Web Search Engine

Noteworthy early search engines include Archie, from 1990, that searched filenames, and Gopher, from 1991, that organized files.

Early Search Engines

In March 1994, Stanford students David Filo and Jerry Yang created “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web.” Their website contained lists arranged by category of the burgeoning
World Wide Web. Sites were added by hand, with short snippets written by site creators. Initially, there was no charge to list a site. In January 1995 they renamed their website Yahoo.

In December 1995, to showcase the power of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) hardware, engineers designed a computer program to read and search (index) the entire World Wide Web. Originally meant as a hardware demo their website, Alta Vista, became popular. Alta Vista was the earliest full-text search engine.

Alta Vista merely matched words a user searched for and verbiage on websites. It was extremely primitive technology that did prioritize the significance or quality of websites. Yahoo was hand curated so did a better job, but the curation process did not scale well and, eventually, they started charging a fee for inclusion. Neither site did an especially good job searching. A third search engine, Excite, founded in 1994 rounded out the top search engines of the era. There were other smaller but still popular web search engines including Lycos (1994), Ask Jeeves (1996), and LookSmart (1995).


In 1996 Stanford students Larry Page and Sergey Brin worked on a computer program to determine context. They decided to read the entire web, the same way that Alta Vista did, except to rank the importance of websites. Initially, their primary criteria for importance was the number of links from other websites and the rank of those sites. This metric, called “Page Rank” (a pun on Larry Page’s last name and the utility of the technology), yielded vastly better search results than either Yahoo or Alta Vista. In late August 1996, Larry Page noted Google downloaded and indexed 207GB of content storing it in a 28GB database.

In September 1997 Page and Brin moved towards commercializing their search engine, registering the domain name google.com, a play on the word googol (a one with a hundred zeros after it).

Wish to return to their academic lives Page and Brin tried to sell their young company. They offered it to the owners of Alta Vista and Excite for $1 million. Both passed. They lowered the offer to Excite to $750,000. The company still passed. Page and Brin were all but forced to build out their budding search engine, eventually selling plain-text ads based on the search request.

In March 2005 IAC/InterActiveCorp purchased Excite, which still had significant traffic, for $1.9 billion. As of 2019 Excite has no significant search traffic. Excite was shuttered August 2013. Google parent Alphabet is worth just over $800 billion. Other search engines exist, most notably Microsoft’s Bing, but none have nearly the same number of users as Google.