March 25, 2012 at 12:19 PM ET
The 10 most-visited websites in America may share a few characteristics, but interestingly enough, none are in the same business, with the exception of two portals. Each has a different business model as well. An analysis of these largest sites shows that no single model has helped one type of Internet property or another to dominate the web in terms of traffic. The collection of media that is the Internet shows how essential web diversity has become to Americans’ lives.
This list of the most visited sites includes the world’s largest search engine, web portal, video site, software company, social network, encyclopedia, and e-commerce site. One of the sites on this list, Wikipedia, is a nonprofit that runs on a budget of a few million dollars a year. Another, Google, has revenue that will be well above $50 billion. Revenue is not essential to size online, but size can be essential to revenue.
Internet giants have been in particular focus recently, mostly for three reasons. The first is that large sites collect millions and millions of pieces of information about their visitors. Governments, both inside the U.S. and, especially, in Europe have become concerned with how this information is gathered, to whom it is given, what is done with it, and for what financial consideration. Naturally, sites with the largest number of visitors are at the center of this because their inventories of user data are so vast.
Another reason large Internet properties are of interest lately is the upcoming initial public offering of Facebook. The online social networking site has close to one billion members, many of whom spend hundreds of hours each month on the site. The company’s value is set at about $100 billion ahead of the public offering, which is extraordinary because Facebook’s revenue was less than $4 billion in 2011. There is a great disparity among the value of the most visited websites, causing a debate about why users of an e-commerce site are worth any more or less than users of a search engine or a social network.
Finally, sites with tens of millions of visitors are in focus also because of the mass movement of Internet users from PC to smartphones. Smartphones have browsers that operate nearly identically to those on PCs. Strong processors and high-speed wireless connections allow smartphone users to visit the same sites and use them in the same way as they do on computers. The owners of all sites are in a frenzy to see if they can hold onto their user base in the smartphone environment. What happens to the very largest sites will at least be instructional.
With each year, the Internet becomes increasingly crowded with websites of various sizes, features and functions. The most-visited sites have been among the largest ones for several years. That tells a great deal about the real interests of Americans, probably as much as any other set of markers.
24/7 Wall St. used data from Quantcast to rank the sites. The rank is based on the number of people in the United States who visit each site in a month. The data are updated daily. Revenue figures are based on SEC filings for the public companies and for those in the process of going public. For others, the information is based on data from third party analysts. Revenue data or estimates are for full year 2011.
Microsoft’s (NASDAQ: MSFT) website traffic does not include visits to content sites it controls such as the MSN portal, MSNBC news site or the Bing search engine. The visitors counted are for the online corporate destination of the world’s largest software company. Microsoft’s site primary purposes are to sell, download and support its most widely used software products -- Windows and its business suite of tools. Microsoft.com is also the destination for public company information, including financial data and the company’s significant patent and intellectual property legal activity.
(Msnbc.com is a joint-venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
WordPress has two large online destination sites. One is WordPress.org, a place where millions of bloggers download basic open source software they can use to create and maintain their own websites. The WordPress.org traffic is not included in WordPress.com’s traffic figure. WordPress.com is the destination for a broad spectrum of users -- from small bloggers to large companies -- that use the site to post information and design their blogs. WordPress.com is operated by Automattic, which sells custom design, custom domains and upgrades to the basic WordPress open source software. While the WordPress for-profit business has products used by a large number of different media and large companies, Automattic does not charge high enough fees to make the “upgrade” business a large one.
Wikipedia is operated by the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation. The work of the foundation is to support a collection of open source encyclopedias. This already includes dozens of encyclopedias written in the world’s most common languages. The number of articles created for the sites is huge. The English version alone has 3.9 million articles. The German language edition has 1.4 million articles. The tiny budget of the foundation is being used to drive global traffic to the level of one billion readers and the number of articles to 50 million. All of the capital for these projects is donated to the nonprofit foundation. Wikipedia is most famous for making information on a universe of subjects available for free to anyone with access to the Internet. But with such a large amount of content and small staff to monitor its quality, Wikipedia is also infamous for being inconsistent with mixed quality in different subjects.
MSN.com is one of the three largest Internet content portals, along with Yahoo! and Aol (NYSE: AOL). Its business is supported by display advertising and search revenue. The portal model is based on providing millions of visitors access to a large range of content. This includes a number of areas that used to be exclusively the role of national magazines, newspapers, radio and television. News posted by the portals is among their most visited content, and so is content about sports, entertainment and self-help. The portals have expanded into areas that can get some local advertising revenue, particularly automobiles and real estate. Premium news and entertainment content have recently become a large part of the offerings of these sites as well.
Twitter is described alternatively as a “microblog” and as a “social network.” Users, which by many estimates exceed 300 million, can post messages of up to 140 characters at a time. This is microblogging to the extent that the “tweets” are available for large numbers of people to read. It is a social network to the extent that it allows users to exchange details about their lives, plans and interests. The problem Twitter faces is that it has not been able to turn what some industry experts believe is 200 million tweets a day into a viable business. Advertisers have shown a reluctance to put marketing messages into these tweets because they are so short and because Twitter users have often rejected using a service that has become partially commercialized. Some of the Twitter users with the largest followings, mostly celebrities connected to millions of fans, use these followings as a way to promote causes, products or even their own careers. So far, this has proved a more successful way to exploit the service than traditional advertising.
Yahoo! (NASDAQ: YHOO) has been at the center of a number of controversies over the past several years. It rejected a rich bid by Microsoft in 2008, had three CEOs in four years, and executed a large series of layoffs. Recently, a substantial portion of its board of directors resigned. Yet, the remarkable size of the website’s traffic has not changed, and the parent company continues to be profitable, despite a lack of revenue growth. Some of the sites on this list would welcome Yahoo!’s profits. The Internet portal makes money from a combination of display and search advertising. Yahoo! runs far behind Google in terms of search engine traffic, and it holds only 14 percent of the U.S. market for search activity, according to Comscore. But it still manages to capitalize on that small share.
Amazon.com (NASDAQ: AMZN) is the primary website for the world’s largest e-commerce company. It is an online superstore with an immensely diverse virtual inventory. It sells nearly anything brick-and-mortar retailers such as Walmart (NYSE: WMT), Best Buy (NYSE: BBY), Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS), Home Depot (NYSE: HD) and Kroger (NYSE: KR) sell. And that is to list just a few. Amazon has used the traffic and customer base it has established over the years to enter a number of new, lucrative and even revolutionary businesses. This includes electronic books, which barely existed five years ago. It includes the e-reader business, which Amazon pioneered with the 2007 introduction of the Kindle. And it includes the online video-on-demand business. Amazon has recently been transformed from a company that competes with other retailers to one that also competes with the likes of Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX) in the content delivery business and with Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) in the consumer electronics sector.
Facebook, the world’s largest social network with nearly one billion members, plans to raise enough money through an IPO this year to value the company at nearly $100 billion. The site is not even 10 years old. The meteoric rise of the business is largely due to how it altered people’s use the Internet. Before Facebook, Internet use was mostly passive. Visitors went to a portal to get information, to a search engine to get research results, and to video sites to watch content. Facebook helped the Internet evolve into a two-way interpersonal medium on which people voluntarily offer a great deal of their personal information to interact with friends, family and business associates. In the process, Facebook has been at the core of one of the most revolutionary changes in human interaction. Despite this, Facebook has not been able to find a way to make a great deal of money from its huge membership, particularly when compared to Google and Amazon.
YouTube is the largest video site in the world. To give an idea of its dominance of the U.S. market, 18.6 billion videos were viewed at this division of Google in January against the a total of 40 billion nationwide for all websites. The average number of minutes per viewer for Google’s video content, almost all of it on YouTube, was 448 minutes in January, compared to 57 minutes on Yahoo! and 22 minutes on Facebook. YouTube’s sales are only 5 percent of Google’s total revenue, an extremely small amount given its size. To a great extent, this is because most of the content posted at the site continues to be low-quality, user-created videos, and these videos do not create an environment attractive to major marketers. YouTube has found other ways to pursue revenue. Premium content owners have started to use YouTube to build audiences, and they often pay YouTube for traffic. YouTube also has set up a paid video rental business and joint ventures with several studios. Despite all of this, its revenue was only $1.6 billion in 2011, as based on several estimates. YouTube is the only site on this list that could not have existed before the advent of the broadband technology that allows the transfer of large amounts of data online.
Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) is the largest search engine in the U.S. Its dominance goes beyond that. It is also the largest search engine by market share throughout most of Europe. The only large markets where it has stiff competition happen to be emerging markets with huge populations such as China, India and Russia. Google has two substantial challenges now that will determine whether its business can continue to expand at the extraordinary rate of the past decade. First, there is a great deal of competition to become the primary search engine on new tablet PCs like the Apple iPad and smartphones like the iPhone. As more Americans turn to these portable devices to use the Internet, it is not certain that Google will be able to hold the dominant position it currently has against Microsoft and Yahoo! The second challenge Google faces is expanding its other offerings beyond search. It is unclear whether it can use its Google.com site as a means to help it successfully market these products, including applications that compete with Microsoft’s Windows products or e-commerce products like Google Wallet. Google has yet to demonstrate that it is more than a single legged company -- at least so far as sales are concerned.