Does the Web Get Smaller as Usage Grows?

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The web was a strange and exciting place during its infancy. It offered choice. Consider how many search engines existed 10 years ago. I’ve forgotten more than I remember, but I regularly used Altavista, Excite, Hotbot, Lycos, Web Crawler and others. While some these sites still exist, they’re a shadow of their former selves. Today, web search is dominated by three engines and that will shortly become two.

It’s the same for social networking. Web2.0 brought us a flurry of websites, yet today we’re left with Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Twitter. MySpace is struggling and AOL is planning to sell or shut down Bebo just two years after after buying it for $1 billion.

You want video? Why visit anywhere other than YouTube? Want to go shopping? Do many web users venture beyond Amazon or eBay?

Web Gets SmallerThe web has converged. Although more sites are created every day, few users look beyond a handful of regularly-visited bookmarks. Perhaps it’s not surprising:

  • Few companies survive without a viable revenue model. YouTube and Twitter are yet to make money — how could a competing site do better and make money?
  • It’s rare for a site to continue if it can’t attract a critical mass of users. Facebook became successful because of the number of registered users. A competitor would have difficulty persuading users to switch to another system — especially when none of their friends are using it.

Chris Anderson’s “Long Tail” theory is still relevant. Selling small quantities of niche items can be as good as selling large quantities of popular items. But has everyone become a long-tail supplier now there’s little hope of competing with the 20 or so major players?

Independent traders have all but disappeared from some high streets. Is the predominance of large corporations causing the same to happen on the web? It’s less of a problem — physical space is not an issue and there are fewer barriers to entry — but I can’t help thinking we’ve lost something. Is big business sucking variety, excitement and innovation from the web?

Craig BucklerCraig Buckler
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Craig is a freelance UK web consultant who built his first page for IE2.0 in 1995. Since that time he's been advocating standards, accessibility, and best-practice HTML5 techniques. He's created enterprise specifications, websites and online applications for companies and organisations including the UK Parliament, the European Parliament, the Department of Energy & Climate Change, Microsoft, and more. He's written more than 1,000 articles for SitePoint and you can find him @craigbuckler.

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