The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Million Dollar Homepage, the 2005 Internet snapshot that’s stuck in time

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There’s a charm to spotting a faded advertisement painted high on a brick wall in a city. It’s a time capsule of enticement that — particularly when it’s advertising some defunct product — inspires you to stop in your tracks and think about the link between that moment and your own.

The Internet has its own version of that — with a couple of key differences. An ad for the sake of advertising, it made its creator a million dollars in a few short months. And unlike a faded ad for Stewart’s Spot Remover, it’s as bold and garish as it was the day it launched.

It is the Million Dollar Homepage.

“So I had this little idea the other day,” Alex Tew, a British guy in his early 20s wrote in 2005 — 10 years ago this August. “I was trying to think of interesting ways to make some cash before going to Uni (which is in about a month’s time) and somehow this crazy thought entered my head: I’ll try and make a million dollars, by selling 1,000,000 pixels, for $1 each.” Three days later, he sold his first block of pixels: a 20-by-20 square to a “friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend,” earning himself $400. That’s $400, spent for this:

(That may not be the actual first ad. Tew couldn’t remember what ad was first when we spoke by phone last week; his blog only identifies it as being for a music Web site.)

If that seems like a bad deal, consider it in the context of the page. Go try and find it. We’ll meet you back here in 20 minutes.*

[Related: From Lycos to Ask Jeeves to Facebook: Tracking the 20 most popular Web sites every year since 1996]

But as far as gimmicks go, Tew was onto something. A few items in the media and a popular post on the old started bringing in purchases by the thousands. Three weeks after the site went live, Tew had sold 46,500 pixels — enough to pay for college.

How much did he end up getting in total? “Just over a million dollars,” he said when we spoke. “The last thousand pixels were on eBay. I think they went for $38,000.” That wasn’t all profit; he spent some money on taxes and on public relations. But who’s to complain? His only costs now are to re-register the domain name. Since nearly the beginning, hosting has been paid for by the company that operates the site’s servers, Sitelutions.

Most of the blocks that were purchased were in the $100/100-pixel range, if you consider the ad blocks that appear on the page itself.

The biggest single block, 8,600 pixels, is for Pixellance, the purple bar advertising “FREE freelance, jobs, auctions and map ads” at the center-bottom of the grid. Each link has a descriptor when you mouse over it, and if you generate a word cloud from those descriptors (we’re talking about 2005 here, after all), the results are about what you might expect.

The aesthetics are very early-web as well. There was clearly an escalation of attention-grabbing techniques that ended up in a state of mutually-assured-distraction. “The end result is pretty colorful,” Tew said, in a wonderful example of British understatement.

[8 throwback sites you thought died in 2005 (…but are actually still around)]

Pixellance and the “Z” music music site that we noted above are good examples of another unifying aspect of the URLs on the page: They no longer work. Last year, Quartz did an assessment of the 3,000-plus URLs included in the grid and found that more than a fifth of them were dead. (That includes a number of pixels that were never connected to any link, which Tew says is because he never received the art or link from the purchasers.)

Taking a slice of ads across the middle of the grid makes that readily obvious.

(Included in that slice is the ad that Tew identifies as his favorite, the “Even monkeys fall from trees” one.)

If any business owners out there wanted to update with new URLs or details — which, Tew said, some do — they’re out of luck. “I’ve actually lost the log-in details,” he said. “I tried figuring it all out, but it’s not really possible.”

Which is too bad, because it still gets traffic. Tew shared traffic metrics (which he gets through Google Analytics), and in January the page got 124,000 unique visitors. That’s not big by the standards of the media industry, but it’s more than you might expect a 10-year-old page of garish ads to drive. The high point over the past year was when it got some attention on; the site saw nearly half a million visitors in one day last October.

Curious if the advertisers still got attention, we reached out to a number of the (still living) companies that bought ads. We only heard back from one, Solo Ltd. “We still get upwards of 1,000 visits per month from the Million Dollar Homepage,” managing director Kevin Ross said in an e-mail. “In the early days this could be 10,000, and if there had been some coverage somewhere we’d get a huge spike, sometimes 50K plus.” In all, Ross considers it a good investment. “Given that it cost about £3K for the pixels it was probably one of the best/most effective SEO tools we used.” (Solo has a few ads on the page, including the large target just a bit left and lower of the center of the grid.)

Solo’s investment will keep bearing fruit. “I think it would be fun to leave it online as a relic,” Tew said when we spoke. “It’s almost like a time capsule. The ads and the idea represent a time gone by. It’s a relic. A piece of art maybe.”

“Art” is overselling it. But maybe our kids, wandering the Web, will come across it and feel differently. What was this “Golden Palace Casino,” they’ll wonder, shaking their heads in amazement at the weird, wonderful past, at its customs and gimmicks that were just completely adorable.

* See the big ad for Tabmarks in the middle right of the page? The “Z” ad is about six rows beneath its left edge.