Life before Google


Illustrations: Christian Tate

Dooo-eeee-drrrrrrrrrrrrrrr-urur-ururur… That was the sound of 1998. It might not make most people’s nostalgia playlists alongside the Spice Girls, Baddiel and Skinner and Cher being strangled by a vocoder, and it never was hugely catchy – but the long-lost lo-fi burble of a dial-up connection is just as kitsch as anything currently hammering the reunion circuit.

And to those who remember the internet pre-smartphone, pre-cloud, pre-YouTube, pre-Wikipedia, pre-Wordpress (and, in fact, pre- the idea of blogging as a perfectly legitimate pastime rather than the unique preserve of irredeemable oddballs), pre-broadband, pre-2.0, pre-Big Data, pre-Long Tail, pre-dotcom bust and dotcom boom, pre-PayPal, pre-pop-ups, fireplaces, banners, MPUs and behavioural targeting, pre-professional web-design and UX, pre-‘The Matrix’ and the subsequent nationwide cybergoth outbreak, pre- a decent volume of non-pornographic searchable images, and, perhaps hardest to resolve into focus from the point of view of the present, pre-Google – to those of us who first experienced the web as a series of unadorned bulletpoint lists in serifed fonts on a beige background, the sound of a modem warbling its mating call to distant servers down a scratchy BT phoneline is irresistibly evocative.

By now we’ve become so accustomed to the online landscape’s regular tectonic upheavals that it’s easy to forget what the web looked like six months ago, let alone the other side of ‘Y2K’. In popular memory it was a fuzzy, open-source playground of ideas, run by academics and cliques of snippy computer-science graduates.

And then came Google, whose two founders famously set up office in a garage in Palo Alto near San Francisco and launched the company which would unleash their super-virulent algorithm on 4th September 1998. On its way to becoming the first among the traffic titans who basically own today’s web, Google more than any other single entity seemed to be reshaping the network – throwing open the doors to esoteric, unsophisticated businesses from all sectors, reckless capital investors and, worst of all, the inane blatherings of millions and millions of ordinary people.

“I miss the naivety of it,” says Tim Dunton, 32-year-old director of Nimbus, a boutique hosting company based in Harlow in Essex, recalling the state of his fledgling industry in the late ’90s. “It was easier to make a decision then, because you didn’t know what the consequences were going to be if you got it wrong. And there was less competition. Much less competition.”


Britain’s Bill Gates

Back in July 1997 Dunton was in the middle of his GCSEs. He was also the 16-year-old CEO of a pioneering company with a £30,000 annual turnover that traded in domain names, and the teenager a Guardian headline had already identified as “Britain’s answer to Bill Gates”.

“The story was on page five, I think,” he says about the piece, which picked up on the £5,000 he’d made selling a web address he’d registered and sold to a US company with the same name. “It was hype but it got my name out there, and it gave me a confidence that’s helped make business decisions easier even now.”

The story proclaiming Dunton as a teen techno-prodigy came in a climate of a hyperactive media intoxicated by the digital future – and looking back now, the histrionics seem strikingly quaint. Every day saw broadsheet headlines along the lines of “American woman prepares for first Internet birth”; “Internet addicts may be damaging their health”; and, surely on the neurotic side even then, “Internet will not replace the nation state, says academic.” One story in the Independent in July ’98 ran with the endearingly astonished “Rock band sells single on Internet” (in case it comes up in a pub quiz, the act in question was marginal Britpop band Rialto, with a re-release of their No. 37 single ‘Monday Morning 5:19’).


What search engine looked like in 1999. Surf the retro net with the Wayback Machine

Meanwhile, people who should probably have known better were weighing in with titanically bold predictions about the ‘World Wide Web’ (sic). Here’s Nobel prize-winning American economist Paul Krugman, in a 1998 article for Red Herring magazine that has since become a case study of ill-judged technological prophecy:

“The growth of the Internet will slow drastically, as the flaw in ‘Metcalfe’s law’ – which states that the number of potential connections in a network is proportional to the square of the number of participants – becomes apparent: most people have nothing to say to each other! By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.”

And here’s Robert Metcalfe – co-inventor of the Ethernet standard for networking hardware, and coiner of ‘Metcalfe’s law’ – three years earlier in an interview with InfoWorld magazine, fretting about the global network’s ability to cope with increasing demand: “I predict the internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.”

Even the language in use in the mid-to-late ’90s speaks of a naïver, more awed relationship with technology. Journalists were still upper-casing ‘Internet’ – as if it were a new-town near Redhill that you got to via Junction 6 on the ‘Information Superhighway’. The rest of us, meanwhile, were all still jamming the novelty hyphen in ‘e-mail’ and giddily clicking on ‘hypertext links’ in our ubiquitous grey Netscape Navigator browsers. Apple was still producing computers in a range of colours that had all the design sophistication of a tube of Smarties. And people were still having ‘cybersex’. (Can anyone put their finger on the exact moment it stopped being that, and went back to being just two people wanking next to a computer?)

Back then, ‘Internet’ was an exotic, geeky, intriguing Other. And it’s tempting to blame its Googlisation for its metamorphosis into the mass-market morass of chit-chat, commerce and ‘content’ we take for granted today. Google’s emergence decluttered and demystified the online experience for the multitude; it remoulded digital business around its beatified, oracular algorithm; and it coincided precisely with the ‘dotcom bubble’ – the runaway overvaluation and subsequent collapse of tech-related share prices between 1998 and 2000. But was the moment ‘Google’ became a verb really the moment the internet jumped the shark? It’s a difficult one to answer. You can’t Google it.

Browser history

For Bill Gates-in-waiting Tim Dunton, the point at which the web really became a mainstream concern wasn’t so much better search results as cheaper access. First of all came Freeserve – the free-of-charge dial-up service that Dixons bundled with their PCs, which launched in September 1998, the same month as Google, and had connected more than a million UK users within its first six months. And in the past decade or so the spread of broadband in homes has, as Dunton points out, turned the internet into “just another utility, with your gas, your electricity and your council tax”.

Jon Ribbens is a director of website-testing company Sitemorse, who, like Dunton, has been running tech companies since his school days. Ribbens points out that Google’s sudden hegemony in the crowded search-engine marketplace was nothing new. “As far as I remember AltaVista was the one everyone was using before they switched to Google,” says Ribbens. “It was just a successor in a long line of search engines.”

For Ribbens too the swamping of online communities by mainstream culture was primarily down to the price of admission. “When we started our web-hosting company in 1996, we had to buy a leased line just to connect to the internet,” he says. At 64 kilobits per second, Ribbens’s advanced ADSL connection wasn’t much faster than the 56kb/s of a modem at the time. “And that cost us £600 a month. We later upgraded to 256 kilobits per second and that cost us 20 grand a year.”

Pre-Google the Holy Grail of online marketing wasn’t position one, page one on any search engine; it was bagging a catchy website address – those things nobody types in any more”

Ribbens’s perspective on the past 15 years has been informed by his own trajectory through dotcom hype, boom and bust. In the late ’90s his previous company was absorbed by a larger Midlands firm that first floated on the stock market, then soon went into liquidation as the fallout from Silicon Valley’s implosion found its way to Coventry.


Created in 1996, the dancing baby gif became an instant internet meme and one of the first viral videos

One morning in 2000, Ribbens woke up to discover he had been a dotcom millionaire – but wasn’t any more. “At one point, technically, on paper… Although I didn’t know it at the time, so it didn’t even change my mental state. By the time I was able to sell my shares, they weren’t worth anything. So it doesn’t make any difference either theoretical or practical. It’s just slightly amusing.”

Meanwhile, Dunton was also entangled in the new economy’s hyperactive imagination. Throughout 2000, his company – at this point a domain-registering service called Global Gold, which he ran from his parents’ house in Hertfordshire – had been enjoying an unexpected surge. “We’d just get phonecall after phonecall. At the time we had a very good place in Google – if you typed in ‘domain registration’ we’d come up top three. At the time we didn’t understand how significant that place was – now you’d kill for that type of thing.”

Which is something that’s often forgotten: search wasn’t that big a deal back then – most people still called it ‘navigation’ and SEO still stood for ‘Special Exemption Order’ (to serve drinks on licensed premises after 11pm, naturally). Pre-Google the Holy Grail of online marketing wasn’t position one, page one on any search engine; it was bagging a catchy website address – those things nobody types in any more. It seems giddily optimistic now, but the dotcom bubble manifested itself in popular culture too, with the slightly deranged moment of the domain-name goldrush.

“And we were the people selling the shovels,” says Dunton. “In some ways we were suckered into it as well – we were thinking, ‘This is brilliant, we’ve got a licence to print money.’” Pub speculators would call in with domain-name orders following drunken epiphanies that or would make their fortune; Dunton would receive URL orders by hand-written letter accompanied by hand-written cheques; he’d have ambitious bulk buyers Hoovering up whole swathes of the registry on the oddest of hunches.

A screenshot of taken in 1999

A screenshot of taken in 1999

“I remember one customer registered hundreds and hundreds, among them things like PurpleBee and RedBee and OrangeBee. But the one stuck with me – because he then sold it on to John Lewis [Greenbee being the former name of the retailer’s insurance service].”

This kind of direct hit was the exception rather than the rule, though. The only serious money being made in ‘warehousing’ – as the shady-but-legal practice of buying up web addresses was known – was in generic names “like and someone’s made a fortune on those”. Dunton remembers one client who flew to the South Pacific to bargain with a wealthy hotelier over the ownership of a URL that just screams international corporate glamour:

And then, with little warning, people lost interest. Domain names were “We’d gone from turning over 10 grand a month at the start of the year to almost 200 grand by the end of 2000. But only a few months after that the whole thing just bottomed out.”

The Eternal September

The late-’90s online economy was characterised by nothing so much as its blind faith in digital alchemy. As Ribbens recalls, “It was ridiculous. The whole mood of the time seemed to be that the internet had discovered some new form of capitalism where you don’t need to make profit… It’s a new technology but it doesn’t make money appear from nowhere. Nothing can make money appear from nowhere.”

PornScreengrabNothing, perhaps, apart from pornography. In 1998 the online adult content industry was estimated to be worth between $750 million and $1 billion (by London-based analysts Forrester Research); in 2012 a Time magazine article pegged it at $2.8 billion in the US alone. Despite the emasculating effect of free porn sites’ popularity in recent years, it’s the one sector that has remained steady over the course of the internet’s development, and remained, literally, in rude health throughout.

Although porn is not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea, it has benefited everyone. The only one who’s lost out is the newsagent”

These days those adult revenues may be dwarfed by the truly obscene figures reported by the likes of Google (who reported a $50 billion revenue for 2012) and Amazon ($61 billion). But in 1998 porn comfortably outsold Amazon’s $610 million for that year and, according to Dunton, it was a time when adult sites underwrote the whole internet. “In some ways the people who invested in implementing all the porn on the internet have put money into the industry to fund everything else. All the switches and hardware were improved because their money has been spent in that area. So although porn is not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea, it has benefited everyone. The only one who’s lost out is the newsagent.”

And for those who remember the internet’s early stuff, before it went all mainstream, it didn’t jump the shark with Google so much as with people in general. Ribbens harks back to the days of Usenet – the internet’s open-access forums that were the precursor to the worldwide web: “In the ’80s and ’90s there was a sort of in-joke that every September – bearing in mind that the internet was related to academia – the quality of discussion would go downhill, because of all these kids joining universities, finding Usenet, posting a whole load of bollocks and just generally lowering the tone. And one year, in the mid-’90s after AOL had started up, people started talking about ‘the Eternal September’. Which we’re still in.”

But the clearest demonstration that by 1998 the internet was already a lost cause for the purists has nothing to do with Google or Freeserve or the media or share prices. That same year saw the worldwide release of the email-based romcom ‘You’ve Got Mail’ – a film that opens, inevitably, with the familiar chirping of a dial-up modem doing its thing, and gets progressively less compelling from there. It turns out, then, that the global dumbing down of the internet, just like most things gone wrong in popular culture, can be ascribed in some way to Tom Hanks. Reset your mental browser to a time when this mode of courtship wasn’t known as stalking. Watch the movie. Recoil as Meg Ryan is targeted and groomed and emotionally harassed over email by the colleague she can’t stand in real life. Seen from today’s perspective it all seems so crude and somehow unsophisticated. Aren’t you glad we’ve got Facebook for that sort of thing now?

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