The Ode: Geocities

When GeoCities first came online in 1994, it was revolutionary. Five years and $4.6 billion later, Yahoo pulled the plug.

GeoCities was born in November 1994 to entrepreneurs David Bohnett and John Rezner. It was one of the Internet’s first website-hosting services, originally named Beverly Hills Internet, after the company that founded it, though the name was quickly changed.

When GeoCities first came online, it was revolutionary. Back then, the Internet was still an abstract concept to most people, but Bohnett, the company’s CEO, and Rezner, the chief technical officer, developed technology that allowed anyone with a dial-up modem to stake out a place on the web.

The site allowed users to easily create web pages: a photo upload here, some text there and you had your own personal site. The pages were crude and messy, but no one cared — sharing personal information while learning more about the web was all that mattered.

GeoCities was originally just a website creation tool, but as it grew, its developers organized the millions of user-created pages into categories such as finance, sports and entertainment. By doing this, GeoCities created the web’s first cyber community, tapping into an innate human desire to network with like-minded friends.

Thanks largely to those social networking capabilities, GeoCities quickly grew from being just another web startup to become a commanding force in cyberspace. At its peak in 1999, GeoCities was the third-most-popular site on the web with 3.5 million users, and that same year, Yahoo bought the company for US$4.6 billion. Yahoopresident Jeff Mallett was enthusiastic about his new purchase at the time. “Publishing and formation of communities are big, and they’re here to stay,” he said. And he was right — nearly everyone belongs to a web community now. But he was wrong about which sites would eventually end up hosting those communities.

GeoCities’ problems started to become apparent about a year after it was acquired. Part of the problem was a simple clash of cultures between the company and its new owner. Many of the site’s original staff were laid off, and employees complained that the entrepreneurial drive and institutional memory that made GeoCities what it was disappeared.

Bohnett has since publicly complained that Yahoo should have poured resources into the growing web portal right after it was acquired. But instead, Yahoo seemed more interested in using GeoCities to drive web traffic to its own site. GeoCities’ new owner also struggled to monetize the site. Marija Jaroslavskaja, a research analyst with U.K.’s Screen Digest, says that at the time, advertisers weren’t interested in social networking audiences, and those who did take a chance on GeoCities found that advertising click-through rates were low.

Eventually, new competitors began to spring up, and GeoCities failed to keep up with their new technology. Audio and video were quickly becoming Internet staples, and other social networking sites introduced the concept of “friends.” As GeoCities’ development became stagnant,users began turning away from the rudimentary portal, gravitating to communities such as Friendster, MySpace, and now Facebook and Twitter. In 1999, the site had 35 million unique visitors; by 2006 the number fell to 18.9 million; two years later traffic dropped to 11.5 million unique visitors per year.

Ignored and outdated, GeoCities managed to limp along until Oct. 26, 2009, when Yahoo finally pulled the plug. The website’s departure leaves behind millions of web pages, and former users will no doubt fondly remember their first primitive foray onto the web. But with so many better social networking tools now available, it’s unlikely that GeoCities will be missed for long.