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Best of the Web: A Look Back

Functionally, websites from 10 years ago weren’t that different from websites today -- but visually, they're worlds apart.

People love looking back and remembering the good ol’ days, even though the idea that things were once better than they are now is mostly an illusion. The reason the past looks so attractive is that people choose to forget the bad parts, and the people doing the remembering are usually recalling a time when they were younger, trimmer and more attractive. The past wasn’t really better -- and that is especially true when it comes to government websites.

Though clear progress in Web design has been made in the past decade, the websites featured in this timeline are not merely representative of the times from which they came -- they are the best of the best each year. For each well-executed website, there were 40 abominations. Still, these examples of excellence portray an evolution in technology and approach throughout government.

The year 2004 doesn’t seem that long ago, until put in a technological context: Facebook was founded in 2004, and MySpace launched the year prior. LCD Monitors were popular, but large CRT monitors could still be found in government offices everywhere. By year’s end, Nokia had sold 135 million of its model 2600 cell phones. Google’s top three Web searches were Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Christina Aguilera (by contrast, the top three Google searches in 2013 were Nelson Mandela, Paul Walker and iPhone 5s).

Functionally, websites from 10 years ago weren’t that different from websites today. They didn’t have a social media component, there was not yet a need for mobile access, and back-end integration was far more crude than what’s available today. But the core functionality of what exists today was available then.

That year, Maine’s first place website, for instance, allowed users to renew their driver’s licenses and ID cards, buy hunting and fishing licenses, renew vehicle registration, pay parking tickets, and download popular forms. That feature list sounds a lot like what people talk about in 2014. The biggest difference between now and then is user interface. Websites from 2004 were, well ... ugly. Colors that weren’t blue and white apparently had not yet been invented, and everything was laid out in tables, ostensibly because no one knew better.

And the last few years have brought a continuation of the trends seen born over the past decade. Mobile support, social media integration and simply providing more services is the core mission of most government Web administrators. Color use may turn out to be cyclical however, as Washington D.C., a 2014 winner, gets its point across in a simple white and blue. 

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.