TECH TALK: Rethinking Search: A Brief History

One of the most lucrative areas on the Internet is turning out to be Search. 2004 is going to an action-packed year for Search Google is going to do an IPO which could raise as much as USD 4 billion and value the company at between USD 12-15 billion, Yahoo is leveraging all its acquisitions and its content to try and get the better of Google, and Microsoft is readying its own search engine. How did Search become so powerful once again? And what are the opportunities in this space?

Search went through three evolutions in the past decade. It started with Yahoos directory. Human editors classified websites into an ever-expanding hierarchy of categories. This was fine until the new additions were something that were manageable. But as the Web exploded with activity, it was no longer to easily find websites based on a brief description. This brought in the second phase of activity in Search sites like Altavista, Infoseek, Webcrawler and Excite which crawled the various websites and indexed the content in them, allowing full-text search of these pages. This still did not solve the problem of getting to the right page based on a few words the user entered in a text box. That is the world Google came into.

By using PageRank technology which looked at the incoming links to a webpage to decide how popular it was, it helped in quite accurately identifying the pages that would be most relevant to the search phrases. It was Googles accuracy and its simple interface that helped it ride a popularity wave of its own. That was also the time when Search was almost given up by the other companies as a way to make money and its perceived importance for the others who had now graduated to being full-scale portals had diminished. Google filled the vacuum well, and by sticking to its core, became everyones favourite search engine.

Around this time, peoples habits have also changed. Instead of surfing various sites, the preference is to do a search and then browse. Search, for all practical purposes, has become the window on the Web for us. Yahoo and Microsoft, among others, are realising that they cannot yield this first connection to Google, and are seeking to fight back with strategies of their own. Google isnt sitting idle either. Powered by its growing profits from the multitude of small advertisers who buy the text ads linked with specific keywords, it is also expanding the things that can be down in its search box, as well as spreading its wings to news, images, and shopping.

All in all, a battle royale is underway in the world of Search. In a sense, we are back to square one it was our desire for information from across the world that made the earlier generations of search engine the most visited sites in the first place. Now, once again, search is in favour with users and advertisers. And yet, as Jeff Bezos likes to say, we are on Day One of the Internet Era. The game has just begun.

Search is good, but not good enough especially from the vantage point of some of the non-US markets like India. For example, it is still hard to use search to find the phone number of a local hotel or business. In the coming articles, we will explore what ideas could be used for constructing the next-generation of search engines from the vantage point of users in India.

Tomorrow: What Others Say

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.