How website design has evolved since the 1990s

Like any evolving technology, website design evolution has been bumpy and unpredictable, with today’s websites owing little to their 1990s forefathers

Monday, 1 February, 2021

If you ever need cheering up, it’s worth taking a look at the Wayback Machine.

Over 475 billion webpages are stored in a gigantic online repository, providing a salutary (and often amusing) study of website design evolution since the mid-1990s.

The first websites arrived in 1985, but it was Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s unveiling of the World Wide Web thirty years ago that heralded the internet as we know it today.

And although the physical process of summoning online content through a web browser hasn’t fundamentally changed since then, the websites themselves have.

In fact, they’re almost unrecognisable…

Slow and unsteady

Early internet connections involved dial-up modems downloading data at around five kilobits per second.

Even a relatively sluggish ADSL connection will download data two thousand times faster than that, while full fibre broadband can be almost 100,000 times quicker.

It’s easy to see why early websites were so basic – black text on a white background, thumbnail photos (if any) and the use of Comic Sans fonts for variety.

Webpages were divided into tables – one for internal links, another for images, and so forth. This was a clunky method of displaying content, and it also elongated page loading times.

Because people didn’t understand the concept of hyperlinks, they were presented in a ubiquitous sky-blue tone still familiar to users of Microsoft Word.

When multimedia website content was attempted, it used a variety of incompatible formats like Shockwave and JavaScript. However, one media format would come to dominate…

A Flash in the pan

The announcement earlier this month that support for Adobe Flash Player has been discontinued draws a line under the original internet.

Flash was used on innumerable Nineties and Noughties websites, providing a data-efficient way of adding animations to static pages of text and tiny graphics.

In an age when dial-up connectivity precluded the use of video clips, Flash was ubiquitous, from cartoons and games to landing page animations.

Like Flash itself, landing pages fell out of fashion. Intended to serve as a gateway onto a website, they simply complicated the process of reaching a desired outcome.

And while Flash became incompatible with the move towards mobile devices (of which more in a moment), landing pages became incompatible with search engine optimisation.

Search and ye shall find

Perhaps the biggest change in website design evolution since the 1990s has been driven by search engines like Google and Bing.

Until as recently as 2003, Yahoo results were paid for by every company appearing in them. Google changed all that by ranking sites according to relevance.

Suddenly, landing pages were being assessed as a website’s homepage. Bereft of content, they caused sites to be heavily marked down, and were quickly jettisoned.

Tag clouds and link matrices went the same way – once seen as good ways of ensnaring potential audiences, sites containing these low-quality attributes became SEO strychnine.

The ability to rank highly for keywords supported everything from growing adoption of image captions to large sub-headings, detailed page descriptions and article straplines.

You can see the strapline for this blog above the photo, while this article’s chosen keyword phrase (‘website design evolution’) appears four times in total.

Search engines also began prioritising sites which displayed quickly (and worked effectively) on mobile devices, as browsing habits migrated from desktop to mobile in the late Noughties.

That spelled the end of sites – minimalist versions of full desktop sites – and the introduction of mobile-first site design.

Recurring mobile design elements include drop-down hamburger menus and responsive webpage templates, which resize according to the size of screen they’re displayed on.

Sites for sore eyes

Early websites made extensive use of colour, whereas modern sites tend to be minimalist with generous amounts of white space and discreet backgrounds.

Flashing text is almost unheard of, on-page native advertising has replaced popups and banner adverts, and compact video clips provide multimedia interest instead of animations.

From an aesthetic perspective, the World Wide Web is a far more pleasant place to spend time than it was thirty years ago.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!