What search engine do you use on the Internet? It’s a hot issue and companies like Google and Microsoft have a vested interest in the way that you answer that question. Search Engines have lead companies like Google to great prosperity and have changed the way that we spend our time on the Internet. That was not always the case and like everything with the Internet the search engine has come a long way since it was introduced.

We do almost take these for granted, that there is something that exists that we can find anything in a few seconds. Forgot who played that part in that movie you were watching last night? Don’t worry Google can find it for you. Need to know the address of your favorite restaurant? Bing can get it. In a heated barroom argument and need to know who the Prime Minister of Cambodia is? You can find out.

The beginnings

There was a time when this was not true and it was not so long ago. The world’s first true search engine was built in 1990 by a McGill University student named Alan Emtage in an attempt to archive public domain information. The user would enter a query and a script would match it to the files and retrieve the appropriate file. Emtage named it Archie. Two similar programs emerged the following year aptly named Veronica and Jughead (guess Betty didn’t make the cut). At Archie’s height it could call on 2.6 million files and 150 gigabytes of information.

Archie had one small problem and that was that you had to know the exact filename to be able to retrieve it as only the filename was indexed. That problem was solved in 1992 at the University of Minnesota with Gopher which could index information from plain text files. By then Archie was having trouble with handling the number of users as the World Wide Web was beginning to become available to the general public.

A necessity when the Internet goes public

Mosaic, which was the world’s first and most popular web browser at the time, utilized Gopher for its web search capabilities. The text-based Gopher did not fit in with the graphical Mosaic but there was little else to use at the time. That was until future Google engineer Matthew Gray developed Wandex, the first modern search engine. It indexed the content of webpage titles and could crawl the Internet to find the most appropriate results. In 1994 this was expanded upon with another search engine developed by University of Washington student and future Amazon engineer Brian Pinkerton called WebCrawler which could also index the full text of a website.

The mid-1990s

The early 1990s saw a boom in search engines. Excite was a Stanford University product developed in 1993 and released to the public in 1995 that became a multibillion dollar company and eventually purchased WebCrawler. Yahoo entered the fray in 1994 with a directory of sites catalogued by humans. They charged a fee to be included in the directory which helped to limit the number of potential results but eventually moved to a crawler based system in 2002 and is still operational today. That same year Lycos (derived from the Latin term for spider) threw its hat into the ring and by 1996 it was a giant among other search engines. In 1999 it was the most visited Internet search engine making it highly profitable but it was a victim of the .com crash in 2002 which forced the company to switch from being a search engine to more of an entertainment company.

1994 was a big year with Infoseek coming online. Their popularity was linked to an agreement they had with browser giant Netscape to be the default search engine with their browser and it was popular with over 7 million visitors per month. Infoseek was bought up by Disney in 1998 and merged with another company to become Go.com. In 2001 the staff was laid off but the name is still in use in Japan and Australia though Google powers the search results.

AltaVista was born in 1995 as an attempt to speed up website indexing with a faster crawler. It was the first searchable full-text database on the web and over 300,000 visitors used it on its first day. Yahoo even abandoned its own search engine in favor of AltaVista’s for a time. The company was eventually bought out by Compaq who wanted to compete with Yahoo but its popularity only began to decline because of Google. One remnant of AltaVista was its simple portal and it also pioneered multimedia searches as well in 2002 as well as incorporating a translator. It was eventually brought up by another company before being sold to Yahoo where the only remnant that remains is the translator.

Another search engine of the time was DogPile. The search engine featured a small dog named Arfie, which could be updated to reflect a special occasion or a holiday. The site was popular and is still active today, even being one of the top search engines in the mid-2000s. It allowed users to not only search the web but to search the Yellow and White Pages, offered spelling suggestions, could block inappropriate results and kept track of recent searches. It was also available as a toolbar with both Internet Explorer and Firefox.

The late 1990s proved to be a groundbreaking time. Ask Jeeves was released, you may know it today as Ask.com, but the big name was Google. Born in 1998 using a search engine called BackRub it based its indexing off of the number of links going to a page. This led to the development of analytical tools to rank the pages and with that a giant was born. By 2000 it was becoming one of the dominant search engines in the world (you knew that of course!) and has only grown since to the point where between 60% and 70% of all web searches are done through its portal.

Google vs. Microsoft

Google’s main competition at the time was MSN. Microsoft was already a computer giant and with their own Internet Explorer web browser having their own search engine just made too much sense. MSN was launched in 1998 and initially used another search engine called Inktomi and even briefly AltaVista before developing its own search engine in 2004. MSN was renamed Windows Live in 2006 and was replaced by Bing in 2009. Bing today powers many of the above website search engines helping to make it the second most popular search engine in the world.

Every one of these sites (and many others that are not mentioned here) used a different algorithm to display results. It certainly made Search Engine Optimization much harder so do be thankful that you don’t have to keep track of where your business ranks in all of these different search engines or having to worry about which search engine will be the top dog next month or year. At least that has become easier.

Google has built an empire and is the dominant search engine on the Internet. Will it stay that way? AltaVista certainly thought it would remain on top so we will most certainly see. Search engines have come a long way since Archie and as technology improves they will improve with it. What has become of them in the past quarter century has been nothing short of amazing and what they will look like in another quarter century can boggle the mind.

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