Happy Birthday, Lycos!

Eight years ago today Lycos opened its virtual doors to the public, offering a slew of novel features that forever transformed the web search landscape.

Lycos was developed by Dr. Michael L. Mauldin and his team at the Carnegie Mellon University Center for Machine Translation, beginning in May 1994. Lycos' name comes from Lycosidae, the Latin name for the wolf spider family. Unlike other spiders that sit passively in their web, wolf spiders are hunters, actively stalking their prey.

On July 20, 1994, Lycos quietly launched with a catalog of 54,000 documents. Less than a month later, when Dr. Mauldin announced the service to the comp.infosystems.announce Usenet Newsgroup, the crawler had amassed more than 390,000 documents in its index. While that number may seem small compared with today's 2+ billion web pages, at the time it was a notable achievement for a search engine.

By January 1995, the Lycos catalog had reached 1.5 million documents, and by November 1996, Lycos had indexed over 60 million documents -- more than any other Web search engine at the time.

Unlike other crawler-based search engines of the day, which mostly just provided links to web pages, Lycos went a step further, offering brief descriptions (called "outlines") of each document in search results.

Lycos also offered features rarely seen today, such as a match score (a percentage showing the confidence level that a document matched your query) and a keyword list detailing how often those words were found.

Carnegie Mellon licensed the Lycos technology to a newly created company founded by Mauldin and jointly backed by Carnegie Mellon and CMGI@Ventures in June 1995. The company had its initial public offering in April 1996.

Lycos nearly merged with USA Networks and Ticketmaster Online-CitySearch, Inc. in 1999, but that arrangement was terminated after a contentious spat over ownership terms, by mutual consent of the companies. In May 2000, right at the peak of the dotcom bubble, Terra Networks, S.A., a major provider of Internet access to the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking world agreed to purchase Lycos for $12.5 billion in stock.

Dr. Mauldin left Lycos in 1998, and the company caught a bad case of "portalitis," focusing on chat, personal home pages, horoscopes -- seemingly interested in just about everything other than providing quality search results. That changed in December 1999, when Lycos reached an agreement to invest in FAST search and transfer, and soon thereafter FAST began powering Lycos advanced search results. In the autumn of 2001, Lycos abandoned its own crawler and began serving results exclusively from FAST.

Dr. Michael Mauldin Announces Lycos
Dr. Mauldin's original announcement to the comp.infosystems.announce Usenet Newsgroup.

Lycos: Design Choices in an Internet Search Service
A personal account of how Lycos was designed and developed, from creator Dr. Michael Mauldin.

How Lycos Works
Detailed information and a comprehensive list of Search Engine Watch articles about Lycos, available to site members.

Lycos Spider Patent
Though it no longer uses its own spider to crawl the web, Lycos patented the software, and the patent describes the operation used by virtually all crawlers today.

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About the author

Chris Sherman is a frequent contributor to several information industry journals. He's written several books, including The McGraw-Hill CD ROM Handbook and The Invisible Web: Uncovering Information Sources Search Engines Can't See, co-authored with Gary Price. Chris has written about search and search engines since 1994, when he developed online searching tutorials for several clients. From 1998 to 2001, he was About.com's Web Search Guide.