Daddy, How Were Websites Made?
In the early days of the commercial Web (c. 1995-2000), the fundamentals of getting online for most businesses involved a number of fairly common steps.
First, you would obtain a domain name—most likely at Network Solutions, a website which was about as welcoming as a flying monkey. There, you would type in something vaguely relevant to your business and proceed to purchase it. For instance, Jeff Bezos wanted a big store so he bought “amazon.com”. My former boss wanted a name reminiscent of cooking great things so he bought “oven.com”. Because squatters were still in training pants, you did not have to resort to the removal of vowels, the insertion of numerals, irregular hyphenation, or Libyan suffixes. (Nowadays, you’re lucky to get a domain like “splashbe.at” which is available, apparently, via domai.nr.)
Next, you would find a graphic designer who understood the Web. There were about fifteen designers in New York City and San Francisco who could design websites. Fourteen of those designers were working for large Web development shops. This is where most businesses ended up going if they were truly serious about getting online. In general, if you had a half million dollars or more, a Web development shop would be happy to design and build something for you. Budgets over $1 million were not uncommon.
After a series of often tough contract negotiations, a business would engage a Web shop to design something beautiful and engaging. There were many intensive meetings between the client and the shop and intensive talk around the table of eyeballs, rich media, upside, and market share. Some of these things were real. Meetings would often conclude with a rousing game of foosball, where the employees inevitably lost.
After thousands of hours of design, coding, redesign, recoding, quality assurance, recoding and more quality assurance, a new website would launch, replete with a loft party. The new website would have been tested on numerous computers and across all browsers, including Netscape, Internet Explorer, Internet Explorer for Mac, and AOL.
To ensure that navigation always displayed well, the site would use static GIFs of text displayed in “Web safe” colours. To make sure that pages displayed consistently, the site would house a single, clear spacer GIF inside of HTML tables nested within even more HTML tables. In some less fortunate cases, the site would use frames, wherein a page would, improbably, scroll within another page. Websites back then took thousands of hours of coding, the likes of which no developer today could ever imagine.
The design of the site itself was typically based on a grid—or, rather, it was based on a variation of the grid called a box. Text and images were inside the box. Everything else was outside the box. All content, from branding to navigation to introductory text to photography, was required to appear above “the fold”, which was about 600 pixels from the top of the browser. Yes, viewers could scroll back then, but it was decided that this was not a good idea.
If time and budget allowed, programmers would create elaborate content management systems (or backends, as they were called) using proprietary scripts and databases that would tie in with the site’s front-end (or presentation layer, as they were called). ColdFusion, in particular, was a popular scripting language that nearly every programmer used and somehow also despised. Using these backends, a site administrator (or “webmaster”) could change the text on the homepage—so long as the number of words always stayed consistent so as not to break the layout.
Finally, if a company had additional funds to increase its Internet brand awareness, a special splash page would be crafted to introduce the website. The splash page typically consisted of a Flash animation that would take ten to fifteen seconds to load and about the same amount of time to run. Cartoon characters could be seen swooshing their tails back and forth, seducing viewers in anticipation of viewing the actual website. Splash pages were universally loved by businesses and equally loathed by viewers. For the latter group, a “Skip Intro” link in very small, light grey text could sometimes be found at the bottom right of the page. By clicking on this link, a visitor would be taken to what was sometimes called a start page. Today, we call it Home.