The dream of the 1990s internet is still alive, if you look in the right corners.
More than 17 million Americans regularly use MapQuest, one of the first digital mapping websites that was long ago overtaken by Google and Apple, according to data from the research firm Comscore. The dot-com-era internet portal Go.com shut down 20 years ago, but its ghost lives on in the “Go” that’s part of web addresses for some Disney sites.
Ask Jeeves, a web search engine that started before Google, still has fans and people typing “Ask Jeeves a question” into Google searches.
Maybe you scoff at AOL, but it is still the 50th most popular website in the United States, according to figures from SimilarWeb. The early 2000s virtual world Second Life never went away and is now having a second life as a proto-metaverse brand.
Some onetime online stars have stuck around far longer than we might have expected, showing that it’s possible to carve out a life online long after stardom fades.
“These are almost cockroach brands,” said Ben Schott, a brand and advertising columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. “They’re small enough and resilient enough that they can’t be killed.”
A comparison to scurrying bugs may not seem to be a compliment. But there is something heartwarming about pioneers that shaped the early internet, lost their cool and dominance, and eventually carved out a niche. They’ll never be as popular or powerful as they were a generation ago, but musty internet brands might still have a fruitful purpose.
These brands have managed to stay alive through a combination of inertia, nostalgia, the fact that they have produced a product that people like, digital moneymaking prowess and oddities of the rickety internet. If today’s internet powers like Facebook and Pinterest lose relevance, too, they could stick around for decades.
System1, which owns MapQuest and HowStuffWorks among other websites, has a strategy to draw people to its collection of digital properties through advertising pitches or other techniques, turn them into loyal users and make money from their clicks or other sales. It’s not far off the early-2000s web strategy of turning “eyeballs” into revenue.
Michael Blend, CEO and co-founder of System1, said his company spent money on internet advertisements to lure people to MapQuest and also improved its mapping functions. One feature added since System1 bought MapQuest from Verizon in 2019 lets delivery couriers plot long routes with many stops.
Blend said Gen X nostalgia or online marketing might persuade people to try MapQuest once or twice, but that the company wanted to make the site useful enough that they keep coming back regularly. He also said that more than half of people using MapQuest are young enough that they might never have known it in its heyday.
Blend is proud that MapQuest has stuck around as long as it has. “There are plenty of internet brands that have come and gone and you never hear from them again,” he told me.
I don’t have a great explanation for the resilience of some 1990s internet properties. People are searching for Ask Jeeves even though its owner, the internet conglomerate IAC/InterActiveCorp, gave up the English butler name in 2005 and quit trying to compete with Google search more than a decade ago. The website now called Ask.com is mostly a compilation of entertainment and celebrity news.
A spokesperson for Disney, which used to own the Go.com internet portal, didn’t have a solid explanation for why some of the company’s internet sites still have fingerprints of Go. (The Onion years ago mocked Disney for this.) Generally, today’s websites are often built on top of remnants of the old internet like a modern mansion erected on the foundation of a 19th-century home.
Schott mentioned something that I can’t get out of my head. He said that when a once-loved restaurant chain or industrial factory shuts down, the typical public reaction is sadness for what people have lost. But Schott said that when internet properties like Yahoo and Myspace sag or die, it’s often brushed off as a joke.
“There is a weird schadenfreude when tech companies fail that I don’t think happens to other industries,” he said. “I’m not sure what that is about.”
Maybe that’s starting to change. When Microsoft retired its 27-year-old Internet Explorer web browser this month, the nostalgia poured out. As the internet ages — and so do those of us who remember its early years — the more we might feel stirrings of emotion for what came before.