How to search the internet 1: the history of search

29/03/2010

This is the first part of my guide to web search; the second part is here; part 3 is here. Part 4 is here.

The first search engine is widely considered to be Archie: a tool for indexing FTP archives which enabled users to locate resources. Its first implementation was written in 1990 by Alan Emtage, Bill Heelan, and J. Peter Deutsch, then students at McGill University in Montreal. It started off as basic lists of files that were accessed using the Unix command grep. Later, more efficient front- and back-ends were developed, and the system spread from a local tool, to a network-wide resource, to a popular service available from multiple sites around the Internet. The archie servers could be accessed in various ways: by use of a local client; by telnet; by email; and later through the World Wide Web. As the web became more widespread, its simpler interface made archie obselete, and now there are very few archie servers to be found on the internet. Wikipedia mentions an archie gateway still up in Poland; maybe that’s the last one?

Then there was Gopher – a protocol for distributing, searching, and retrieving documents over the Internet, dating from about 1991 and used throughout the 1990s. It was a predecessor of, then for a while an alternative to the World Wide Web. Wikipedia describes it as:

a TCP/IP Application layer protocol designed for distributing, searching, and retrieving documents over the Internet, and was a predecessor, and later, an alternative to the World Wide Web. The protocol offers some features not natively supported by the Web and imposes a much stronger hierarchy on information stored on it. Its text menu interface is well-suited to computing environments that rely heavily on remote computer terminals, common in universities at the time of its creation in 1991 until 1993.

Gopher was called Gopher for 3 reasons:

1. Users instruct it to “go for” information;
2. It does so through a web of menu items allegedly analogous to gopher holes;
3. It was developed at the University of Minnesota, whose sports teams are the “Golden Gophers”.

Its user interface (text, based on menus) suited the computer environment of the 1990s – mostly command-line interface on remote terminals. But by the late 90s, as graphical interfaces to the internet became more common (thanks to web browsers like Mosaic, whose integration of text and images was much more user-friendly than Gopher’s text-menu approach) Gopher was in decline. Although it still exists on the internet, it is used mostly for nostalgic reasons.

As the web became ubiquitous, and huge numbers of websites were created, organisations began to collate lists of these sites into directories. Yahoo, Lycos and the Open Directory are examples. These directories listed sites in categories by content: for instance, if you were looking for a particular site about photography, you would look through Yahoo’s list of photographic sites.

But as the web grew ever bigger, it seemed to many people that directories became too unwieldy: if you’re looking for a site about a particular photographer and you’re confronted with a list of 50,000 sites, you’ll probably give up in despair. This is where the modern search engine comes in – the likes of Google and Bing. We’ll get into all that in the next instalment of this little guide to internet search.

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