7 Search Engines Google Obliterated

by Ruud Hein November 11th, 2010 

It isn’t that long ago that the web was virtually littered with search engines.

Search, the technologies powering it and algorithmic near-pure science enabling it formed a hot, swirling ecosystem of fast innovation, incremental changes – and healthy competition.

Today you don’t use a search engine – you google (verb, image) it. Google is search. And it’s fast becoming the only search in town as Google’s competitors one by one crumble away, crushed by Google’s exponentially growing techno-power.

If you’re new to the web this will read like a “when I was young…” while if you’ve been on the web for more than a couple of years it will be near amazing how fast we went from variation to monopoly monotony.

Excite (* 1993 - cross 2001)

Excite search engine

For years Excite was the hot go-to place if you wanted something.

The six students from Stanford University (what’s up with that place?) who founded it came up with the idea to make search better by looking at the word relationships through statistical analysis. That sounds like familiar common sense now but was in the era of transition from web directories to web search engines working with so-so computer power, the idea was groundbreaking.

Excite was huge, signing major deals with Netscape and Microsoft.

Yahoo wanted Excite but couldn’t get it: Excite was sold to the @Home network.

That wasn’t the only near-miss in Excite’s history. In 1999 two other Stanford students showed up on the doorsteps offering their search tech for $1 million but ready to settle for a mere $750.000. Excite refused to buy what would become the $180 billion dollar Google behemoth…

In 2001 @Home went bankrupt. Excite effectively died as it started a hand-me-down buyout route from InfoSpace to Ask.com (see there…)

InfoSeek (* 1994 – cross 2001)


InfoSeek is said to not have brought a whole lot of innovation to the table but it was a nice search engine. It had Boolean searches, proximity search, had a kind of allinurl modifier… Not bad.

InfoSeek became Netscape’s default search engine. In a time when Microsoft still had to kill all competition, that was a big deal.

Disney (yes, Disney) finally bought the search engine, rolling it back into its own Go.com.

Disney shut the operations down in 2001, firing everybody.

AltaVista (* 1994 – cross 2003)


In the years that portals and directories were the main interfaces to the web, AltaVista had a comparatively Spartan home page.

For years AltaVista was Google. Its index contained more web pages than people thought existed on the whole web. That index was powered by a fast crawler (Scooter). And that index was fully searchable. All 3 unheard of features for its day.

They shot to the top becoming one of the web’s top destinations.

You can’t begin to stress how modern they were, featuring one of the best desktop search tools (AltaVista Discovery) wayyyyy back in 1998. I loved that tool, I tell you.

At the end of the 1990’s web portal was all the hip talk and AltaVista went portal, effectively committing suicide.

Overture bought AltaVista in 2003. Later, Yahoo (see there…) would buy Overture, ripping the AV engine apart to fold some of its best tech back into Yahoo, leaving the AltaVista site to be a beta sandbox playground for things Yahoo wanted to test.

HotBot (* 1996 – cross 2003)


Inktomi was the technology developed by a UC Berkeley professor and student, HotBot the commercial search engine it was exposed in.

HotBot was licensed to Hotwired.com, one of the web’s hottest properties back then and owned by Wired.

They had it all. They were able to index at an incredible speed of 10 million web documents a day, making their index not just one of the largest but also one of the freshest. They loved boasting about the size of their index, as, honestly, all search engines did back then.

Not a portal they didn’t make ad money and their paid inclusion didn’t really work either. So, in 2003 they sold out to Yahoo (see there…)

AllTheWeb (* 1999 – cross 2003)


We could have been alltheweb-ing these days as back in the day, AllTheWeb was not just up to par with Google: it was better. For a while they had a larger index with fresher content that you could search through using more advanced features then you could in Google.

So what went wrong? Yahoo (see there…) did.

In 2003 Yahoo buys AllTheWeb and again takes some search tech for itself while leaving the rest of the site and brand to rot and to be used as the occasional playground for search testing.

Yahoo! (* 1995 – cross 2010)


Started as a web directory Yahoo jumped on the portal bandwagon and became the “we’re the whole web” thing we see today.

But for years Yahoo also was search as in search engine. Developed in the early 2000’s their search tech has powered their own search engine for years while the real focus of management seemed to stay on building a better web trap portal.

Yahoo started to lose money and lots of it, resulting in some major layoffs.

While Microsoft’s attempt to do a hostile takeover was fended of, Yahoo would finally kill all their own search technology efforts and sign a deal for Microsoft to power their search results.

The deal is for 10 years. At half the age of the web that means forevah.

August 2010 Yahoo! search died.

Ask Jeeves (* 1997 – cross 2010)

Ask Jeeves

1996 sees an exclusive beta appear for what will become the natural language search engine Ask Jeeves.

The matching of (common) search queries with results was done by human editors. Additional, regular results were provided by different technologies over time; DirectHit, Teoma, and later on Google.

Bought out in 2005 by IAC (the people behind “popular” sites like Ticketmaster) the slowly but steadily growing Ask Jeeves brand was killed by renaming Ask Jeeves to simply Ask. Later on the image of the butler will be dropped too only to be brought back in 2009 in a last-ditched effort.

In November 2010 owner Barry Diller surrenders to Google, cuts 130 search engineering jobs and ceases all work on its algorithmic search technology.

Ruud Hein

My paid passion at Search Engine People sees me applying my passions and knowledge to a wide array of problems, ones I usually experience as challenges. People who know me know I love coffee.

Ruud Hein

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11 Responses to “7 Search Engines Google Obliterated”

  1. Samuel says:

    Wow Ruud.. I remember the good old days of Altavista. It's amazing to see how far we have come with relevance, geographical results, and all of the ranking factors that make keyword stuffing worthless.
    .-= Samuel recently posted: Cerwin Vega V-MAX SUBWOOFERS VMAX 104 =-.

  2. […] 7 Search Engines Google Obliterated, Search Engine People […]

  3. Amazing to see isn't it? It isn't that Google obliterated those other search engines, Google just did it better, and continued to do so. They have mastered what it is to be a search engine, and are a force to be reckoned with.

  4. Jon Wade says:

    I still remember when I first started using Google, and I vaguely remember Altavista from my uni days – although never used the Internet much then. Search was very clumsy in those days. In fact, I remember when I first had access to the Internet, and I was sat in a computer room at Coventry University, staring at the screen and thinking to myself "what do I search for?". It really was a case that I had no idea what was there, let alone how to find it.

    • Ruud Hein says:

      I especially remember the piles of nonsense you had to wade through to get to something relevant. And so often what the SERP quoted for the page was (no longer) what the destination page was saying.

  5. AB says:

    I was a founder of Infoseek, the only one let go by Disney (the other 7 had left already). Stanford offered Infoseek a similar deal as they offered Excite and it wasn't as rosy as this report makes it out to be. They wanted $1M for a non-exclusive right to use the Page Rank algorithm. That was a lot of money for a startup and provided no competitive advantage. Excite would also have it and Google could continue on it's own. It came with no engineers or engineering support. Just the algorithm. At the time Infoseek was rolling out a similar algorithm called Hypertext Vector Voting (HVV) developed by Robin Lee, now CEO of Baidu (bigger than Google in China), and we felt this was good enough and made it not worth $1M for no competitive advantage.

    The real reason Google became popular and successful was not this algorithm (although without good search results it would have been a lot harder). It was their constant focus on better search to scale with the web as it grew exponentially. They developed a corporate culture around great engineering and lived and breathed it. They kept their search page simple and gave people what they wanted, great results fast. Infoseek/Disney went the portal route and used hundreds of people to produce and edit their "channels" while Search Engineering, run by me from 99-01, was cut down to 5 engineers. No effort was put into developing better infrastructure to keep up with the growing web and that is where Google put most of their effort. I tried to convince Disney that we needed to put more effort there and the most they would give me was a side site called search.go.com which was just a simpler search UI page without the portal frills. They wouldn't even let me use the http://www.infoseek.com page to promote pure search because that is where they got all the traffic to funnel into the GO.com portal.

  6. Jon Wade says:

    I think it is still pretty simple. Thing is, I almost never go to Google home page to search now, I just use the address bar. Quite often I just highlight and right-click in Chrome. Amazing how many of my searches start from reading someone on a page.

    Back to memories of first searches – shortly after sitting staring blankly at the screen I remembered something on the wireless about a new Eurofighter. I had (and still have) no interest in the military, but it was the first thing that came into my head (the power of the spoken word….) and they had a page about it. I quickly got bored.
    .-= Jon Wade recently posted: Google Helps Save Lives – Working with the Samaritans =-.

  7. Monika says:

    That list brings back the memories…
    In any case I'm waiting for a new, better search engine. I always liked G. because if I searched for "red car" they showed me "red car" websites, now I get "redish automobile", "pink bike" or something not even remotely car related.
    Hey, Google, I was looking for a "RED CAR", if I wanted something else then I would write something else!… :E
    .-= Monika recently posted: 16-20 =-.

  8. Jude says:

    I remember using one of those. Was it really gone now? Blame Google, I grew fond of it. Now, it sucks, every time I search for a photo, just like recently, I searched for an angel photo, it gave me a photo of a woman almost naked. Gee, I do now know why angels are so adored.