Error 404: A Look At Digital Decay
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Error 404: A Look At Digital Decay

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In 2005, one of the most intriguing advertising stunts of the internet age was hatched.

Alex Tew launched the The Million Dollar Homepage, where anyone could “own a piece of internet history” by purchasing pixels-plots (minimum of 10×10) on a massive digital canvas. At the price of just one dollar per pixel, everyone from individual internet users to well-known companies like Yahoo! raced to claim a space on the giant digital canvas.

Million dollar homepage

Today, The Million Dollar Homepage lives on as a perfect record of that wacky time in internet history – or so it seems. However, the reality is that many of the hyperlinks on the canvas are now redirects that send incoming users to other sites, while over 20% of them are simply dead.

Here are the links that still work on the Million Dollar Homepage today:

million dollar homepage link rot

The revealing graphic above, via John Bowers, raises the question – how do hyperlinks disappear, and what implications does this “digital decay” have?

Digital Decay

The internet is stitched together by an incalculable number of hyperlinks, but much like cells in an organism, the sources and destinations have a finite lifespan. Essentially, links can and do die.

link rot spread

Most “link rot” is the result of website restructuring, or entities going out of business and pulling their website offline.

A high-impact example of this is when Yahoo! pulled the plug on GeoCities, one of the first popular web hosting services. In one fell swoop, roughly 7 million websites (containing a plethora of animated gifs, auto-playing midi files, and traffic counters) went dark forever.

Links can also die because of more deliberate reasons, as well. In 2015, the editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed, Ben Smith, came under fire for deleting thousands of posts from the site (including content that was critical of Buzzfeed advertisers). Journalism has traditionally acted as a public record, so this type of “decay” has serious implications on the credibility of media brands.

Who Cares?

This idea of a public record is at the heart of why digital decay is an issue worth addressing. Once millions of links simply burn out, what will people in the future know about society in the early-ish days of the internet? What record will remain of people’s thoughts and feelings in that era?

I worry that the twenty-first century will become an informational black hole.

– Vint Cerf, Internet pioneer

Perhaps more urgent are public records that live in the digital realm. Supreme Court decisions and academia lean heavily on citations to build their arguments. What happens when those citations simply vanish? A Harvard study found that 49% of the hyperlinks in Supreme Court decisions are now broken.

Even that ubiquitous resource, Wikipedia, has serious issues caused by digital decay. Over 130,000 entries link to dead pages – a troubling development, as linked citations are what lend entries their credibility.

Backing Up The Internet

A handful of people are taking steps to archive the internet.

The most well-known solution is Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, which has archived hundreds of billions webpages over the past 20 years. Even the The Library of Congress – which is well known for archiving digital information such as tweets – contracts Internet Archive to do its web crawling.

The academia-focused Perma is another example of a company looking to create permanent records of the web sources (particularly citations).

Many of the weird and wonderful forums and hand-coded homepages of early internet lore may be gone, but we’re finally taking steps to combat digital decay. As awareness grows, avoiding an “informational black hole” may be possible.

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Ranked: The Top 50 Most Visited Websites in the World

In this visualization, we rank the top 50 websites that receive the most internet traffic, from Google to CNN.

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Ranked: The Top 50 Most Visited Websites in the World

Estimates vary, but there are upwards of two billion websites in existence in 2023.

If we were to rank all of these websites according to their traffic numbers, we would see a classic power law distribution. At the low end, the vast majority of these websites would be inactive, receiving little to no traffic. On the upper end of the ranking though, a handful of websites receive the lion’s share of internet traffic.

This visualization, using data from SimilarWeb, takes a look at the 50 websites that currently sit at the top of the ranking.

Which Websites Get the Most Traffic?

Topping the list of most-visited websites in the world is, of course, Google. With over 3.5 billion searches per day, Google has cemented its position as the go-to source for information on the internet. But Google’s dominance doesn’t stop there. The company also owns YouTube, the second-most popular website in the world. Together, Google and YouTube have more traffic than the next 48 websites combined.

The power of YouTube, in particular, is sometimes not fully understood. The video platform is the second largest search engine in the world after Google. As well, YouTube has the second highest duration-of-visit numbers in this top 50 ranking. (First place goes to the Chinese video sharing website, Bilibili.)

But Google and YouTube aren’t the only big players on the internet. Other websites in the top 50 ranking include social media giants Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. In particular, TikTok has seen a surge in popularity in recent years and is now one of the most popular social media platforms in the world.

Here’s the full top 50 ranking table form:

RankWebsiteMonthly TrafficCategoryCountry
#1google.com85.1BSearch Engines🇺🇸 U.S.
#2youtube.com33.0BStreaming & Online TV🇺🇸 U.S.
#3facebook.com17.8BSocial Media Networks🇺🇸 U.S.
#4twitter.com6.8BSocial Media Networks🇺🇸 U.S.
#5instagram.com6.1BSocial Media Networks🇺🇸 U.S.
#6baidu.com5.0BSearch Engines🇨🇳 China
#7wikipedia.org4.8BDictionaries & Encyclopedias🇺🇸 U.S.
#8yandex.ru3.4BSearch Engines🇷🇺 Russia
#9yahoo.com3.3BNews & Media Publishers🇺🇸 U.S.
#10whatsapp.com2.9BSocial Media Networks🇺🇸 U.S.
#11xvideo.com2.8BAdult🇨🇿 Czechia
#12amazon.com2.6BMarketplace🇺🇸 U.S.
#13pornhub.com2.5BAdult🇨🇦 Canada
#14xnxx.com2.3BAdult🇫🇷 France
#15live.com2.1BEmail🇺🇸 U.S.
#16yahoo.co.jp2.1BNews & Media Publishers🇯🇵 Japan
#17netflix.com2.0BStreaming & Online TV🇺🇸 U.S.
#18tiktok.com1.8BSocial Media Networks🇨🇳 China
#19docomo.ne.jp1.8BTelecommunications🇯🇵 Japan
#20reddit.com1.7BSocial Media Networks🇺🇸 U.S.
#21office.com1.6BProg. & Developer Software🇺🇸 U.S.
#22linkedin.com1.6BSocial Media Networks🇺🇸 U.S.
#23dzen.ru1.4BFaith & Beliefs🇷🇺 Russia
#24samsung.com1.4BConsumer Electronics🇰🇷 S. Korea
#25vk.com1.4BSocial Media Networks🇷🇺 Russia
#26xhamster.com1.3BAdult🇨🇾 Cyprus
#27turbopages.org1.3BNews & Media Publishers🇷🇺 Russia
#28mail.ru1.2BEmail🇷🇺 Russia
#29naver.com1.2BNews & Media Publishers🇰🇷 S. Korea
#30bing.com1.2BSearch Engines🇺🇸 U.S.
#31microsoftonline.com1.1BProg. & Developer Software🇺🇸 U.S.
#32discord.com1.1BSocial Media Networks🇺🇸 U.S.
#33twitch.tv1.1BGaming & Accessories🇺🇸 U.S.
#34bilibili.com1.0BAnimations & Comics🇨🇳 China
#35pinterest.com1.0BSocial Media Networks🇺🇸 U.S.
#36zoom.us985.9MComputers Electronics & Tech🇺🇸 U.S.
#37weather.com985.7MWeather🇺🇸 U.S.
#38qq.com907.1MNews & Media Publishers🇨🇳 China
#39microsoft.com902.3MProg. & Developer Software🇺🇸 U.S.
#40msn.com870.8MNews & Media Publishers🇺🇸 U.S.
#41globo.com840.1MNews & Media Publishers🇧🇷 Brazil
#42duckduckgo.com839.0MSearch Engines🇺🇸 U.S.
#43roblox.com795.7MGaming & Accessories🇺🇸 U.S.
#44quora.com775.9MDictionaries & Encyclopedias🇺🇸 U.S.
#45news.yahoo.co.jp749.1MNews & Media Publishers🇯🇵 Japan
#46ebay.com728.0MMarketplace🇺🇸 U.S.
#47aajtak.in724.1MNews & Media Publishers🇮🇳 India
#48nytimes.com702.2MNews & Media Publishers🇺🇸 U.S.
#49realsrv.com688.0MAdult🇺🇸 U.S.
#50cnn.com684.9MNews & Media Publishers🇺🇸 U.S.

Notable companies that have fallen out of the top 50 since our last version of this visualization are Walmart and PayPal. Notable entrants into the top 50 are Samsung and the New York Times.

The Geography of the 50 Most-Visited Websites

The United States is still home base for many of the world’s biggest websites, taking up 30 spots on this ranking. Of these 30 websites, half are operated by Big Tech companies such as Microsoft, Amazon, Alphabet, Meta, and Netflix.

Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea round out the top five.

Top 50 Websites by country
View static image

Things get interesting in the “other” category, which includes six websites. Two spots are taken up by Aaj Tak and Globo, which are large media publications in India and Brazil, respectively.

The remaining four websites—XVideos, PornHub, XHamster, and XNXX—specialize in adult content, and are located in a variety of countries. These are often referred to as “tube sites” since they are built on the YouTube model.

Realsrv, the only adult-oriented site in the top 50 located in the U.S., is interesting to delve into as well, since it’s far from a household name. The website essentially supports advertising efforts by redirecting users away from the content they were viewing over to another page (generally premium adult content). This is one of the key ways that adult websites earn revenue.

Where does this data come from?

Source: SimilarWeb

Notes: Websites listed include “all meaningful subdomains”, and categories in the graphic follow SimilarWeb’s categorization system. This is the third version of this graphic. As with previous versions, we aim to use data from November for the sake of consistency and to avoid seasonal fluctuations in traffic. One important detail to point out is that website traffic does not include app traffic, which is why popular platforms like WeChat don’t appear in this ranking.

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