Yahoo hopes, is that the company is a known quantity and has gained the trust of its users over the years. But the other web hosts aren’t all newcomers either, and many of them boast excellent reputations as well. They include sites such as Blogger, WordPress, Typepad, Ning, and others. Jimdo is even openly soliciting Geocities users, requesting of visitors that “If any of your friends or family are still using GeoCities, tell them about our rescue mission.”
This great variety of free hosting, plus the rise of social sites, played a major factor in Geocities’ final downfall. Why keep using Geocities when you can get the same or even more innovative services at other places online for the same price? And yet, for its time, Geocities was innovative. That time has passed; however, let’s take a quick look back.
Geocities started life in 1995 as the brainchild of David Bohnett and John Rezner. Back then it was known as Beverly Hills Internet. With web sites featuring things like "home" pages, Bohnett and Rezner must have reasoned that a group of web sites, like a group of homes, can make up a community. But since there aren’t separate geographical communities online, the founders created “cyber cities,” where pages with similar themes would be grouped. Then as now, it’s not easy to make money on a free service, so all of the free web sites carried ads placed by the company.
Three years later, having changed its name to Geocities, the company revamped its web site to take advantage of the portal phenomenon then sweeping the Internet. It organized its information into GeoAvenues of content-specific groups. It also began featuring news from Reuters and added several other services. And it generously increased its users’ free disk space allocation from 6 MB to 11 MB; those who wanted more could pay just under $5 per month for a whopping 25 MB.
In 1999, Yahoo took notice of Geocities in a big way, buying the company for somewhere between $2.9 billion and $4.7 billion, depending on who you ask. Hard as it may be to believe it today, at that time Geocities was the third most-visited site on the web, right behind AOL and Yahoo itself. In December 1998, it boasted 19 million unique visitors.
After buying Geocities, Yahoo made many changes to its structure. The most immediate change wasn’t so much to the site as to the purchased company’s personnel. Roughly two-thirds of Geocities’ staff either quit or got laid off. Geocities’ CEO Tom Evans became senior vice president of industry relations for Yahoo. The founders didn’t fare as well; a press release written at the time noted that David Bohnett would “act as an outside community advisor to Yahoo.” The remaining 100 Geocities employees would move from working in Santa Monica, California, to either Yahoo’s headquarters in Santa Clara or regional sales offices.
So what happened after that? Well, the dot-com bubble burst around 2000, followed by the generally depressed economy, followed by September 11, 2001…you get the idea. More to the point, by the time some kind of recovery set in, technology had advanced. Users had become somewhat more savvy, and programmers became better at building easy-to-use interfaces for online activities. But Geocities had not advanced with it.
The results became clear in the numbers. From its high of 19 million unique visitors, Geocities fell to 15.1 million unique visitors in March of 2008, and 11.5 million in March of this year. While that is still plenty of visitors, the trend is obvious.
Many observers decided to comment on this event, though very few actually waxed nostalgic. PC World said good-bye in the form of a long obituary and noted that “we forgot you still existed.” The Register covered a related story by mocking the usual style – or lack thereof — of Geocities pages. CNET, TechCrunch, Vnunet.com, and many others wrote a few paragraphs about Yahoo’s move.
It certainly excites mixed feelings in some circles. As The Register, tongue at least halfway in cheek, observed, Geocities contains “Nearly two decades worth of blinking text, animated gifs, fanfiction, and broken links…This is the personal internet young, raw and blemished – before big blogging services and social networking sites arrived to completely homogenize the space.” It’s like watching your junior high and high school pictures get consumed by fire. Good riddance, right?
Well, maybe, and maybe not. Jason Scott, owner of the ASCII textfiles blog, kicked off a project to archive Geocities shortly after Yahoo’s announcement. He hopes to preserve the sites that will otherwise be lost – the ones that haven’t been updated in a long time, whose owners may be dead or have simply forgotten them. These sites would probably not otherwise be backed up. Why is he doing this? For more or less the same reasons the Register poked fun at Geocities.
Scott understands why many would have no problem with Geocities’ disappearance. “Many pages are amateurish. A lot have broken links, even internally. The content is tiny on a given page. And there are many sites which have been dead for over a decade.” But there’s more to Geocities than thousands of ugly sites, he notes: “…for hundreds of thousands of people, this was their first website. This was where you went to get the chance to publish your ideas to the largest audience you might ever have dreamed of having. Your pet subject or conspiracy theory or collection of writings left the safe confines of your Windows 3.1 box and became something you could walk up to any internet-connected user, hand them the URL, and know they would be able to see your stuff. In full color. Right now….it’s history. It’s culture. It’s something I want to save for future generations.”
Scott is also discovering some potentially useful technical history. He turned up the structure originally used for Geocities’ neighborhoods, tracked down how these eventually acquired suburbs, and saw how each “homestead” fit in. It scaled oddly, he noted, but it did in fact scale. And then Yahoo came along and integrated Geocities, adding a third structure. By this time the neighborhood/suburb model was starting to fall apart anyway, with web sites being slotted into neighborhoods that made no sense for them, given the themes.
So what can SEOs and site owners learn from the events surrounding Geocities? Well, if you’re just starting to learn how to build a web site, or you’re doing it as a hobby, it’s not a bad thing to get some space on a larger site and practice. But you must remember that if you do so, you are at the mercy of the owners. Just because it’s there today, and has even been there for the last fifteen years, does not mean it will be there tomorrow.
SEO Chat forum member EGOL said it best. Upon hearing about Yahoo closing Geocities, he noted that AOL closed their "Hometown" last year. “Lots of people lost the URLs of great sites with no opportunity to redirect,” he observed. “This was a lesson to many of them not to build valuable property on a domain that they do not own.”
If you must get free or inexpensive hosting, at least make a point of owning your own domain. If you hope or plan to do anything significant with your web site, you should own your own domain. By “significant” I mean use it to sell anything, perform SEO on it, run a site with a content-based business model, you name it. Domain names are truly not that expensive these days, and once you own the domain you don’t absolutely have to buy hosting until you’re ready to put something up (you may end up with a “parked page;” whether that’s acceptable to you is your call).
Another lesson we can learn is the importance of keeping up with new technology, and being aware of your competition. It may not have seemed obvious that dating sites such as OKCupid or professional networking sites such as LinkedIn competed with Geocities, but they all seek a very precious commodity: time and attention from web users. You must hold your users’ interest, and offer them services they want that they can’t easily get elsewhere. Otherwise, you’ll find that loyalty is also an all-too-rare commodity.
One other lesson we can learn from Geocities: take your web site’s structure into careful consideration. I don’t just mean all the bad examples of Geocities web sites; I mean the structure of Geocities itself, and the odd way it was designed. Yes, it scaled, but the structure created by its founders was beginning to strain after only four years. Try to build enough flexibility into your site to cover where you plan to go.
Geocities may be disappearing, and many Netizens may say we’ll be none the poorer. But it’s still the end of an era. Here’s hoping we’ll be ready for the next one.