AltaVista, the Google of its day, is now to be gobbled up by Overture. It's a famous name that's seen better days. But AltaVista's not the only major search player to have faded, as years have gone by. Come along and see the early search engines that have died, those that have been transformed, who's survived and how the "new" players that are no longer so young are doing.
Of interest to history buffs will also be my The End For Search Engines? article, written at the beginning of 2001, when many assumed search engines were a dying breed (I argued differently). Also, see the Major Search Engines page for links to some of the services mentioned below and additional history.
Rest In Peace
Open Text (1995-1997): Yahoo's original search partner was also a popular web search site of its own in 1995. The company crawled the web to gather listings, just as Google does today. Open Text decided to focus instead on enterprise search solutions, where it is currently successful. Web search operations closed in mid-1997.
Magellan (1995-2001): An early search engine that saw its popularity drop immediately after being purchased by Excite in mid-1996. It was closed in April 2001.
Infoseek (1995-2001): Launched in early 1995, Infoseek originally hoped to charge for searching. When that failed, the popular search engine shifted to depending like others on banner ads. Disney took a large stake in the company in 1998 and went down the "portal" path that other leading search engines had followed. The site was also renamed "Go." Its failure to make money caused Disney to stop Go's own internal search capabilities abruptly in early 2001. Today, Go remains operating, powered by Google.
Snap (1997-2001): Launched by CNET in 1997, Snap first used Infoseek, then Inktomi, then created its own directory of human-edited listings that were coupled with clickthrough technology that ranked results in part by what people clicked on. NBC later acquired a majority interest in the company, then renamed it NBCi and intended to win the "portal wars" with the site. But as with Disney and Infoseek, the site's internal search technology was abruptly closed in early 2001. It is currently powered by meta search results from Infospace.
Direct Hit (1998-2002): When Google first appeared as the hot new search technology in 1998, so did Direct Hit, featuring the ability to measure what people clicked on in search results as a way to make those better. It gained a deal with HotBot and was offered as a search feature on other portals such as Lycos and MSN. It was purchased by Ask Jeeves in 2000, then neglected over the following years. The site was formally closed in early 2002.
Lycos (1994; reborn 1999): Lycos operated one of the web's earliest crawler-based search engines. Lycos stopped depending on that spider in 1999 and instead now outsources for its search results from AllTheWeb.
WebCrawler (1994; reborn 2001): WebCrawler still exists as a meta search engine that gets results from other search engines, rather than through its own efforts. Now owned by Infospace, WebCrawler was arguably the web's first crawler-based search engine in the way we know them today. It launched in early 1994 as a University of Washington research project, was purchased by AOL in 1995, then sold to Excite at the end of 1996. The WebCrawler spider was deactivated in December 2001.
Yahoo (1994; reborn 2002): Before Google, before AltaVista, there was Yahoo. Despite all the changes in the search space over the years, Yahoo has remained one of the most popular search destinations on the web. Yahoo stood out from its early competitors by using humans to catalog the web, a directory system. Crawler-based results from its partners only kicked in if there were no human-powered matches. That actually made Yahoo more relevant than competitors for many years, until the Google-era ushered in crawler-based results that were both comprehensive and highly relevant. Yahoo caught up with that era in October 2002, when it dropped its human-powered results in preference to Google's results. The Yahoo Directory still exists and is leveraged by the company, but today's Yahoo is a far different creature than what it was for all those years before.
Excite (1995; reborn 2001): Quickly gaining popularity after launching in late 1995, Excite crawled the web to gather listings. In 1996, the company bought two rivals, Magellan and WebCrawler, then itself was transformed via a merger into Excite@Home. Excite stopped gathering its own listings in December 2001, in the wake of its parent company's bankruptcy. Now a new "Excite Networks" company owns the Excite web site, while Infospace has a license to provide meta search results to Excite in perpetuity.
HotBot (1996; reborn 2002): Launched in May 1996, HotBot was initially powered by Inktomi and backed by Wired. HotBot's wild colors, great results and impressive features drew acclaim. Lycos (now Terra Lycos) bought the service as part of Wired Digital in 1998. As the "other" Lycos search engine, it suffered from a lack of attention by its parent. Last December, it was revitalized as a meta-like search engine, offering access to results from four different major search engines: Google, FAST, Teoma and Inktomi.
Ask Jeeves (1998; reborn 2002): Originally hailed as the "natural language" search engine when it debuted in 1998, the secret to Ask Jeeves wasn't really the ability to understand language. Instead, Ask Jeeves had over 100 editors monitoring what people searched for, then hand-selecting sites that seemed to best answer those queries. Such an approach is good for the most popular queries but doesn't help when people want unusual information. Thus Ask purchased Direct Hit in early 2000, to make it more comprehensive. The company failed to capitalize on that technology, so tried again more successfully by purchasing Teoma in 2001. In 2002, it shifted over to relying on Teoma for nearly all of its matches.
Same As They Ever Were
AltaVista (1995- ): The Google of its day, AltaVista offered access to a huge index of web sites, when it launched in December 1995. The search engine quickly grew in popularity, but its parent Digital didn't know what to do with it. The sale of Digital to Compaq didn't help matters, and the situation grew worse when AltaVista was spun into a separate company, majority-owned by CMGI. It was relaunched as a portal in October 1999, entering an already crowded field and taking its attention away from the quality of its search results. It paid the price as dissatisfied users flocked to newcomer Google. Throughout everything, AltaVista's crawler has kept going. Overture now intends to buy the company.
LookSmart (1996- ): Launched in 1996, LookSmart remains the only search company to heavily depend upon humans to gather its primary listings. In 2002, LookSmart bought the WiseNut crawler to complement its human-powered results. Few people search at the LookSmart site itself. Instead, LookSmart acts as a provider to others needing search results. Its major partner is MSN.
Overture (1998- ): Formerly known as GoTo, the company launched a "paid placement" service in early 1998, where sites were ranked based in order of how much they were willing to pay. The web had matured enough by this point to accept this type of commercialization: similar plans tried by Open Text in 1996 were dropped after a chorus of complaints. By 2000, Overture abandoned its initial route of driving consumers to its own web site in favor of a network model of providing its paid listings to other sites. Today, it powers paid listings to major search engines such as MSN and Yahoo.
The New Breed
Google (1998- ): Ironically, Google is now the oldest of the "new" players that have taken over from the old. Launched in 1998 as a Stanford University research project, Google's ability to analyze links from across the web helped it produce a new generation of highly relevant, crawler-based results. By many different measures, it is today the most popular search engine in use.
AllTheWeb (1999- ): It's a strong rival to Google in terms of popularity, but AllTheWeb is nowhere near as popular with users. That was OK with parent company FAST. AllTheWeb was meant only to demonstrate the company's ability to power the results of other search engines by crawling the web. AllTheWeb launched in May 1999 and counts Lycos as its major partner. Overture announced last month that it intends to acquire the search engine.
Teoma (2000- ): Launched in 2000, Teoma is known for its own spin on analyzing links from across the web to generate highly relevant results. It was purchased by Ask Jeeves in September 2001 and continues on as its own site, as well as providing results to the Ask Jeeves site.
WiseNut (2001- ): This service gained attention in 2001 and was snapped up by LookSmart in early 2002. The company has since been working to improve its technology and freshness, but the work still hasn't finished.
The Powered By Others Bunch
AOL Search (1997- ): AOL offers its own search engine to its members, which is currently powered by Google. Originally known as AOL NetFind, an AOL-branded search engine was first offered in 1997 and powered by Excite. AOL briefly owned its own web search technology, WebCrawler, but sold that to Excite in 1996.
MSN Search (1998- ): Microsoft provides a search engine to those coming to the MSN site or searching via features within Internet Explorer. Plenty do, making MSN Search one of the most popular search engines on the web. The service has always outsourced for its search technology. It currently provides a mixture of results from LookSmart and Inktomi.