Article review: History of search engines

Which is which?

Which is which?

Usually when I set out to do an article review, my intent (or assignment) is to summarize the major theme, argument, or findings within the article, and perhaps present an opinion about the topic.  I’ve never really come across an article published in an academic journal that I found terrible, and thus there is never a need to review in article with the aim of critiquing it.

While doing research for this project, I wanted to learn more about the history of search engines, especially from a Web 2.0 and 3.0 perspective.  Of course, I lived through the development of search engines (anyone remember Gopher?), but it’s a history easily forgotten.

One of the few articles I found on the topic of search engine history is “History of search engines” by Tom Seymour, Dean Frantsvog, and Satheesh Kumar, all of Minot State University.[1]  I had to look twice at this journal, its authors, and their institution, because it is written rather strangely.  It does give a good, although terse, overview of search engine history, beginning with Gopher to Google and beyond.  However, the short article presents only topical information and is full of non-sequitur sentences thrown in at the end of a paragraph:

Ask Jeeves & Northern Light – (1996-1997)

Ask Jeeves (Ask) was a search engine founded in 1996 by Garrett Gruener and David Warthen in Berkeley, California.  The original  idea behind  AskJeeves  was to allow users  to get answers to questions posed  in  everyday, natural  language,  as  well  as  traditional  keyword  searching.  The current still  supports  this,  with  added support for math, dictionary, and conversion questions.

Northern  Light  was  to  the  search  engine  world  what  Apple  was to  the  computer  world.  Shortly after its launch, NorthernLight  like  Apple,  developed  a  fanatical  following,  but  held  a  relatively small  market  share compared to  the  likes  of  Lycos  and  AltaVista.  NorthernLight, from  its  founding in  1996  until  January  2002, operated  a Web  search  engine  for  public  use. During  this  time  period  it  also  developed  an  enterprise  offering  of private  custom  search  engines  that  it built  for  large corporate  clients  and  marketed  under  the  trade  name  Single Point.  Yandex was the largest Russian Internet search engine. (emphasis mine)

Reading this kind of thing several times throughout the article, which is organized by the search engine name, was strange and off-putting.  It certainly didn’t inspire confidence in the content of the article.  In the above example, that is the only reference in the entire article to the Yandex search engine.  This was “The Bad” of my research.

So I searched for more articles via my library’s online databases, including Ebsco’s Academic Search Complete, Web of Science, Library Literature and Information Science Full Text, and a keyword search in our local catalog here at the UCR Libraries, Scotty.  The results were pretty dismal, thus, they are “The Ugly:” too-old articles, articles only about Google’s history, and very few relevant results.  I found the best results from my Scotty keyword search and a Bing search for “search engine history.”  Here are “The Good”:

From Scotty, a chapter in a book: “The history of the internet search engine: navigational media and the traffic commodity” by E. van Couvering. [2]

This was a really excellent chapter, which went far beyond the topical information presented by Seymour et al.  Van Couvering includes information about what strategies search engines used to collect data, the history of advertising alongside search results, biographical information about search engine founders, the “portal” model, and details about the rise and fall of various search engine companies.

Van Couvering’s chapter is also rich with tables, charts, and screenshots that allow the reader the see old search engines like Lycos and Excite.   I was particularly impressed by the search engine timeline, which essentially converts all of the information presented in the Seymour et al. article into a great visual aid:

search engine timeline

Seymour presents the history of search engines with a beginning, middle period, and current, giving structure to this history.  In each period, he traces major developments in technology, marketing, and user experience as they relate to search engines.  This is by far a much more polished and fascinating article, although slightly dated.

From Bing: “History of Search Engines: From 1945 to Google Today” in [3]

This is a really wonderful website that is easy to read and traces searching all the way back to 1945.  It is simple and well-organized, has a good list of sources for further reading, and up-to-date information in the “Current market forces” section.  While I still haven’t read through everything there is on this website, I highly recommend it for the usefulness and accessible information provided.

Apart from getting a good introduction to search engine history, I also learned that there are questionable articles out there, even in academic journals.  The lesson is to keep searching, and to use a variety of search engines and search strategies to find the good information that’s out there.


[1] Seymour, T., Frantsvog, D., & Kumar, S. (2011). History of search engines.  International Journal of Management & Information Systems, 15(4), 47-58.

[2]van Couvering, E. (2008). The history of the internet search engine: navigational media and the traffic commodity.  In A. Spink & M. Zimmer (Eds.), Web search: multidisciplinary perspectives (pp.177-206).  [SpringerLink version].  DOI: 10.1007/978-3-540-75829-7

[3] Wall, A. (2013). History of search engines: from 1945 to Google today.  Retrieved from


Categories: Article reviews, Project Details, Search engines

2 replies

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  1. Timeline of Major Events in Library Computing | the library unchained

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