• Organizing the internet’s info
  • The first search engine
  • Innovations in the world of search
  • Stepping stones to Google’s success

The internet’s first search engines

Today, Google dominates the search industry but that wasn’t always the case. In the early 1990s, there were a handful of other search engines that helped pioneer the way for Google and Bing. When the internet was just getting started back in 1990, it was difficult for people to find information online. In order to discover a new site or information online, people usually had to learn of it from word of mouth. People would use file transfer protocol to send information to each other and share sites. This was a technical and slow process, but then Tim Berners-Lee created a web application to surf the Internet more easily. People could now access sites more easily, but they still had to know the site’s URL. This was a perfect dilemma to be solved by search engines.


Screenshot of Archie

The internet’s first search engine was named Archie. Despite popular belief, the search engine wasn’t named after the Archie comic book character but rather was short for archives. It was written and launched by a McGill University postgraduate student named Allen Emtage in 1990. Allen developed the search engine based on a simple idea. He created a database of anonymous FTP sites that Archie could search through. To use the search engine, users would have to log in and type in keywords to find things they were looking for. Since Archie actually predated the launch of the World Wide Web, it could only be used for finding information in public FTP directories. Because people didn’t have a way to surf the Internet yet, Archie provided a valuable service. Two years after its launch, Emtage along with his partner Peter Deutsch formed a company that provided internet Information Services and a licensed commercial version of the Archie search engine. By the time the company was launched, Archie had collected over 200 FTP sites and was one of the most favorite web tools. By its peak in 1995, Archie had catalogued over a million pages. Today it is no longer used but many of its search functions can be seen in Google’s search engine.

In 1995, Excite was born. It was a web portal that offered a variety of services such as the weather, news, email, and instant messaging. At its peak, it was one of the most visited sites on the internet. The search engine was started by six Stanford University students in their garage. They had an ambitious goal. They wanted to build a tool that would manage the vast amount of information on the internet. Soon after the launch of their project, International Data Group offered them $80,000 to bring the project online. In the same year, two venture capital firms approach them with an offer over a million dollars. Excite began offering its services online and began expanding. In 1996, Excite and AOL entered into an agreement to make Excite AOL’s primary search engine. In return, AOL got a 20% share in the search company. The search engine also entered into a partnership with Intuit in the following year. For Excite, the future seemed bright but not for long. Unfortunately for the search engine, the playing field became more competitive. Bigger and better search engines like Yahoo and Google began taking traffic away from Excite. In 1998, Excite reported a net loss of 30 million dollars and could barely meet its financial obligations. Over the years, its traffic decreased dramatically and it was eventually sold off to Ask Jeeves.

In the same year that Excite launched, AltaVista was getting started. Researchers at Digital Equipment Corporation Network systems Laboratory wanted a way to drmonstrate their supercomputer the AlphaServer 8400 TurborLaser’s speed and power. It was capable of searching large databases quickly. They built a search engine to test the power of the supercomputer. The researchers built a web crawler that could quickly index every word of all HTML pages on the internet. In 1995, the company made the search engine accessible to the public. It quickly became a huge success as it was one of the best search engines on the internet. With AltaVista, people were able to find useful results quickly and easily. The search engine was so powerful that it could index webpages 10X quicker then other search engines on the internet. In addition, AltaVista pioneered the features that others hadn’t thought of. Before it, other search engines would create directories of the web. Instead of doing this, Altavista created a complete index of the web. This allowed it to show users more relevant results. Despite its innovations in search technology, it wasn’t able to keep up with the advanced capabilities of Google. It was bought by Overture Services in 2003 and then acquired by Yahoo in the same year. In 2013, AltaVista was officially shut down by Yahoo.

The year 1994 saw the creation of another search engine that would quickly gained popularity. Yahoo was started by Stanford University students Jerry Yang and David Filo. They began by a simple directory of online websites that were organized in a hierarchy. Originally, they just wanted a place to organize a list of their favorite sites. But they soon realized that other people wanted the same thing. As word spread about their useful directory, it grew in popularity. At first, it was called Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web. But as their site’s traffic continued to increased, they quickly realized its full potential. They renamed it Yahoo and incorporated it in 1995. From the beginning, Yahoo had great success. With a variety of digital content plus an email and search engine service, Yahoo quickly became one of the internet’s favorite places to hang out. In 1995, Yahoo went public and raised 33.8 million dollars by April of the next year. But like the other search engines before it, Yahoo wasn’t able to compete with Google. It reached its peak in 2000 with an all-time high share of $118, but that was the last achievement it would claim. In 2017, Verizon acquired Yahoo for 4.5 billion dollars after Yahoo first declaring bankruptcy.
Google is the most powerful search engine on the internet today, but it has these early search engines to thank for its success. Each search engine contributed powerful innovations that transformed the way we access the internet. From keywords to web crawler, they helped shape the world of search and provided Google with stepping stones to its success. Archie was the Godfather of search engines. Excite created a way to manage the internet’s information. AltaVista innovated the way web crawlers work. Yahoo showed the world that people wanted a search engine service. Without a doubt, the internet today would be a very different place without the innovations of these early search engines.