By Gerry Shih
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - For futurists in Silicon Valley, the question is fundamental, almost philosophical: In the coming years, will the humble website still be the dominant way we interact with the Internet?
For David Rusenko, the 27-year-old founder and chief executive of global website builder Weebly, the answer is: Of course!
On Thursday, Weebly unveiled a refresh of its publishing suite, which allows people to simply drag and drop page elements like images and headlines onto a canvas to build a site. Using the new form, mobile versions of websites - a critical concern in a modern economy awash with smartphones - can be published simultaneously with desktop versions.
The San Francisco startup's update comes at a time of flux for the Internet industry, which has been grappling with the ramifications of users who are spending less time on the Web and more time within closed ecosystems like Facebook Inc's social network or the cornucopia of smartphone apps — an economy valued at $25 billion in 2013, according to research firm ABI.
Yet Rusenko is not willing to accept any talk of the open Web's demise. He argues that Web pages, more than ever, carry more weight and meaning in an age of fleeting tweets and malleable Facebook identities.
"The picture is becoming clearer," Rusenko said. "Facebook has focused on the conversation, but not really on absorbing the Web into its walled garden."
For a lot of people, "their digital identity is their site," he added. "It's where they showcase their ideas and really put themselves out there."
Along with his Thursday relaunch, Rusenko unfurled a slate of new growth statistics and research data showing that his company, which has enjoyed healthy growth and now boasts a network of 15 million sites that have been visited by 100 million people.
Weebly's own extensive research showed that a majority of people would not trust a business that had no website, yet 58 percent of businesses do not have a Web presence, Rusenko said.
In 2006, Rusenko, a fresh-faced graduate of Penn State University, burst onto the Silicon Valley scene and garnered plaudits in national magazines with Weebly, which quickly rose in stature as the natural heir to GeoCities, the service that fueled a webpage-creating craze in the 1990s.
After the initial acclaim, Weebly has kept a lower profile while rivals like Wordpress, the professional-grade blogging platform, and Tumblr, the minimalist social blogging network, have captured more media attention, but not the consumer Web publishing market.
With its refresh, Weebly is now more oriented toward what Rusenko called everyday entrepreneurs looking to "start something": amateur food bloggers, teachers, or crafts enthusiasts who want to share their passion before potentially launching a small business.
Weebly has been in talks with a payment startup to provide an e-commerce platform for people wanting to sell goods, said Rusenko.
The company is also introducing planning tools that offer ideas and inspiration to help newcomers "identify their goals" and lay out their pages, Rusenko said.
The company, which has 70 employees, has been profitable since 2009, but accepted an undisclosed amount in funding from Sequoia Capital in 2011 to continue growth.
"At the end of the day these are doers, these are makers, and we want to help bring that dream to life," Rusenko said.
(Reporting By Gerry Shih; editing by Gunna Dickson)