A look at the websites that have the largest audiences in America shows that Web 1.0 properties, launched in the 1990s before broadband was widely available, led the list by audience size. The sites may not have capitalized on recent and successful trends in the online industry, but they are still there, their strings at the top unbroken. The prominence they enjoy may still offer a way out of the doldrums that have set in at Yahoo! Inc. (NASDAQ: YHOO), AOL Inc. (NYSE: AOL) and a group of sites owned by the traditional media giants.
Comscore Media Metrix, a research firm that tracks Web audience, shows that Google Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG) sites have the largest number of unique visitors in the United States — 187 million in September. The number is extraordinary, because it nearly matches the number of adults in the U.S. Google may seem new in Internet years, but its domain was registered in 1997. And it was hardly the first search property on the Internet. It just turned out to be the best one.
Next down on the list are the Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ: MSFT) sites, with 167 million unique visitors in September. Microsoft’s presence on the Web would seem to be dominated by its portal, MSN.com. But Microsoft has dozens of sites for its products, along with the destination for the company itself — Microsoft.com. Its nearly innumerable products keep traffic to its sites high. Yahoo!, the portal site, is next on the list, with 164 million unique visitors. It is ancient by Internet standards, founded in 1995. The company’s challenge, most analysts say, is to move its presence to the mobile world. If size is leverage, Yahoo! has at least a chance. The same holds true for AOL, the stock of which has soared in the past year, based on sales of some of its patents, but also the hope that its size, 111 million unique visitors, is big enough to support a substantial revenue base.
Between Yahoo! and AOL, based on size, is Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ: FB), with an audience of 150 million. It is the only Web 2.0 company near the top of the list. The proof of that is that LinkedIn Corp. (NYSE: LNKD) holds the number 26 spot with 40 million visitors and Twitter the number 27 spot with 27 million.
This list of sites may seem to be nothing more than that, but the rankings are telling. Old line media and old line e-commerce sites have a tremendous presence. Among the top 50 sites in September are Apple Inc.’s (NASDAQ: AAPL) sites, Amazon.com Inc.’s (NASDAQ: AMZN), CBS Corp.’s (NYSE: CBS) Turner, The New York Times Co. (NYSE: NYT), eBay Inc. (NASDAQ: EBAY), Viacom Inc. (NASDAQ: VIAB), Comcast Corp.’s (NASDAQ: CMCSA) NBC Universal, Gannett Co. Inc. (NYSE: GCI), ESPN and the Weather Channel. Again, just a list, but it begs the question why so many TV and print companies still hold such an impressive position on the Web.
Perhaps, the answer is branding. The New York Times is over a century old, CBS has been in existence for decades, and eBay was one of the earliest e-commerce sites, as was Amazon. Brands appear to matter in the online world. So does longevity, as well as the presence in people’s minds of how they have been entertained, have gotten information and shopped for years and years.
The amount of pessimism about old media and old portals has been overstated. Legacy remains powerful as a draw for people who still read, watch TV and follow the news. The challenge may be how these properties can bridge themselves over to the smartphone. But size and brand have their advantages. It would be foolish to count out the companies that already have those, significantly, online.
Douglas A. McIntyre