The Old Web

tl;dr- I got tired of the commercial web, so I went looking for the Old Web. I found it through directories, blogrolls, webrings, and some weird search engines no one has heard of.

Last updated Oct 1, 2023, 1:53:21 PM

Updates:'s directory seems to be MIA. Maya's site still works, but her subscriptions don't work for me anymore.

My First Love on the Web

The first web site I ever loved was called Illucia: The Town of Final Fantasy. It was created in 1995 by someone named Tatsushi Nakao, who I assume either worked for or attended the University of Colorado. (I believe this to be the case because of Illucia's URL:

You'll have to imagine what it was like because the site is gone, and I can't find a single image of it. (I've found a couple of reddit posts mentioning it, and a single article on Andore Jr. that mentions it.) The first thing you'd see when visiting Illucia is a pixelated (in the style of the Final Fantasy games of the era) rendering of the town. This image was an image map – a single image hooked up to a CGI script that, given a set of coordinates clicked by the user, would send them to the correct page. (At least, that's how I believe it worked as a web developer now who was not a web developer in 1995 at 12 years old.)

Each building in Illucia had content that made thematic sense. I wish I could reinforce that with some examples, but I don't remember any. I'm pretty sure there was an inn and maybe a cafe, but the remaining buildings and what each of them contained is lost to me. You'd "wander" the town by clicking the buildings on the image map and gobble up all the information you could find about Square's storied RPG series.

Thinking back on Illucia, and the rest of the 90s web, it stands out against today's web because of what it wasn't. Illucia had nothing to sell me and none of the dark patterns that come along with that: no timed email subscription modals, no calls to action, and no free courses that would then upsell me to a paid course on how to fully level all my characters by looping around the Lethe River over and over with a rapid fire controller and a book holding down the button. Many of these marketing techniques hadn't been invented, but that's because there was very little marketing or selling happening on the web at all. Illucia never showed me a GDPR tracking consent popover. Sure, there was no GDPR, but that's partly because there weren't a lot of sites tracking their users to necessitate protective legislation.

What's Happening Now

These differences have been cast in starker contrast as Google search results have gotten increasingly bad in the years since they won us over as the first search engine that could consistently deliver relevant results. That Washington Post article points out a few issues in the results, but there's a big one they miss: organic results are being gamed. SEOs have tuned their techniques, and the rankings that were once a decent reflection of who had the best information for the query are now a reflection of who is best able to manipulate Google's ranking algorithm.

SEO is kinda expensive. It's constantly evolving, so doing it well requires a significant time commitment. For that reason, organizations that undertake SEO efforts are usually hiring consultants who focus on this one area to come in and apply what they know to their own properties. Because of the expense, most of the fully SEOed sites devoted resources to it because they have something to sell. That means almost all of the top results are there because they make money. Traffic equals dollars to them which allows them to either pay Google directly for placement or to pay SEO consultants to improve their organic (non-paid) search placement.

I'm able to say all this because… I'm part of the problem. I market a book and a course that I sell through my web site, where I would also very much like people to sign up for my email list. In addition to being a web developer, I'm certified in SEO, and I want the sites I work on to rank highly in the search results so that I (or whoever I'm doing work for) can make more money. (To be clear, I don't make a living from the products I sell online, although I would very much like to.)

I've taken courses to learn how to better market myself through the web… and I've felt icky about some of the techniques they've asked me to employ. In many cases, I've gone ahead with them only to remove them later. (To be clear, I'm always honest about my products. The things I've engaged in that I didn't care for: a single modal popup and false scarcity around my course. Not the worst things at the end of the day but still don't feel quite right.) All this to say, your capacity to hate something goes up as you yourself get closer to it. I've been very close to internet marketing… and I don't think I like what's happening in that space very much.

Defining the Old Web

Occasionally, I find a web site that seems like it's been ripped out of that era of the non-commercial web (which goes by many names but which I will refer to as the "Old Web"). When I started having this crisis around the state of the modern web, it got me thinking: are there more sites out there like the Old Web? So, I started looking. Before I take you on that journey, let me articulate my definition of the Old Web.

To me, the Old Web is not about a particular aesthetic. The 90s and 2000s web was kitschy – often crossing the line into garish. That’s fine, and there’s definitely a feeling of nostalgia when I see a site that tries to ape that aesthetic. I find some sites in that style almost unreadable, and I’m too old to suffer through reading red text on a blue sparkling background, no matter how good their content is.

If I’m picking an aesthetic, it would be something that evokes the freewheeling designs of that era while avoiding its pitfalls. I think about how, when old video games get remade, they look the way the originals look in your memory, but when you actually compare them, they look way better. I’d like to see web sites that look the way I remember the Old Web looking rather than sites that look the way they actually looked.

What I’m more interested is the ethos of the old web. I want to find sites that exist, not to make money, but because a human being was compelled to create them. They had so much passion for the subject inside that they were about to burst. The release valve for that pressure is building a web site and sharing that passion with other people.

Searching for the Old Web

Paradoxically, I started my search for the old web at the very search engines I just finished dumping on. I came up mostly empty and was starting to get frustrated until I had an epiphany: The Old Web is invisible to search engines.

Search engine visibility is contingent on search engine optimization – a series of techniques used to tell search engines about the content of a page they're indexing. The Old Web doesn't care about this. It can't afford to because it has nothing to sell you. As a result, the Old Web is buried deep within search results, where most searchers will never see.

There was a time when search engines didn't return consistently relevant results. Somehow, we were all still able to find cool stuff anyway. I tried to remember how, and surprisingly, I started remembering how it used to work. The first thing that came to mind: Yahoo.

Nowadays, Yahoo is a boring search engine mostly like any other, but it started life as a directory – a site that sorted other web sites into various categories. You'd drill down from the top-level categories until you got to the specific category you were interested in. Then, you'd browse a list of human-curated links on that topic.

Once you found a page you liked, you'd see if it was a member of a webring or if it had a "Links" section (after the advent of the blog, a "blogroll") – all mechanisms of exposing other sites visitors might be interested in and of sharing traffic with other site owners. Discovery used to leverage the "web" facet of the World Wide Web – the interconnectedness between sites. Modern web sites are much more siloed because sending you to another site means potentially losing any revenue you might generate. In the Old Web, there was no revenue to lose!

I shared all of this on Mastodon, and it seemed to strike a chord with people. I was feeling pretty good about myself, thinking I was some kind of "thought leader." (Yes, even as I'm in the process of pushing back against the modern web, I'm still subject to the gravitational pull of its twisted incentives. 😉)

Being able to recall the modes of discovery on the old web allowed me to break through and learn that, not only is the Old Web still there, but it's experiencing something of a resurgence!

Then, I found Their internet manifesto and article on how to surf the web (the old way) articulated pretty much everything I had learned so far and more eloquently expressed every "novel" idea I had on the subject. If this is interesting to you, their web site is required reading. Finding sadgrl was a watershed in my own research. Many of the links I've collected came either directly or indirectly from them.

Now, I'd like to share what I've found with you, so that you too can experience the glory of the Old Web, but new again.

Onramps to the Old Web

I loosely applied a few criteria to decide which links made this list.

I occasionally stray from these criteria when I feel it makes sense.

A link’s inclusion here should not be taken as an endorsement of every idea on that page or every other page it links to. That said, if you find anything here that’s particularly disgusting (I didn’t go through everything here with a fine-toothed comb.), please let me know. If I agree, I’ll get rid of it.

If you have something I missed, please send me a suggestion. Links are nofollow, so no SEO juice is generated here.


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