The world’s website population has exploded in recent years. Even until the mid 2000s, the internet was a fringe space largely run by techies. It’s only recently that the web has truly opened up to everyone. Thanks to website builders and content management systems like WordPress, practically anyone can get a website live in well under an hour.
This charmed state of affairs wasn’t always the way. At one time it would have seemed like fantasy. The internet is constantly evolving, but website building has already come a long, long way. As web design gears up for another round of change, we thought we’d recap the history of website builders.
The Primordial Ooze
In the early years of the world wide web, after its launch in 1991, website creation was limited to a select few technical experts. There were no tools to streamline the process, no shortcuts or templates. If you wanted to make a website, you needed to code it yourself from top to bottom.
The ‘language’ back then was far less sophisticated than it is today. Sites were basic HTML numbers. Black text, blue links, aligned left. The result of all this? Clunky eyesore web pages that took weeks to build. The world wide web was a remarkable introduction to civilization, but early on it was difficult to use and not much to look at.
One of the earliest signs of life for website builders was a humble platform called Geocities. Founded in 1994, Geocities was a platform for people to create web pages. These pages resided in one of 29 themed ‘neighborhoods’, manned by ‘homesteaders’. Owning a plot of internet land (for free no less) captured the imaginations of millions. Geocities soon became one of the most visited websites in the world, reaching its peak in 1998.
It may not look like much now, but Geocities was where many people first discovered the possibilities of the internet. Anyone could make a website, however strange its content. How exciting. A lot of web developers cut their teeth on Geocities.
Geocities was a big step for website builders, modelling the spirit of creation as much as the technology. 38 millions pages bit the dust when it closed in 2009, and many a eulogy were written. Chin up though, it lives on in its spiritual successor Neocities (see what they did there?).
Tripod and AngelFire were two other major platforms in the mid ‘90s, and were in some respects far closer to the website builders of today. Tripod in a particular, a service aimed at college students and young adults, embraced a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) experience. Website building was starting to escape the mire of pure code.
When people talk about ‘90s sites, this is the phase they’re usually referring to. Website building was booming. Microsoft FrontPage and Adobe Dreamweaver entered the scene in 1997, a testament to the growing importance (and value) of website building software. FrontPage was a pretty HTML-heavy effort, but Dreamweaver was a real leap forward. Its intuitive interface soon made it a leader in the website building sphere, though not for long…
Advanced Lifeforms: the New Wave of Drag and Drop
The new millennium brought with it new web capabilities, and with them a consensus of best practice. Whereas the ‘90s had been a bit of a Wild West space, the internet of the noughties began to align itself with the web standards of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
Flexibility became paramount here. Website builders couldn’t afford to get left behind. They needed to progress in step with the web as a whole. A shared foundation gave website builders a solid base to build on. This newfound adaptability has led to a far more resilient species of website builder.
Most of today’s largest platforms were launched around this time. WordPress, the world’s most popular content management system, was launched in 2003, as was the ever elegant Squarespace. Wix, Weebly, and Shopify joined the party in 2006.
The meat and potatoes of these builders has been templates and drag and drop interfaces. These are a long way away from code rabbit holes of the ‘90s. Coding is no longer a barrier to entry for those looking to get online. The fifth generation of HTML, HTML5, has brought with it a bunch of fancy new possibilities.
As website builders have grown in sophistication, some have started to splinter off into industry-specific niches. There are now portfolio website builders, blog website builders, and ecommerce website builders, just to name a few. As design as flourished, so too has demand for designer-oriented tools. Webflow for example, released in 2013, is a far more technical builder than most of its peers.
Ecommerce joins the party
Ecommerce is such a big subcategory of website builder that it deserves its own section. Online retail has grown into a trillion dollar space, and you can bet your bottom dollar website builders are in it for the long haul. Shopify, BigCommerce, and Sellfy are just a handful of the ecommerce platforms that exploded in popularity over the last five years.
You can see above how interest in ecommerce platforms like Shopify is far more recent than general purpose builders like Wix. Now people know how to get online, the question has become how to sell online. Innovation is plentiful in this sector, so watch this space.
Another big ‘environmental’ factor affecting today’s website builders is the rise of mobile browsing. Mobile internet usage passed desktop last year to become the most common source of web traffic. That’s a big deal. Website building has had to adapt to the demands of cross-platform usage.
This has presented a fresh challenge for builders. Sites need to function just as well on mobile phone screens as they do on 25 inch monitors — they need to be responsive. This fluidity has brought design interfaces on leaps and bounds. Good website builders have to be just as flexible as the sites they make.
The Future Looks ADIght
What’s on the horizon for website builders? Artificial design intelligence (ADI) seems to be the hot topic at the moment. Be it established players like Wix, or upstarts like The Grid or Bookmark, more and more platforms are looking to automate the web design process.
The idea behind it is artificial intelligence asks a series of questions then generates a site based on the answers. There’s even been talk of sites updating themselves based on user data. How much of this is sensationalized sci-fi talk remains to be seen, but once ADI clicks it’s likely to be a real game-changer.
And who knows what will come after. If the history of website builders so far has taught us anything, it’s that change is accelerating. What’s cutting edge today may be obsolete tomorrow. That’s why today’s website builders are never ‘finished’. They are alive, ever evolving to meet the needs of the world wide web.
There is never a more exciting time to get online than the present.