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A Look Back at 30+ Years of Website Design

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A Look Back at 30+ Years of Website Design

Web design has come a long way since 1991, when the first ever website was published. Exclusively text-based, this site marked the beginning of what would become a digital revolution.

And while recollections of “under construction” GIFs and blinding background colors make me thankful for just how far the web has come, there are some historical web design choices that actually demand a nod of respect.

Websites like this one haven’t been lost to time, either. If you want to see what a website looked like at any period since its launch, enter its domain name into the Wayback Machine and choose a date. In this post, let’s take a look at how web design has evolved, from text-only interfaces up through the sleek, modern designs we see today.

Early 1990s: Antiquity

The early 90s marks the start of our website design timeline. At this point, there was no such thing as a high-speed internet connection. It was dial-up modems, or it was nothing. Therefore, websites needed to be built for less-than-stellar connection speeds. They mostly looked like walls of text — what we now take for granted as “design layout” did not exist.

history of web design: an examle of an early html website

While later versions of HTML allowed for more complex designs, they were still very basic compared to today, consisting mainly of tags for headers, paragraphs, and links. Visual elements and styling like typography, imagery, and navigation were things of the not-too distant future.

Takeaways for Today’s Websites:

While the function of these early sites was purely informational, we can see some design elements that apply today. These old web pages were very lightweight and optimized for a slow internet connection we all still experience from time to time. These design considerations took the user experience into account, something today’s websites don’t always do, even with faster speeds.

Yes, today’s internet can handle media-rich websites … but it still has some limits. Large media files, heavy graphic design, and excessive animations can all contribute to higher bounce rates when load speeds aren’t as fast as we want. Keep your user in mind when considering complicated design, and remember to K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Superhero).

Mid-1990s: The Middle Ages

The middle ages of web design were plagued by on-site page builders and spacer GIFs. (Better than an actual plague though, right?) By the mid-90s, web design had evolved both in terms of structure and appearance. Designers began using table-based layouts to organize content, allowing for greater flexibility and creativity. Sites were still quite text heavy, but text could now be divided into columns, rows, and other navigational elements for better readability.

Graphical design elements also quickly grew in popularity. Page hit counters, animated text, and dancing GIFs are just a few of the graphical elements that mark this period in web design.

history of web design: the early version of apple's website

Takeaways for Today’s Websites:

Today, there are plenty of reasons why table-based design is not the best choice for your website — the extensive markup, slow load times, and visual inconsistency are just a few of the pitfalls.

Regardless, this development was key in the evolution of web design: It was the first move toward non-linear page structure. Different elements could now be positioned in different sections of a web page, and designers had to consider the best way to present information to the user.

Page structure remains critical when thinking about navigation and content. It largely determines how the user experiences and interacts with your site. While these considerations might not have been at the forefront during the middle ages of web design, they are certainly at the forefront today.

Late 1990s: The Renaissance

Renaissance. Rebirth. Web design has had its fair share of reimaginings, but one of the first occurred with the introduction of Flash. Introduced in 1996, Flash opened up a world of design possibilities that weren’t possible with basic HTML. It was the marriage of virtual graphics and interaction.

While many of the same design elements from previous periods were still present, they were enhanced with animations, tiled background images, neon colors, 3D buttons, splash pages, and other multimedia.

Flash marked the beginning of visitor-focused design — structure and navigation became important considerations and designers began to hone in on appearance and usability over pure content.

history of web design: a website with flash elements

Takeaways for Today’s Websites:

Flash was a game-changer, but it wouldn’t stick around forever. Flash is hardly ever used today and is deemed one of the biggest SEO sins of all time. Today, it’s the norm to opt for alternative methods such as CSS and JavaScript animations to get similar effects, or to embed videos from video hosting sites.

Early 2000s: The Enlightenment

The early 2000s were a period when usability and flexibility really came to the forefront of web design.

Leading the charge was CSS, a coding language that allowed developers to store visual rules in files separate from HTML, effectively separating content and style. This gave greater creative freedom to both web designers and content developers — content could now be developed exclusively from design, and vice versa. CSS made websites easier to maintain (less code and complexity), more flexible (div tags are independent of one another), and quicker to load (smaller files).

Better understanding of color psychology also led to increased use of whitespace and the decrease of garish colors, like neons. Links started being added to icons rather than just text, resolution and pixelation became more important concerns, and strategic placement of content also gained traction.

history of web design: an early website for the company polaroid

Takeaways for Today’s Websites:

People typically scan websites looking for the information they need, so any site that makes this job easier gets a giant check-mark. Savvy web designers know that most users don’t read everything on a website, and understand how readers take in information.

Therefore, intuitively placed information, visually accentuated links, and straightforward navigation are just a few best practices today’s websites should adhere to. Always design with usability in mind!

Mid- to Late-2000s: The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution of web design begins with the birth of Web 2.0. It’s at this time that things really began to move toward the modern web. The growth of multimedia applications, the rise of interactive content, and the advent of social media are a few definitive features of this period.

Moreover, these changes largely dictated the way web design was … well, done. Aesthetic changes included better color distribution, increased use of icons, and greater attention to typography.

Most importantly, however, design became about content, and content became about search engine optimization. With the user now firmly at the center of design, selling products (at least explicitly) became the secondary function of websites — now it was all about getting found.

history of web design: a mid-2000s website for the company lulu lemon

Takeaways for Today’s Websites:

As mentioned, the evolution of Web 2.0 saw the growth of SEO as a consideration. While these techniques have been adapted over the years, thinking about your website in terms of SEO is still a top priority for most thriving business websites.

SEO demands content, and content largely became the focus of web design during this era. Keyword optimization, inbound and outbound linking, authoring, tagging, and syndication technology such as RSS became natural design elements. While link spamming and keyword jamming soon exploited these techniques, these methods are no longer effective and (I hope) have largely fizzled out.

2010 to Now: The Modern Era

Today, over two decades after the publication of the first website, web design has firmly established itself as an irreplaceable component of every good marketing strategy. Recent research found that 50% of today’s consumers think website design is crucial to a business’s brand.

In terms of modern aesthetics, we have seen the proliferation of minimalism: sparse content, flat graphics (so long, 3D buttons!), simpler color palettes, and big and bold visuals. In addition, UX has taken center stage, giving way to such design features as infinite scrolling and single-page design.

You may have noticed that our website has embraced all these features with its latest design:

history of web design: a modern website for the company hubspot

One more key step in the evolution of web design is the mobile web. Since the launch of the iPhone in 2007, there has been a re-evaluation of the way websites are structured to accommodate for the growing number of mobile web users. This includes several mobile frameworks that take a “mobile-first” approach, and an even greater focus on mobile speed optimization, since phones usually lack the processing speed or connection strength of your typical desktop.

This digital revolution has also given rise to responsive design, in which page elements automatically adjust to the width of the browsing window, allowing websites to look good on any device or screen. Today, responsive design is necessary to ensure a pleasing mobile user experience, given over half of global website traffic comes from mobile devices.

Where will websites go next?

If there’s one factor that has informed every single one of these developments, it’s content. Every design element here has been adapted in such a way to bring the most relevant content to the user in the most efficient and effective way. Notions of accessibility, adaptability, and usability truly define this era of web design.

Though there’s much more we can do with web design today, it’s fun to take a look back at where we came from. Looking at how web design has progressed thus far, it’s exciting to think about where it will be in the next 20 years.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in July 2013 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

examples of brilliant homepage, blog, and landing page design

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State of Content Marketing in 2023

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State of Content Marketing in 2023

I just pressed send on the manuscript for my book to be released in September. It’s called Content Marketing Strategy (snappy, eh?), and Kogan Page will publish it.

Last week, marketing professor Philip Kotler wrote the foreword. I won’t spoil it, but he mentioned the need for a strategic approach to owned media.

He writes, “(T)he company doesn’t carry an account of showing these marketing assets and their value. As a result, the company cannot show the CEO and company board members a return on owned assets or content.”

Luckily, my upcoming book shows exactly how to do that. Funny how that works out.

In any event, all this struck me that now is an opportune time to look at where the beloved practice of content marketing stands today.

First, let’s go back to 1999 when Kotler published Kotler On Marketing, one of his more than 70 books. The latter 1990s – a time of tumultuous change – fueled most of the thinking for the book. But he knew that it was merely the beginning.

Kotler concluded the book with a section called “Transformational Marketing.”  In the next decade, he wrote, “marketing will be re-engineered from A to Z. Marketing will need to rethink fundamentally the processes by which they identify, communicate, and deliver customer value.”

Well, it’s taken over two decades, but it’s finally happening.

Consumers have changed, but marketing operations are just starting to

In case you didn’t notice, almost every marketing conference these days starts with the same four or five requisite slides:

  • Digital technologies, such as search and social media, empower consumers today.
  • Consumers research, engage, buy, and stay loyal to brands in ways that have fundamentally changed.
  • First-party data and privacy are of the utmost importance.
  • Artificial intelligence begins to threaten the idea of the usefulness of search and pressure companies to deliver better and more personalized experiences.

You get it. Consumer expectations in the age of the social, mobile, and AI-driven web are different than they were.

However, the continuing challenge in 2023 is that content and/or marketing operations in enterprise companies are only beginning to evolve. Most marketing departments have remained as they were when Kotler wrote his book — they still work from mid- to late-20th century hierarchies, strategies, and processes.

Most marketing departments still work with mid- to late-20th-century hierarchies, strategies, and processes, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Content marketing isn’t new, but a content marketing strategy is

For hundreds of years, businesses have used content to affect some kind of profitable outcome. But the reality is this: Whether it was John Deere’s The Furrow from the 1800s, Michelin’s guide to car maintenance in the early 1900s, or even Hasbro’s GI-Joe partnership with Marvel in the 1980s, content was not — and is not for the most part now — a scalable, repeatable practice within the function of marketing. In short, companies almost always treat content marketing as a project, not a process.

That fundamental change will finally take hold in 2023. It could happen because of the digital disruption and ease by which you can now publish and distribute content to aggregate your own audiences. It could happen through the natural evolution that the ultimate outcome – more than the marketing – matters more.

As we roll through 2023 and beyond, content — and the exponentially increasing quantities of it produced by every organization — deeply affects not just your marketing strategy, but your business strategy. Content in marketing is now bigger than simply content marketing, and it should be dealt with as a component of that business strategy throughout the enterprise.

#Content in marketing is bigger than #ContentMarketing. Treat it as a component of the business strategy, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

In 2023, the No. 1 focus of my consulting and advisory practice these days: help companies transform content into a repeatable, scalable, and measurable function that drives value through a multi-channel strategy. It’s bigger than publishing a blog, creating a lead-generating resource center, or sending an email newsletter. Today’s content marketing team is being absorbed into marketing because marketing and its various operations are fundamentally transforming into a content-producing machine.

It is not good enough to produce content “like a media company would.” The goal must be to operate as a media company does. Your job is not to change content to fit new marketing goals. Rather, your job in 2023 is to change marketing to fit the new business content goals.

Your job in 2023 is to change #marketing to fit the new business #content goals, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

The unaware builds a case for the aware

The term “content marketing” continues to evolve. Even today, I run across those who still call it “brand publishing,” “custom content,” or “inbound marketing.”

My take matches with what Kotler described in 1999. I always thought the term “content marketing” would become part of “marketing” more broadly. In 2023, that happened. So, returning to the lexiconic debates of 2013, 2014, or 2015 doesn’t seem terribly productive. Content marketing is just good marketing, and marketing is just good content marketing.

That said, two kinds of companies do well at the broader view of content marketing. Some of them, such as Cleveland Clinic, Red Bull, Arrow Electronics, HubSpot, and REI, have purposely devised content marketing strategies as differentiating approaches to their marketing. They are succeeding.

Others, like Amazon, Microsoft, JPMorgan Chase, and Peloton, backed into a smart content marketing strategy. But executives at those companies probably don’t recognize it as such. If asked (and some have been), they would say acquiring or launching a media company operation was just a smart business strategy to diversify their ability to reach their consumers consistently.

They’re right, of course. Many have yet to read books about content marketing, been influenced by the Content Marketing Institute, or even recognize content marketing as a separate approach (as far as I know). And they are also succeeding.

Consider this proof: As I write this article, six companies have a market capitalization of more than $1 trillion. Four of the six wholly or partially use the business model of media creation to further marketing and business strategies. Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet, and Amazon are all, in part, media companies that also sell products and services.

Why would you not avail yourself of that same model?

The future looks cloudy and bright

As for the overall state of enterprise content marketing, it’s in transition, as all marketing is. As a focused project-based approach, working in ad-hoc ways across a business, content marketing appears to have proven its worth. Hundreds of entries every year to the Content Marketing Awards feature myriad case studies using content marketing techniques in strategic ways to profitably affect business results.

And yet, it remains to be seen whether you can make content marketing a scalable, repeatable, measurable function within marketing.

As to what the discipline’s future holds? At last year’s Content Marketing World, one of my favorite events, the Executive Forum gathered senior leaders from brands succeeding with content marketing. As we talked about the future, one participant said: “The only certainty is change. I can’t tell you where or when, but I do know there will be change, and this is the principle we build on now.”

As for my take, Kotler’s idea of transforming the marketing function seems to have gotten lost along the digital road traveled by marketers. In so many cases, marketing – and especially content – remains just an on-demand service function within the business. Its sole job is to produce ever more voluminous amounts of content that describe the value of the brand (or its products or services) so that sales can sell more efficiently, customer support can serve more effectively, and all manner of customer interfaces are more beneficial to both sides.

However, and maybe because I need to rationalize now that my book is finished, I passionately believe it’s finally time for marketing to reclaim its ability to create value — not just reflect it in the polished shine of your traditional products and services.

Almost 27 years ago today, Microsoft founder Bill Gates wrote an essay called Content is King. In it, he said that “(C)ontent is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet, just as it was in broadcasting.”

It certainly was one of his more prescient moments. Nearly three decades later, his words have proven true. The essay title has become the rallying cry for thousands and thousands of entrepreneurs who now make their living on creating, managing, optimizing, and measuring content on the internet. (A Google search for “content is king” nets more than 1.7 million results.)

But it’s the last line of his essay that I find the most visionary: “(T)hose who succeed will propel the Internet forward as a marketplace of ideas, experiences, and products – a marketplace of content.”

That’s what content marketing is for me in 2023. It’s just marketing – optimizing the value of ideas, experiences, and products in a marketplace of content.

Time to get to work.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

Get Robert’s take on content marketing industry news in just five minutes:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=videoseries

Watch previous episodes or read the lightly edited transcripts.

Subscribe to workday or weekly CMI emails to get Rose-Colored Glasses in your inbox each week. 

HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT:

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute



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27 Best About Us and About Me Page Examples [+Templates]

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Your about page summarizes your history, values, and mission — all in one place. That’s a tall order for just a few paragraphs. If you’re feeling stuck, turn to these about-page examples for inspiration. 

about us page example: laptop held in palm of hand

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MARKETING

MarTech’s marketing operations experts to follow

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MarTech's marketing operations experts to follow

Marketing operations is what makes the magic happen. These are the folks who see that your martech stack doesn’t get stuck. They are the maestros, modelers and makers who make sure the trains run, the data is digestible and that you have the programs you need. Where would we be without them? That’s too scary to think about. Here’s our list of MOps experts who have the ear of the profession.

Darrell Alfonso

Darrell is director of marketing strategy & operations at Indeed and the former global marketing ops leader for AWS. He’s the author of “The Martech Handbook: Build a Technology Stack to Acquire and Retain Customers.” In addition to speaking at many conferences, Darrell was named one of the Top Marketers in the US by Propolis 2022 and among the “Top Martech Marketers to Follow” in 2020 by Martech Alliance. He’s a regular and popular contributor both to MarTech and the MarTech conference; you can find all of his articles at this link.


Eddie Reynolds

Eddie has been in business a long time, starting his first company when he was 14. “A pretty minimal enterprise,” he told one interviewer. “I had a tax ID number, a legal entity, and a company name. I even had the IRS coming after my dad for sales tax that I failed to report properly.” Today he is CEO and revenue operations strategy consultant of Union Square Consulting. He publishes The RevOps Weekly Newsletter and the podcast RevOps Corner. Eddie’s large LinkedIn following attests to the quality of the insights he shares there on  sales, marketing, service, and admin roles. 


Sara McNamara

Sara is an award-winning marketing and sales operations professional whose work has been recognized by awards from the likes of Salesforce (Pardot), Adobe (Marketo), Drift, and LeanData. She is a Senior Manager, Marketing Operations at Slack and a martech stack (+ strategy) solution architect. That and her passion for leveraging technology and processes to improve the experiences of marketers, sales professionals, and prospects, explains why she’s a regular guest on MOps podcasts.


Ali Schwanke

Ali is the CEO and founder of Simple Strat. The firm specializes in helping companies get the most out of HubSpot — from CRM strategy and setup to marketing automation and content creation. She is also host of HubSpot Hacks, “the #1 Unofficial YouTube show for HubSpot Tutorials” and has been a guest speaker at the MarTech conference.


Mike Rizzo

Mike’s career in marketing operations showed him that there is a real and significant MOps community. That’s why he founded MO Pros/MarketingOps.com, the fast-growing online community for people in marketing operations. He is also co-host of Ops Cast, a weekly podcast. 


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About the author

Constantine von Hoffman

Constantine von Hoffman is managing editor of MarTech. A veteran journalist, Con has covered business, finance, marketing and tech for CBSNews.com, Brandweek, CMO, and Inc. He has been city editor of the Boston Herald, news producer at NPR, and has written for Harvard Business Review, Boston Magazine, Sierra, and many other publications. He has also been a professional stand-up comedian, given talks at anime and gaming conventions on everything from My Neighbor Totoro to the history of dice and boardgames, and is author of the magical realist novel John Henry the Revelator. He lives in Boston with his wife, Jennifer, and either too many or too few dogs.

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