By Morf Morford, Tacoma Daily Index
It might be difficult to believe, but there was a time before search engines. And smart phones. And yes, there was even life before the one search engine, that seems to rule them all; Google.
The term “Google it” has become a universally used, and understood, term. But Google has become so pervasive, if not semi-essential that most of us, especially those who were born and grew up under its flickering glow, find it hard to imagine that people worked, argued, wrote and yes, looked up thoroughly random facts in any way other than Google.
I’ll be the first to admit that, yes, those were dark and barbaric times. Back then, we had to depend on printed books and newspapers. And, when driving, had to rely on paper maps, that, once unfolded, refused to go back into anything even slightly resembling their original neatly folded shapes. These maps, besides being blue and red lined portrayals of circulatory-systems of every urban center, were free at local gas stations.
In short, we were a print-based culture back then. And the print stood still, and required no batteries, screens or passwords.
As I said earlier, those were dark and barbaric times.
Search engine history
Google was not the original search engine. In fact it was far from the first. What we now know as the internet became publicly available in 1990, but the first web search engine didn’t arrive until 1993.
Until 1993 all websites were manually tracked and indexed by individuals – people, not businesses or agencies. Google didn’t emerge until 1998. In that five-year gap, several other search engines had their chance at glory – and market dominance – but most of them failed and evaporated.
A common saying is “The internet is forever” and in some ways it is. But not search engines.
In the (digital) beginning
In internet lore, the first search engine was WebCrawler which emerged in January 1994 thanks to Brian Pinkerton at the University of Washington. It was originally a desktop app until April of the same year when the web version went live with 4,000 websites in its database – and took just six months to search for its one-millionth query. WebCrawler is the oldest search engine still operating.
Lycos is another old-school search engine that still operates. Lycos came out of Carnegie Mellon University in May 1994 when creator Michael Loren Mauldin turned his university project into a company.
Like WebCrawler, Lycos is still going strong. It owns several other old-school hacker, nostalgic internet brands, including Angelfire, Tripod, and Gamesville.
Interface is everything
Back then, access to the web was slow, clumsy and awkward. Information was everywhere, but getting it into a (relatively) coherent form that was accessible without layers of providers, phone lines, user names and pass codes seemed like an impossible task.
AltaVista went online in December 1995 and quickly became one of the most popular search engines in the 1990s because it addressed these birth pangs of a newly developing technology. It was the first near-universally searchable, full-text database on the web that had an accessible and easy-to-use interface. On the day it launched it had more than 300,000 visitors – within two years it had daily traffic of 80 million.
For a variety of reasons, AltaVista went offline in 2013.
Excite is another pioneering search engine, founded in 1994, officially launching in 1995. Excite was one of the first search engines that provided more than just searches. When the site went live in 1995, it offered portals for news and weather, an email service, an instant messaging service, stock quotes, and a fully customizable home page. In 1996, Excite purchased WebCrawler and signed exclusive agreements with what were to become many of the largest tech companies, including Microsoft and Apple.
Yahoo was founded in 1994, going live in 1995, and is, of course, still around with popular services like Yahoo News, Yahoo Mail, Yahoo Finance, and Yahoo Sports, all of which attract millions of unique views each day.
Netscape Navigator dominated academic and research circles in the late 1990s (with up to 90% market share in the late 1990s and then dropping to less than one percent in 2006). The final version of Netscape Navigator 9 (version 18.104.22.168), released on February 20, 2008.
Netscape eventually became a subsidiary of AOL and turned off the power in 2008. You can see more on the legacy of Netscape here.
Hotbot was initially launched in North America in 1996 by Wired magazine. During the 1990s, it was one of the most popular search engines on the World Wide Web, for good reason – it billed itself as having “the most complete web index online” with access to 54 million documents.
After an all too typical history of renaming and financial upheaval, HotBot became a Canadian web search engine owned by HotBot Limited and has been relaunched in 2022 under new ownership and with a different technology.
Dogpile went live in November 1996. It trolled and scavenged queries from Yahoo, Lycos, Excite, WebCrawler, Infoseek, AltaVista, HotBot, WhatUseek, and World Wide Web Worm, making it one of the most comprehensive search tools on the web at the time.
Enter the Google
Google was born (as a baby browser) in 1998 at Stanford University. As Google grew, it established Gmail in 2004, Google Maps in 2005, Google Chrome in 2008, and the social network known as Google+ in 2011. And Google bought YouTube in 2005.
Google achieved world dominance just a few years after its founding. Google now holds over 90% of online searches – that’s more than 3.5 billion searches each day. (As a point of reference, that’s about half the entire planet’s population – each day.)
Remember those big yellow Internet for Dummies books? We needed them.
Many of these search engines were bought out/merged with or absorbed other companies during what is called the “first browser war” (1995–2001), which primarily pitted Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (bundled with Windows) against the semi-stand-alone Netscape Navigator.
The browser wars continued with the decline of Internet Explorer’s market share (and the surging or waning) popularity of other browsers including Firefox, Google Chrome, Safari, Microsoft Edge and Opera. You can see repercussions of the Browser wars here.
In short, if you were born, or remember life before 1998, you are older than Google. And, as anyone born since then will be glad to tell you, that’s old.