A Brief History of Search Before Google

Can you imagine life before Google? Many people simply don’t realize how many searches came before Google, and how easy it would have been to not have Google in our world. This page simply covers a brief history of search. And since search engines essentially have 3 main parts, creating a basic search engine isn’t that hard. Creating one that is better than Google’s would be really hard.

Search engines have the following:

  1. The Crawl – this is a specialized software program that follows links throughout the World Wide Web
  2. The Index – the Crawler sends its data to be stored in the Index which simply is the database of websites (and the pages on those websites) stored on a server
  3. The Runtime System or Query Processor – this matches your search phrase with the websites on the server. It then ranks the results from top to bottom, and shows the searcher those results.

For more information about the history of Search, we highly recommend that you read the book “The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture” by John Battelle. If you like this stuff, you’ll find the book to be fascinating. Much of the content listed below is extracted from that book.

What Search Engines Existed Before Google?

Early Search

  • 1990: Archie was created by a McGill University student named Alan Emtage. This engine actually existed before the web as we know it existed.
  • 1993: Veronica was created by some students and the University of Nevada (named as a play on the comic book couple). This allowed searchers to actually see the document title, but you couldn’t see the entire contents of the document.
  • 1993 to 1996: the number of sites on the Web grew from 130 to more than 600,000. These early engines just didn’t do a good job finding those 600,000 sites.

Early Web Search

  • 1993: the WWW Wanderer was created by Matthew Gray at MIT. It was written specifically “to systematically traverse the Web and collect sites.” Unfortunately, it used a lot of bandwidth, and many webmasters felt the Wanderer used up too much as it indexed sites. Matthew said “It wasn’t the greatest search engine that ever was, but it was the first search engine that ever was”
  • 1994: WebCrawler was developed by University of Washington researcher Brian Pinkerton. His Big Idea? Which sites had the most links pointing to them? Shouldn’t that be an indicator of the importance of that site? It went live in April. By November 1994, it recorded its one-millionth query. In June 1995, AOL acquired WebCrawler for around $1 million.

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The Story of AltaVista

  • Around 1994-1995, there were about a dozen search engines, but they all fell short for a variety of reasons
  • Early 1995: Digital Equipment Corp (DEC) created the Alpha processor and was trying to showcase its speed. Louis Monier suggested building a search engine that could load the entire Internet on an Alpha computer, then they could build a search engine showcasing Alpha’s speed. AltaVista was born.
  • Dec 1995: DEC’s firewall was lifted which gave the public access to over 16 million documents. With no marketing and no formal announcement, AltaVista received nearly 300,000 visits on its first day alone! Within a year, the site had served over 4 billion queries!
  • Aug 1996: DEC decides to spin off AltaVista as a public company. However, before this took place, DEC reorganized the company and AltaVista was added to its marketing division
  • 1997: AltaVista truly was the King of Search with over 25 million queries a day, and was a Top 3 Site with Yahoo and AOL

AltaVista’s Quick Demise

  • Jan 1998: Compaq aquires DEC for $9.6 billion, including AltaVista. Within a year, AltaVista became essentially a Yahoo clone, with email, directories, shopping, etc.
  • Jun 1999: Compaq sells AltaVista to CMGI for $2.3 billion. CMGI spends $100 million on advertising to promote AltaVista
  • Dec 1999: CMGI files paperwork for an AltaVista IPO. Just before the offering the NASDAQ loses over 30% of its value. The IPO plans were shelved.
  • Jan 2001: AltaVista IPO paperwork is filed again. The stock market was tanking, and CMGI’s stock lost over 90% of its value
  • 2003: The once supreme engine limped along with little support, and AltaVista was sold to Overture Services Inc for $140 million

It’s interesting to think about what would have happened to AltaVista had the timing not been smack in the middle of the 2001 bursting of the dot com bubble.

Other Major Search Players


  • 1995: Lycos (a shortened name for the wolf spider family). It crawled the web, but “used more sophisticated mathematical algorithms to determine the meaning of a page.” It was the 1st major engine to use links to a site as the basis of relevance. In addition, it was the first engine to show page summaries in the results (instead of the standard simple list of links).
  • Jun 1995: 80% of the ownership is sold for $2 million
  • 1999: While the challenges at AltaVista took place, for a brief time, Lycos was the most popular site in the world
  • May 2000: Terra (a telecom giant in Spain) purchases Lycos for $12.5 billion
  • 2004: Terra sells Lycos to a South Korean company for about $100 million


  • 1994: 6 Stanford University Students create Architext. They receive $1.5 million in seed money.
  • Fall 1995: Architext is rebranded and launched as Excite with a Web directory and full-text search engine
  • Apr 1996: Excite goes public with a valuation of $177 million
  • Summer 1997: Excite is the first major portal to offer free e-mail (Yahoo and Lycos followed them in October 1997)
  • Jan 1999: @Home Networks merges with Excite for $6.7 billion
  • Oct 2001: Excite@Home filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection. 1,350 employees laid off.
  • 2002: Interactive Search Holdings (ISH) acquires Excite for pennies on the dollar (then ISH was sold to Ask Jeeves)

Ask.com / Ask Jeeves

  • 1996: Ask Jeeves is created by Garrett Gruner and David Warthen in Berkeley, California. It’s intention was to be the first engine where you could ask your question in natural language instead of by keyword searching
  • 2005: The company announces that Jeeves will be phased out
  • Feb 2006: The site is rebranded to Ask.com and the public is told that Jeeves went into retirement
  • 2010: The company abandoned the search industry because it couldn’t compete with Google
  • Current: Ask.com still exists as a search engine


  • 1993: Jerry Yang and David Filo hack together a system to help win a fantasy basketball league. They created a crawler that pulled data from basketball sites and compiled stats on player performance. They ended up winning the league.
  • Late 1994: They use the crawler to find sites and they published the best sites on “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web.” Yep, that was really what it was called! It went viral at Stanford, and then outward to the entire Web. Within 30 days, they had visitors from over 30 countries.
  • 1995: Computer Science students use YA for Yet Another. They went to the dictionary, started at YA, and came across the word “Yahoo” and saw the definition of “a rude, unsophisticated, uncouth person”, and the name Yahoo! was born. Some people claim it stands for Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle.
  • The site grew as a Directory with thousands of links to other sites and became a huge portal site.
  • Mar 1995: They accept $2 million in VC funding from Sequoia Capital’s Michael Moritz (who later also funded Google).
  • Late 1995: Yahoo generates revenue from Banner Advertising
  • 1995: The Netscape Browser launches, and users of the browser ended up on Netscape’s home page. It becomes a huge source of traffic, and Netscape decides to link to Yahoo.com
  • 1997 to 1999: Yahoo! acquires several companies. Its stock rises to $118.75 per share. 
  • Jun 2000: Yahoo! and Google sign an agreement that allows Google to power searches made on Yahoo.com
  • Sep 2001: Yahoo! stock closes at an all-time low of $8.11
  • Dec 2002: Yahoo! acquires Inktomi
  • Jul 2003: Yahoo! acquires paid search innovator Overture Services. Why did they pay so much? Overture controlled the world of PPC at this point, since Google PPC really hadn’t become huge yet. In addition, Overture controlled PPC for Microsoft, AOL and many other websites.
  • Nov 2008: Microsoft offers to buy Yahoo!’s search business for $20 billion
  • Jul 2009: Yahoo! gives Microsoft full access to the Yahoo! search engine for 10 years to help in the development of Bing
  • Jun 2017: Verizon acquires Yahoo! Inc’s internet business, and Yahoo! officially becomes known as Altaba

What About the History of Google?

Visit our page about the History of Google (coming soon)