In the mid-1990s, the Internet didn’t have Facebook, Google, or even Wikipedia. If you wanted to use the web to promote your business, share important local information with the rest of the world, or even tell your friends about your recent adventures, you would need to create your own website.
Most people could learn the basics of HTML coding in a few hours, and from around 1994 others could use WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) applications like Adobe PageMill. At one time, even web browsers came with basic website building tools.
But then the problem was to host your site online. Servers cost money (especially back then) and not everyone wanted to pay for it, or couldn’t afford it, if they were teenagers or students. Enter GeoCities, which started offering a free hosting plan in 1995.
However, GeoCities was more than just a hosting service: with community-driven features and tools to make website building easier, it could be considered the granddaddy of social media. In 1999, the site was the third most popular site on the web.
At the height of its popularity, GeoCities was sold to Yahoo!, which took it away from its social origins, rendering it useless in the age of Web 2.0. A decade later, it was shut down everywhere outside of Japan. This is the story of an Internet very different from that of today.
Won’t you be my neighbor?
GeoCities was started in late 1994 by David Bohnett and Dick Altman as another web hosting service called Beverly Hills Internet. In June of the following year, it started offering a free plan with a generous 2MB of storage to users, but that was just the start.
Users, called “homesteaders”, had to choose a “neighborhood” such as Capitol Hill (“government, politics and lots of strong opinions”), Hollywood (“film and television”) or Paris (“romance, poetry, arts” ) when registering. Neighborhoods, as well as “suburbs” to existing neighborhoods, were added as the site grew.
Each neighborhood had its own forum, live chat, and even a list of all the farmers who celebrated their birthday each day. The default URL for each site included the name of the neighborhood and a number, called the “civic address”.
Homesteaders can either use the site’s basic homepage editor to create their site automatically, or upload HTML files, GIF or JPEG images and more. By December 1995, the site had over 20,000 homesteaders and over 6 million page views per month when it changed its name to GeoCities.
The success of GeoCities encouraged the appearance of services of copycats and creators of Web sites. One such site called FortuneCity was TechSpot’s first home in 1998.
All about money
In 1997, GeoCities began displaying pop-up advertisements on its free sites. Although annoying to visitors, at least they didn’t interfere with existing website designs. The same could not be said for the transparent watermark linking to the main site introduced the following year, which would remain in the lower right corner of the screen at all times, angering many of the site’s 2 million users.
In 1998, the company received $25 million from Japanese holding company SoftBank and $5 million from Yahoo!. Later that year, it was listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange. The stock’s launch price was $17, which quickly rose above the $100 mark as part of the dotcom bubble. The only problem was that the company was still losing money – to the tune of $8 million in the last quarter of 1998, to be more precise.
In 1999, GeoCities was the third most visited site on the web and sold to Yahoo! for $3.57 billion in stock, changing its name to Yahoo! Geocities. Initially, the Yahoo! stipulated that Yahoo! owned all content and rights to the GeoCities websites, but that quickly changed following negative media attention.
Later in 1999, Yahoo! moved away from the neighborhood-based nature of the site to site URLs based on the user’s registration name. By the end of 2000, the original neighborhood names were no longer used in the main site either. They were steps in the opposite direction to that of the Internet, with groups based on common interests.
In 2001, Yahoo! introduced premium plans and imposed a data transfer limit of 4.2MB per hour on free accounts, making it impossible to reach large audiences for free, especially for graphically rich sites. At that time, Blogger and Wikipedia were already there.
Myspace, Facebook and Flickr then joined the Web 2.0 revolution, each providing more reasons not to create or have a personal website. Additionally, WordPress was launched in 2003, rendering GeoCities site creation and management tools obsolete.
big in japan
In April 2009, Yahoo! announced that it would shut down GeoCities in October of that year, removing the sites of anyone who had not migrated to Yahoo! web hosting service and stopped accepting new members. The only exception was GeoCities Japan, which is part of Yahoo! Japan, which was a joint venture between SoftBank and Yahoo!
GeoCities Japan stayed alive for a decade longer than the main site.
Following the announcement, the Internet Archive launched a project to save as many of GeoCities’ 38 million pages as possible. The unrelated Archives team was also created in response to Yahoo!’s actions, and has since helped preserve the content of several once popular sites.
In October 2018, Yahoo! Japan, which was no longer linked to Yahoo!, announced that GeoCities Japan would finally be terminated in March 2019. The Archive team then launched a new project to preserve the site.
Journey to the past
If you want to browse old GeoCities sites like you could in the pre-Yahoo! acquisition, based on neighborhoods and suburbs, you should visit Restorativland’s GeoCities Gallery.
The Silicon Valley neighborhood on the GeoCities Gallery.
If you want to search for a more specific term, you should try GeoCities.ws, a spiritual successor to GeoCities that is unrelated to the original company, with a fast-loading GeoCities archive. The site offers a free hosting service plan under the name “homesteader”.
The most comprehensive archive of old GeoCities sites can be found at OoCities. The site’s search feature includes results from GeoCities.ws, and you can also search for a site by username, or by neighborhood and “address.”
Clearly, GeoCities has earned its place in web history.
Talking point for comments: If you were in the 1990s, did you have your own website? Or when were you first online?
TechSpot’s “What Ever Happened To…” Series
The story of software applications and companies that at one time reached the mainstream and were widely used, but are now gone. We cover the most significant areas of their history, innovations, successes and controversies.