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 (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

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, 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.