Finding Stuff Online: 20 Years of Innovative Search Engines

What would the Internet be without a way to find something specific on its millions of sites? Search engines started providing that function two decades ago. Here are some of the landmarks, from Archie to AltaVista to Google and Bing.

By Benj Edwards

Twenty years ago today, a student at McGill University and some friends launched what many people consider to be the world’s first Internet search engine: Archie. Archie indexed FTP sites in the days before the Web became popular.Since then, search has grown to dominate the Web, because people have always needed to know what’s out there. Let’s take a look back at the early days of many popular search engines by viewing authentic early screenshots.

Archie Arrives (September 10, 1990)

Alan Emtage, Bill Heelan, and J. Peter Deutsch wrote Archie (short for “archive”) in 1990 while attending Montreal’s McGill University. In the era before the World Wide Web, Archie served as a search engine for FTP sites around the globe.In its early days, users accessed it through Telnet sessions like that captured at left. Later, users could search Archie through Gopher and Web gateways, though more-versatile search tools soon surpassed the service.

Veronica (1992)

For a brief time in the early 1990s, the Gopher protocol overshadowed the World Wide Web in popularity. Gopher was a network of interconnected, hierarchical menus on the Internet that allowed users to navigate between sites, read text files, and download binary files conveniently.When the number of Gopher sites exploded, users needed a way to search through them. Enter Veronica, a comic book-inspired play on the earlier search-related name Archie. It searched “Gopherspace,” as seen here in a Web browser that supported the now-obsolete protocol.

ALIWEB (1993)

ALIWEB (Archie-Like Indexing for the WEB) was the first search engine created specifically for the World Wide Web. It relied on site visitors to submit Web pages to its index.Few people did so, however, and ALIWEB quickly faded into obscurity.

EINet Galaxy (1994)

Galaxy was one of the first manually populated (versus automatically crawled) Web catalogs with a search engine, recorded here in a screenshot from the days before HTML supported background colors.In answer to your question: Yes, every page was gray back then.

Yahoo (YHOO) (1994)

Yahoo began as a human-curated catalog of links to sites around the Web. It soon became an indispensable resource for finding Websites on nearly every topic; and until Google eclipsed its search popularity in the following decade, it remained the go-to destination for Web users seeking specific site content.

WebCrawler (1994)

WebCrawler was one of the first search engines that actively sought out new and changing Websites by “crawling” from link to link between sites. Today, most search engines rely on some variation of this principle to keep their indexes up to date.

Lycos (1994)

Michael Loren Mauldin created Lycos as a research project at Carnegie Mellon University in 1994. Shortly afterward, Lycos launched as a stand-alone site, where it quickly picked up steam and gained a large audience. Lycos later shifted to portal status and became a hugely popular Website. Today it remains one of the more influential Web media companies on the Net.

Infoseek (1995)

Infoseek was yet another attempt to provide a comprehensive, searchable directory of Websites. It achieved a fair amount of popularity, boasting 7.3 million visitors in the month of September 1997–an impressive number for the time. Its popularity subsequently faded in the face of competitors like Yahoo, AltaVista, and (later) Google.

MetaCrawler (1995)

MetaCrawler was one of the first Websites to allow users to search multiple Web indexes simultaneously. For example, you could search for “types of trees” and get results from Yahoo, Lycos, and WebCrawler, all displayed on the same page. MetaCrawler still exists, though the search sites it draws from have changed over the years.

Excite (1995)

Excite began as a Website directory and portal that, though popular for a time and backed by enormous venture-capital interests, never achieved a commanding presence in the online world. Investors continued to back it, however, and Excite changed hands many times through the years. It’s still hanging on today as a living relic of the mid-1990s.

AltaVista (1995)

AltaVista began as a Web search project of Digital Equipment Corporation. It became the most popular Web-crawling search engine of the mid- to late 1990s, retaining that throne until Google usurped it a few years later. In 1996, Yahoo began using AltaVista to power its Web search results. Once renowned for its streamlined interface, AV rapidly began losing market share around 1999 when it adopted a cluttered “portal” style.

Yahoo (1996)

Here we see a later incarnation of Yahoo with more color and pizzazz (and an all-important exclamation point!!!). By 1996, Yahoo’s footprint on the Internet was impressive and growing. It soon began adding nondirectory services such as mail, games, and news that transformed it into more of a general Web destination than a search engine.

HotBot (1996)

As a search service from Wired Digital (sister of Wired Magazine), HotBot went hand in hand with other Wired properties like HotWired and Wired News. Later, Lycos acquired it, and HotBot persists today as a front end for other Web search engines.

Ask Jeeves (1996)

Ask Jeeves encouraged users to search the Web using queries phrased in natural language, such as “How many readers does PC World have?” Jeeves, a fictional character who represented a valet, would then retrieve the answer to the best of his ability.In 2006, Ask Jeeves dropped the “Jeeves” part of its name and became

Northern Light (1997)

Northern Light emerged in 1997 as a stylishly designed alternative to sites like AltaVista, and it gained quickly praise for its large index of Websites. Northern Light’s public search site closed down in 2002 after its parent company changed hands.

Google at Stanford (1997)

In 1996, Larry Page and Sergey Brin began a search engine research project at Stanford University called “Backrub,” which used analysis of Website back links to determine search relevance–a novel approach at the time. Backrub then became “Google,” but spent the rest of 1997 hosted by Stanford at

Yahooligans (1998)

Yahooligans was a colorful, playful spin-off of Yahoo that provided a kid-friendly search environment for children. It later morphed into Yahoo Kids. (1998)

Google broke free of Stanford, incorporated, and launched its own stand-alone Website at in 1998. The site first gained the attention of Web geeks who were drawn to its unusual name and superior search results. Word spread, and within a few years, Google had become the most popular search engine on the Web.

MSN Search (1998)

Microsoft (MSFT) launched its first big attempt to conquer the world of Web search, MSN Search, in 1998. It remained popular over time largely by virtue of its inclusion on the default page of Internet Explorer–which also happened to be the default browser of Windows, the most popular OS in the world. MSN Search became “Windows Live Search” in 2006, “Live Search” in 2007, then “Bing” in 2009.

Today’s Search

At this writing, Google still dominates the world of search–so much so that “google” has become a verb. The search giant is not without its challengers, though–especially Bing, Microsoft’s rebranded search site, which has quickly gained market share. In an interesting shift, Facebook recently surpassed Google as the most visited Website in the world. With new competitors popping up all the time, Google will certainly have to fight to remain both popular and relevant to the world at large.

Republished from PC World.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s