Most webpages die after a couple of months. The average lifespan is something like 100 days. That's longer than it used to be. In the late 1990s, the typical webpage lasted for around 44 days.
But quantifying pieces and pages of the web gets murky pretty quickly. For one thing, finding a reliably representative sample of links for this kind of analysis is tricky if not impossible. There's also a sort of existential question, as Mike Ashenfelder wrote for the Library of Congress in 2011: “That is to say, we take for granted that we know what it means that a webpage has ‘died.’”
In other words, what lives and dies on the web depends in large part on how you define a webpage or a website in the first place.
“Is a ‘webpage’ defined by its URL or by its contents?” Ashenfelder wrote. “A non-resolving link doesn’t necessarily imply that the content once hosted there no longer exists; it may have been archived or simply exist at a new location (albeit, one mediated by a paywall) to which the web server was not configured to redirect page requests. Conversely, a resolving link doesn’t necessarily imply that the same content is still hosted there as it once was.”
But if you just want to get a sense of how big the web is, how much it has grown in 20 years, there are blunter measures. In 1994, for example, there were fewer than 3,000 websites online. By 2014, there were more than 1 billion. That represents a 33 million percent increase in 20 years. That’s nuts!
It’s also imperfect. For one thing, various estimates say about three-quarters of websites are live but inactive. The web’s ephemerality also means the precise number of websites at any given time fluctuates quite a bit. For instance, according to the site Internet Live Stats, there are now 935,950,654 websites as of this writing. (Now 935,950,713. Wait, 935,950,801. You get the idea.)
“This is due to the monthly fluctuations in the count of inactive websites,” according to the site. “We do expect, however, to exceed 1 billion websites again sometime from late 2015 to mid 2016.”
The weird thing is, most of these sites exist without being seen. The average person doesn’t venture very far across the web, only visiting 96 separate domains per month, according to a Nielsen estimate in 2013.
So while tracking the number of websites online, or trying to, hints at the web’s explosive growth in the past two decades, it doesn’t capture how people are actually using the Internet today. For that, we look to the growth of search. In August 1999, Google was fielding 3 million search queries per day, according to John Battelle’s book, The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture. A year later, that number had leaped to 18 million search queries per day. By 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, Google was serving more than 3.5 billion searches per day—equivalent to 40,000 searches every second.
Even as most websites flicker in and out of existence at a rapid clip, you can still find some real antiques out there. Gizmodo rounded up a whole collection of ancient websites a few years ago. Among them: CNN’s 1996 year in review, the old Bob Dole presidential-campaign website, and the search engine IFindIt.com, which you can see but doesn’t seem to actually work.
When I started writing this morning, Internet Live Stats told me there were 935,939,044 websites online. Now there are 935,951,027—almost 12,000 more websites! I have no idea how many disappeared in this time. Which brings me back to a truth about the Internet that’s often acknowledged but still hard to grasp: It’s always changing. I mean, always always. And though the web is never what it used to be, you can still find little traces of its previous iterations, if you know where to look.