Web content had its beginnings in a website launched in 1991 by the British physicist Tim Berners-Lee. CERN, the world’s first website (info.cern.ch), contained text that documented his project, the World Wide Web or the Web as we all know it. Aimed at providing a wealth of information about the WWW project, CERN described the basic features of the Web, how to access people’s online documents, and how to set up a server. It was aimed at educating the public about the new-born Web. Hyperlinks found on the CERN web page showed information about:
- The history of the project
- The people involved
- Technical details of the WWW project
- Software products
- Description of what users can find out there and
- Frequently asked questions
Without images, colourful graphics, animation, audio and video content, the first website contained plain and simple text (http://home.web.cern.ch/about/birth-web).
The early websites that followed Berners-Lee’s CERN bore static pages with common elements such as a:
- Simple company logo
- Phone number and
- Business address
Text-based web pages
Predominantly text-based with some graphics and without any obvious content marketing strategy in mind, many web pages in the early 90s were written for the general audience. Most of the early adopters of web content that gained popularity were newspaper and publishing companies that were able to leverage existing sources of information. Hotwired, an online magazine and digital version of Wired, featured emerging technologies while Epicurious was a food site for recipes and related content obtained from two food magazines, Gourmet and Bon Appetit. Other informative and resource-based pages included the United States’ second largest newspaper, Knight Ridder and publishing giants, Newhouse and Time.
Content is King
For Time, the Web was a new and promising way to create and distribute content while earning money from it. Time’s former editor of new media, Walter Isaacson, said: “…even before Yahoo was a dream, there was some kid somewhere who started doing ‘my favorite websites.’ It would be sports. It would be art museums or whatever. We said, ‘That’s how it’s going to work.’” “There was a phrase back then that ‘content is king.’ And we actually believed it.” (http://www.niemanlab.org/riptide/chapter-3-the-big-bang/)
Monetising websites in the early years of the Web
A website such as Pathfinder served as a portal for content where people online could go to and get some content for free. Just like Huffington Post, Pathfinder was an aggregator of content and its major sources were Time, Sports Illustrated and People. While anyone can find free content at Pathfinder, at a certain point, however, if a user wanted to access more information on a topic, he would have to pay for it through a transaction similar to a magazine subscription. Soon after, Yahoo emerged as a new media company that gave away free content while making money on advertising. Mike Moritz, Chairman of Sequoia Capital which invested in the then fledgling Yahoo said that the idea behind Yahoo was that by attracting a substantial audience over time, it was possible to attract advertisers. (http://www.niemanlab.org/riptide/chapter-4-the-original-sin/)
Yahoo’s strategy then was to repackage content obtained from Reuters and AP and deliver them to its Internet audience as a premium online news service. In the early years of the Web, the number of site visitors that were glued to a web page was more important than making a profit from online activities. Yahoo did not charge online users for its news service and stuck to its goal of increasing its audience quickly. While many websites were not highly profitable in the early years, they were informative, interesting and useful to online users, relying instead on other revenue streams outside of the Internet.
First web users were consumers of content
With not more than 500 websites running in the early years of the Web, online users were consumers of content who turned to the Internet usually to explore the new media and to window surf. Many users arrived at web pages directly and relied on directories and resources that pointed out their URLs.
Contents of the first web pages
Among the first websites included the World Wide Web Virtual Library, Digital Picture Archive on the 17th Floor and ACME Laboratories. Many of them published databases, archives, directories, papers, indexes and digital files for sharing.
Moreover, business websites in the 90s contained information about the business such as the company’s history, industry, nature of business, products, services and other offerings. Web content was passive and often left stagnant. It was usual for a business to launch a website and forget about it later.
Website development gradually incorporated better graphics, interesting designs and more informative content geared towards readers. Online stores also appeared on the Web, bearing more attractive and clear copy written for items being sold on web pages. From formerly static web pages emerged more interactive and dynamic pages that promoted reader engagement.