I Bought a Million Dollar Piece of Internet History
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Back in 2005, a 21 year old student named Alex Tew, from Cricklade in England, had an idea. An idea that would hopefully offset the student debt from the Nottingham University Business Management course he was about to embark on.
Tew had some web development experience, and businesses on the internet were desperate for promotion; these were the mid noughties on the internet, after all. So his idea was to create a webpage, consisting of a million pixels, arranged in a 1000×1000 pixel grid<a href="https://www.nostalgianerd.com/milliondollar/#footnote_0_9130" id="identifier_0_9130" class="footnote-link footnote-identifier-link" title="Original FAQ, 2006: web.archive.org/web/20060101024407/ He would then sell every pixel on this page for $1 each, with the purchaser able to put any message or image they wanted in their space, and link back to any other site they wished. If Tew could sell every pixel, well he’d be a millionaire.
Of course, a page filled with a million single pixel sized links wouldn’t be practical, so the minimum up for grabs was a 10×10 pixel block, for a $100.
With the site going live on the 26th August 2005, the first sale was made to a friend who operated a music website2, and his brother who owned a go-kart track3. Quickly he sold 1,100 pixels; This gave Tew enough cash to push out a press release3, which was quickly picked up by various new outlets, hungry for internet excitement. But then this was a story with all the right elements for the inherently pro-capitalist media; a student, burdened with debts, but with initiative; an incredibly simple, yet powerful idea, and the opportunity for this to grow to something big, quickly.
And grow it did.
By the end of September 250,000 pixels had been sold<a href="https://www.nostalgianerd.com/milliondollar/#footnote_3_9130" id="identifier_4_9130" class="footnote-link footnote-identifier-link" title="Original Blog, 2005: web.archive.org/web/20060101025010/ and milliondollarhomepage.com was third on Alexa’s movers and shakers list<a href="https://www.nostalgianerd.com/milliondollar/#footnote_4_9130" id="identifier_5_9130" class="footnote-link footnote-identifier-link" title="Alexa.org, 2005: web.archive.org/web/20050926155110/ just behind Britneyspears.com and pdnonline. Yes, before Amazon’s Alexa; Alexa was a site that would track website traffic, and was used heavily in the SEO industry for determining how much value a website had. Exactly one month later, half a million pixels had been sold to 1,400 buyers, and by the end of the year the site was reported to be receiving 25,000 unique visitors per hour<a href="https://www.nostalgianerd.com/milliondollar/#footnote_3_9130" id="identifier_6_9130" class="footnote-link footnote-identifier-link" title="Original Blog, 2005: web.archive.org/web/20060101025010/
By this point, Tew was down to the last 1,000 pixels, which he decided to auction on eBay, with the winning bid going to MillionDollarWeightLoss.com for $38,100.
The MillionDollarhomepage would make $1,037,100 revenue in just five months, with Tew promising that it would remain live for a least 5 years from it’s inception; until 26th August 2010.
Well, it’s now 16 years on, almost exactly, at the time I’m writing this, and the site is still up, so I thought it would be interesting to have a little look around it.
Now, if you go onto archive.org to have a look at the various stages of the site, you hit a problem. We’ve got an image from 15th September 2015<a href="https://www.nostalgianerd.com/milliondollar/#footnote_5_9130" id="identifier_7_9130" class="footnote-link footnote-identifier-link" title="archive.org image, 2015: web.archive.org/web/20050915012241/ which shows various blocks being sold off. At this stage each block was an individually linked graphic. But it seems that Tew quickly learnt the disadvantages in doing this, as it was slow, both to build and to load for visitors<a href="https://www.nostalgianerd.com/milliondollar/#footnote_3_9130" id="identifier_8_9130" class="footnote-link footnote-identifier-link" title="Original Blog, 2005: web.archive.org/web/20060101025010/ The next capture on 1st October, shows the switch to one single 1million pixel image, with each block assigned link co-ordinates. Easier to assemble, quicker to load, but it means the history of the site’s growth isn’t preserved.
Thankfully, a chap named Fred Benenson set about capturing regular screen shots of the site<a href="https://www.nostalgianerd.com/milliondollar/#footnote_6_9130" id="identifier_9_9130" class="footnote-link footnote-identifier-link" title="Archive.org capture, 2006: web.archive.org/web/20060406203714/ and on January 24th 2006, posted a GIF charting the progress of pixel sale.
This is interesting in itself, first we get key areas, like the corners being bought up, but then you can see how blocks are built up almost like Cities. All it takes is one significant entity, like the Times to purchase a block, and then smaller companies quickly begin buying blocks around it. Knowing that people’s eyes will be drawn to the larger blocks, and their mouse cursors will likely drift to the sides, meaning people might click on 100 FREE DOWNLOADS, or UK JOBS or even IRISH ART.
It’s almost like a literal artform in itself. Jump forward to 2017, and you’ll see what I mean. This is a time-lapse of Reddit’s /r/place. A social experiment started on April Fools’ day 20178 where every user could place a pixel every 5 minutes. But rather than a mess of pixelated noise, groups joined together to create recognisable images and messages, which evolved over time. You might get rival factions battling it out, or a group dedicated to causing ultimate destruction, but in the end, it was just a beautiful amalgamation of what people wanted to share.
In a way, the milliondollarhomepage is the original version of this, and I don’t just mean from a visually holistic standpoint. Like /r/place. it didn’t take long for little groupings to emerge, promoting certain products, or novel approaches to block placement popping up, like the diagonal row for Wizardtrivia.com. Some blocks weren’t linked to anything… merely blank voids purchased for the sake of it. Others tried to make quips or jokes, and we even get several iterations of Waldo, or Wally, if you’re from the UK, to find in there.
What I love about this page most, however, is how it’s a perfect snapshot of the internet, as it was in 2005. A very different place to what it is now. But not so different that we don’t recognise it. Our most instinctive desires our, of course catered for….. dating sites, lewd sites, get rich quick schemes, prizes to be won, Thomas the Tank Engine.
Ahhh, Thomas the Tank Engine merchandise… sweet!
Handily, all these links have also been assigned roll-over tooltips. So we can see what we’re getting ourselves into before clicking “DO P.E PILLS WORK”, man, I thought we were talking physical education….there’s also a mule with it’s tongue out, which is a site urging you to claim your name domain name…. and there are also various faces which adorn the place, some of which are just people wanting to make their face internet famous.
This is one of my favourites, “I am Ling, I sell cheap, new UK cars!!”, mainly because Ling is still up and running, with a website that looks incredibly inspired by his founding era, although he’s moved into rentals these days. His original website still looked pretty funky though.
Similar to the concatenation of LUST and FREE PIXELS up here, LUST FREE PIXELS being the opposite message these two were trying to send out, it’s cool that littlethingsforfamilies.com extended out on the eyes placed by thedavidlawrenceshow.com here, to try and make a face. It’s almost like this reserved blank spot underneath was one of those sabotagers, you’d see on /R/Place, intentionally placing an unlinked void just below to thwart a complete face.
The milliondollarhomepage is definitely a case of, The more you look, the more you see. On first glance, it’s easy to become complement about how much is actually on here, and things that you’d think might stand out, pass you by time and time again. It’s a masterclass in attention grabbing advertising in one single frame. Honestly, I could spend days just looking at the sites on here, what graphics they chose, and comparing what the sites look like now to what they looked like back then. Of course, that’s what drew people to this page, intrigue, because boil it down, and it’s basically just a page chock-a-block with adverts. One that adblocker can’t save you from.
But there’s a lot here that’s very specific to 2005, and as you might expect, now simply links back to a holding page, or a domain sale site, or just re-directs to another enterprise.
And then, very occasionally, you’ll find a link that leads to a URL that’s actually been abandoned completely. This means that you, or I can purchase it as a new site for a few quid and, well, do what we want with it. So, after a lot of analysing and clicking, I found two available links. This one, CD/DVD, found at position 370,540 is 30 pixels wide and 10 pixels wide and links to re-habrecords.co.uk…..and this one….. the aforementioned IRISH ART, found nearby, at position 290,520, 40 pixels wide and 10 pixels high links to stablesgallery.co.uk. These are both now, without owner, and up for grabs, so I’m going to buy them and claim my very own piece of the milliondollarhomepage.
Buying a Chunk of Internet History…
First I’m going to create a website for stablesgallery.co.uk. Back in 2005, it looked like this. But we can do better than that.
I want to stick with the gallery theme, so I’m going to choose this template and set up some basic things, like the title, and social media links.
Now, for the art, I put out a Tweet asking for your finest and least fine art examples, with the theme of “Unstable”, and this is what I got. What an absolutely fine selection.
Some of you chose a more abstract route for the theme. Others, like Mr. Biffo chose a rather more literal approach.
But regardless of that, there’s some fantastic art here, and I intend to keep this site preserved for many years to come. Restoring a tiny slice of link integrity to a piece of internet history… and of course, I’ve also linked back to the original site on archive.org.
Now all I’ve got to do is publish the site, and there we go, stablesgallery.co.uk is fully operational.
If we head back to milliondollarhomepage.com, we can now click on IRISH ART, and we’re taken straight to The Unstable Gallery. Alright, it might not be Irish Art specifically anymore, but it’s got a certain vibe to it at least.
It’s quite nice owning a link on the milliondollarhomepage, 16 years after it was created.
Oh by the way, because I know you’re wondering. The Stables Gallery itself, does still exist. It’s just over at stables-gallery.co.uk instead these days, and it still looks very much like the original site. I’ve linked back to that on the about page also, so please take a look, see if there’s anything that takes your fancy.
Link Rot Setting in…
In 2014, just 9 years after its inception, The Guardian wrote a story about how 22% of the Million Dollar homepage is now dead links. Analysing the links in 2021 shows that actually, things seem to have improved a little;
Ahrefs reports 3,050 working links. That is, links that point to sites that actually load, in some form or other, but only 158 links that don’t resolve. That’s just 5%. However, tools like ahrefs aren’t always accurate for this sort of link checking, so a quick analysis with the site crawling tool, ScreamingFrog shows a No response rate of 17.4% and a client error rate of 8.6%. giving us combined percentage of 26%, which feels a little more accurate.
Now, that’s just counting links that either don’t resolve at all, or resolve as a 404 – not found error. Not sites which lead to a sale page, or some other dead end.
If you want to find your own slice of the milliondollarhomepage, tools like this are a good place to start. The other part is really down to trudging through each link, and seeing if it’s back on the free market.
But what about these other links. Why are some of these sites up for sale for £7k, or even more. After all, surely the milliondollarhomepage can’t get much traffic these days? Well, that’s another rabbit hole entirely. Let’s delve in.
Back in 2005, this site became one of the most successful early viral marketing campaigns. The hype surrounding it alone led to both individuals and companies wanting a slice of the pie. But this wasn’t just a hype train; With hype comes people, people like to click and clicks can turn into customers. Even with so many advertisings on one page, 25,000 visitors per hour would surely equate to some clicks, and indeed there are still sites on here, claiming that the milliondollarhomepage was the best money they’d ever spent<a href="https://www.nostalgianerd.com/milliondollar/#footnote_8_9130" id="identifier_11_9130" class="footnote-link footnote-identifier-link" title="web.archive.org/web/20060101022628/
In fact Tew put up a few case studies on the site, showing how effective it was at driving traffic. Sponge New Business, who bought a single 100 pixel block on Friday 9th September, reported how traffic to their site increased a hundred-fold from the day it was placed. Allowing them to pitch for over £18k worth of clients in just 4 days. You can confirm this through archive.org. You can see these sites being crawled more during the latter part of 2005, and that’s because the archive crawlbots were considering them of higher importance.
But early birds were likely to fare better than later buyers, and regardless, when the fad had worn off, there was still value in holding space on this wondrous page. Because this was also the early days of search engines and search engine optimisation, or SEO for short….
How SEO Plays its Part
Whenever you visit Google, or Bing (if you’re that way inclined), and type, I dunno, Potatoes. Google doesn’t just serve up the first websites it finds. It doesn’t just give you a random list. These search results have to be carefully picked by a set of algorithms to determine how relevant they are to your search, and how relevant they will be to you.
If you searched for “Potatoes” and Google gave you a website spam filled with the word “Potatoes“, you would likely stop using Google and try a different search engine. But it’s precisely because Google is good at serving up relevant websites, that it succeeded in pretty much wiping out AltaVista, Lycos, AskJeeves and even Yahoo from the search engine game.
Now this isn’t an SEO lesson, but one method Google uses to determine the best search results is to use page, or domain authority. If a website has a lot of links from well respected, or highly visited sites, then it’s more likely to be a useful website…. after all, people don’t often link blog posts to crap articles, or spam posts.
So, other than just for just pure advertising merit, having a link back to your website from the milliondollarhomepage, actually gave your website some authority10. Of course, given there are so many links on the milliondollarhomepage, this authority, or link juice11, is somewhat diluted, but it may have still made the difference between your Irish Art site getting on the first page of search results, or relegated to the black hole that is the second page or further.
It’s somewhat for this reason then, that so many of these links are still in demand, and indeed, up for sale. If you can get a link back to your site from the milliondollarhomepage, then you gain some link authority, and that can make all the difference in the world of search.
At least, it did back in 2014. It’s a bit more complicated these days as Google’s algorithm matures and improves constantly.
But regardless, my second link re-habrecords.co.uk has now been nicely directed to my website, and the associated blog post for this video. In that way, I get to reap a little bit of link juice, and another dead link on milliondollarhomepage.com is resurrected.
But that’s just one reason why links like these are often so for high amounts. Other reasons relate to domain age, to it’s reputation, to other backlinks, and of course, the hope that the domain name is just so damn good, that someone will surely snap it up…. and as a word of warning, don’t rush out and buy any of these high priced sites. Because most of them are trying their luck, to squeeze some cash out of something that has failed. That’s why I searched for links I could buy at cost price, rather than the extortionate values some entities are trying to obtain. These links are just garbage in my opinion. They disrupt the order of the internet, and that’s why I’m a firm fan of people who have managed to maintain their links for the past 16 years.
Some are still in business, which is nice to see. Although their sites have changed dramatically in the past 16 years.
Some sites still look exactly the same as they did 16 years ago. Which is a beautiful thing.
Some sites have been lost and rebought, just like I have done.
And some sites actually change on the fly. I’m particularly drawn to the RenxPixelAds.com block, which was clearly a genius idea, and not just for it’s eye grabbing design. The buyer of this block, actually setup a business which rented these buttons out to whoever wanted them. The beauty here is that the links can be redirected to anywhere, on the fly, and so kept in service for years to come, generating revenue for the original buyer. Smart.
Copycats and Follow-ups
The milliondollarhomepage was a huge success… and Alex Tew knew the intrinsic value in only having one site. That’s why he had already decided to auction the last pixels off, rather than creating the milliondollarhomepage2.
However, that’s not to say he didn’t a slightly different spin on it. In 2016, he created Pixelotto.com12. The spin being that every time you click on an advertisier, you get a ticket for a lottery, which at the end of the site’s run, could bag you $1,000,000 yourself. To achieve this, he simply sold every pixel for $2, instead of 1. As you might imagine though, this was less successful than the first, and didn’t generate enough sales to actually give away the full cash prize. However, K. Moguche from Kenya, did scoop $153,000, telling us that Alex sold, well 153,000 pixels this time around.
Also less successful, were the hundreds of copycats who popped up, trying to do the same thing… and this was a trend that continued into the next decade.
and then in 2015, we had the Ten Thousand Dollar homepage, by a dude who wanted $10k to buy an Apple Watch. That site actually got more attention than you’d expect, but still, it’s insignificant compared to the original.
I should note that Alex Tew gave a proportion of his original earnings to the Prince’s Trust UK Charity… he then dropped out of the business degree, the site was setup to fund, after one term after ironically, having to give so much time up to manage the milliondollarhomepage, and instead went on to pursue other entrepreneurial projects. One of those was to setup the website and app Calm, which he is currently the CEO of.
But, frankly, I’m just glad that Alex kept this thing up 16 years down the line. Although he promised at least 5 years, if you look at the FAQ originally on the site, Alex wrote<a href="https://www.nostalgianerd.com/milliondollar/#footnote_0_9130" id="identifier_16_9130" class="footnote-link footnote-identifier-link" title="Original FAQ, 2006: web.archive.org/web/20060101024407/
“The idea is to create something of an internet time capsule: a homepage that is unique and permanent. Everything on the internet keeps changing so fast, it will be nice to have something that stays solid and permanent for many years. You can be a part of that!”
Alex Tew, 2005
In some ways then, it’s similar to archive.org. It might be preserving the entire internet, but it’s preserving itself, and that’s something Tim Berners-Lee was very fond of himself, writing this article on w3.org about URI etiquette and how to stop the internet becoming a graveyard.
So, I feel like we’ve, at least done something to repair, just a small part of it’s heritage. Stables Gallery may now look a tad more unstable, than it did in 2005, but it was a dead link, that’s now ALIVE again, and if anyone happens to visit and decide they want some Irish Art, well, then they’ll at least have something to look at.
Until next time, I’ve been Nostalgia Nerd. Toodleoo.
- Original FAQ, 2006: web.archive.org/web/20060101024407/ id=”footnote_1_9130″ class=”footnote”>Washington Post, 2015: www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2015/02/18/million-dollar-homepage-the-2005-internet-snapshot-thats-stuck-in-time/
- Press Release,2005: www.prweb.com/releases/2005/09/prweb280991.htm
- Original Blog, 2005: web.archive.org/web/20060101025010/ id=”footnote_4_9130″ class=”footnote”>Alexa.org, 2005: web.archive.org/web/20050926155110/ id=”footnote_5_9130″ class=”footnote”>archive.org image, 2015: web.archive.org/web/20050915012241/ id=”footnote_6_9130″ class=”footnote”>Archive.org capture, 2006: web.archive.org/web/20060406203714/ id=”footnote_7_9130″ class=”footnote”>en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Place_(Reddit)
- web.archive.org/web/20060101022628/ id=”footnote_9_9130″ class=”footnote”>www.contentkingapp.com/academy/authority/
- TechCrunch, 2006: techcrunch.com/2006/12/06/pixelotto-you-have-to-be-in-it-to-win-it/
- Newswire, 2013: www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/man-attempts-to-top-million-dollar-publicity-stunt-227874031.html
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