Summary: The early Web's explosive growth rate has slowed, but even the mature Web is still expanding and recently crossed the 100 M websites mark.
Netcraft's latest Web survey found 101,435,253 websites in November 2006. Not all of these sites are live: some are "parked" domains, while others are abandoned weblogs that haven't been updated in ages. But even if only half the sites are maintained, there are still more than 100 M sites that people pay to keep running.
Surpassing 100 M is a big milestone, and represents immense growth since the Web's founding 15 years ago.
The following chart plots the number of sites from 1991 to 2006. Note the use of a logarithmic scale, which is the only way to represent the Web's fast rate of change in its early years.
The number of Internet websites each year since the Web's founding.
As the chart shows, the Web has experienced three growth stages:
- 1991-1997: Explosive growth, at a rate of 850% per year.
- 1998-2001: Rapid growth, at a rate of 150% per year.
- 2002-2006: Maturing growth, at a rate of 25% per year.
Of course, only on the Web would we call 25% a "mature" growth rate. Any other field would be happy to grow at half that speed. If the Web maintains this growth rate, it will reach 200 M sites by 2010 . On the one hand, it's only realistic to expect the growth rate to slow as the Web matures even further. On the other hand, 200 M sites still won't represent full penetration -- the world has many more than 200 M companies, non-profits, and government agencies, and eventually they'll all have websites (as will many individuals). Thus, I expect to see 200 M sites fairly soon, even if 2012 may be a more realistic target date than 2010.
Design Implications of Web Maturation
I remember 1994 -- the fastest growth period in the Web's history. That year, the Web went from 700 sites to 12,000 sites, for a one-year growth of 1,600%. In our weekly Web project team meetings, we always had something totally new to review that had been done on the Web for the first time ever that week.
Given the rate of change, there was no such thing as "the Web user experience" in 1994. Each time users went online, they encountered something new. Even so, the first Web usability patterns were already emerging in my late 1994 studies. As my new book documents, I've modified some of these 1990s guidelines in light of newer research, but many have held up.
The Web's rapid growth ended in 2001 and all the usability guidelines we've found since then have been repeatedly confirmed. Although Web usability isn't completely settled, newer work is aimed more at discovering additional insights than challenging "old" findings from 2001 and beyond.
At this point, the maturing Web has a well-defined user experience, and users have firm expectations for how a website should work. For example, all users have one specific mental model for search, and our eyetracking research confirms that users look at search results pages the same way -- even when sites deviate from the standard model.
This isn't to say that search can't be further improved. On the contrary, search has one of the lowest usability scores of all the Web's elements and there's much room for enhancing user performance. The point is simply that users' basic expectations have settled and you should design accordingly, unless you have something that's substantially better. A small improvement won't work if it requires an unconventional interaction style.
Even though there will be many more sites to come in absolute numbers, what matters to the user experience is the rate of change , which has stabilized. From tech explosion to commodity in only 15 years: that's in itself an indication of the fast-moving nature of the modern world. It probably took hundreds of years for books to make that same transition, to the point where it matters what you write, not how the artifact is produced.
When designing a website, comply with users' expectations. In a mature system, differentiation doesn't come from a contrarian user interface. Such interfaces serve only to chase users away from a site. The Web is no longer a marvel of innovation, it's an everyday tool, and you differentiate yourself by providing both better content and better solutions to users' problems.