I was a Ringmaster of several webrings on the old HTML code Webring.org. I also had several rings on Ringsurf.com. Eventually, whilst turning my Scifimatter directory into a portal, I added webring hosting which made me a mini-webring host for a few years. Keep in mind this was a time when it was more common to surf the web than use a primitive search engine. (BTW, Ringsurf.com is still around, but I have no idea how they operate today.)
The neat thing about webrings was they were like micro web directories. They were like taking a subject subcategory of a web directory and linking the sites all together. The topic possibilities were endless: Dwarves in Tolkien, Vulcans in Star Trek, One Handed Knitters that only use Alpaca Yarn. You could slice those topics very thinly and create a webring.
Surfing a webring was a bit like getting on a two lane highway, you didn’t know what kind of site or page you would encounter next, all you knew is each site had something to do with the same topic and it was up to the Ringmaster to act as editor and keep crummy sites out and insure the ring codes were in place and working to insure the navigational integrity of the Ring.
I can tell you one thing: being a Ringmaster, in the old days, was a lot of work. Just try explaining, by email, how to edit HTML to a brand new webmaster that knows nothing about HTML. Maintaining the navigational integrity of the ring often meant surfing the ring yourself, regularly which burns up time. Things should be more automated today.
Webrings were an easy way to gain instant traffic to your website. And rings did provide steady traffic in their prime. Not commercial levels of traffic, but most websites were not commercial they were informational so any traffic was good. If we use the road analogy, joining a webring was like putting your website on a highway. If you joined more than one ring it was a bit like locating at a crossroads, a crossroads that you helped create.
Webrings brought instant traffic. Don’t underestimate the value of this. With modern search engines, you have to somehow gain links back to your site from other websites before you start ranking high in searches. In the early days of Google it took at least a month to get listed let alone rank. Even today that can take some time. In the meantime discovery is difficult.
Webrings brought quality traffic; people surfing a webring of sites about Mr. Spock of Star Trek are sort of pre-qualified to want to stay and read your Spock page(s). If you had good content the audience was appreciative.
The Odds are with the House
The person who gained the most traffic and exposure was generally the Ringmaster, the person running the ring. Joining a webring was good, but creating and running one was better. It was common to build in a link to the Ring homepage into the HTML code all ring members must display. The Ring Homepage contained the rules, qualifications to join, help and FAQ. If you were smart the Ring Homepage was a web page of your larger site and a certain amount of visitors might thus explore your site more widely. Plus of course your site was also part of the webring, giving you additional chances for somebody to hit your site.
SEO and Webrings
Webrings were by design, intended to bring traffic to their members. Webrings were never intended to manipulate search engines, link popularity or Google’s highly touted PageRank.
However, at some point many search engines started using link popularity in their algorithms. Simple link popularity was: the more outside pages that link to your page the more important your page was with that search engine. So the webring HTML codes often provided a lot of links back to sites. Particularly, the link to that webring homepage described above. It shows the unintended consequences of using simple link popularity in your algorithms.
Google’s PageRank was a much more sophisticated form of link popularity and not as easy to manipulate. But those webring HTML codes must have had some effect on PageRank, and Google is hostile to any unnatural linking. I don’t think Google ever did anything about ring codes, but fanciful theories and rumors got passed around by the SEO community worried that ring codes might effect their Google ranking in a negative way. This helped reduce the popularity of webrings.
I won’t get much into the decline of webrings because there are so many reasons. The handwriting was on the wall when search engines, particularly Google, could find the exact page (not the site) you want with the minimum amount of clicks. Boom. The Web had evolved from being a hobby, a street fair, to being a place of commerce and purveyor of serious information – laden with advertising.
Now comes the Indieweb movement. Which considers Google to be, just another commercial information silo. Something to be wary of depending upon too much. I don’t think Indieweb bloggers and developers care about traffic from Google. They are not hostile, but they just don’t seem to care and are making their own paths of discovery in the Web. In this context, webrings might have some new value. Webrings work best to collect pages of obscure topics. Webrings work well on content sites that are not commercial. Webrings can work well on blogs.
I applaud the Indiaweb’s willingness to try new old ways to navigate the Web. But I have to say, nothing in my wildest imaginings, would have led me to think of bringing back webrings. This ought to be interesting.