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Google : a personal paean

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Google, unveiled to the world on September 7, 1998, has just celebrated its fifth birthday!

There were Internet search tools before Google, but sometimes it is hard to remember what they looked like or how different they were.  Yahoo! (which debuted in February 1994) was one of the earliest search tools.  Yahoo! started as a classified collection of favorite sites, and grew and grew – though not at the same rate as the World Wide Web.  No listing which is compiled by humans can hope to do that.  JumpStation and the World Wide Web Worm soon followed.  These were crawler-based search engines; they crawled the web, indexing words on the pages they found,following links, indexing new pages.  Infoseek (July 1994) is one of the earliest search engines still around today.  1.

Internet history before Yahoo! seems like prehistory, although the World Wide Web itself is little more than ten years old.  I came to the Internet in the days of Telnet; you sat at your computer and, if you managed to get a connection, your screen became that of the remote computer you were connected to.  All very well, but your keyboard emulated that of the remote host, your keys did not always do what they should, and when it could take five seconds or more for what you had keyed to come up on the screen and the arrow keys did not work, heaven help you if you had to resort to the back-space key and delete and correct…

Those were text-only days, a time when it seemed possible to list every file on every Internet server in the world, a time when you used obscure protocols to search for files and documents, a fun time when Archie and Jughead and Veronica and WAIS gave you the means to navigate this strange new world.  Too often you had to know the exact name of what you sought, had almost to be a programmer to get around, had to know the exact commands to manoevure from screen to screen.  Should you type EXIT, or QUIT, or just Q to leave a site - or had you to work your way back to the home page?  It varied from one site to another; the instructions were always ten pages back, and the penalties for simply pulling the plug seemed immense.  Ah yes, white typeface on a black screen, these really were the Dark Ages.

The World Wide Web changed all this forever.  Suddenly we had easy linking, manoevurability through a site and from one site to another;  we had graphics and images and  sound.  Did the World Wide Web explode because computers were suddenly affordable and what you could do with them increased and became increasingly easy to do, or was it increasing ease and reliabilty and usefulness which increased the size of the market and drove the prices down?  It was all cause and effect, inter-related.

The early search tools certainly made it easier to search for information on the Internet – or on the World Wide Web, for most early search engines crawled only the Web.  Few ventured further, into areas still much used but not as easily investigated.  These tools were not perfect, they could be infuriating. But they were useful, the best we had at the time.  Early Yahoo!, as indicated, was not a search engine; it was a man-made directory, humans had to look out the sites to be included, humans had to categorize them, humans had to add them to the listings.  It may be a measure of the usefulness of true search engines that, until the last year or so, Yahoo! was the first search tool of choice of a majority of web searchers.

Before Google, in the Spring 1998 edition of the Link, I wrote that Alta Vista and Infind were my favorite search tools at that time. Alta Vista was good in those early days, even though notorious for the number of hits it would find.  "We found 1,309,647 results:" it might announce after a ten second search, and throw them up with seemingly little care for which came first.   A search for "civil rights" and georgia could well produce a results page with "Alabama: the real south", or the address of a lawyer in Miami as its topmost hit. This is an important point, for when few searchers go below the first page of results, relevance becomes very, very important.  Alta Vista's results lists were not altogether helpful, for they showed the first line or two on the hit page, and these were often navigation terms: Home and Conferences and About and so on.  But it was worth seeing when the page had last been updated and how large it was; some pages were just not worth downloading on a 16 kbps modem.  

Infind was much more successful in finding pages relevant to my searches, but it was one of the most uninformative results pages ever.  The titles of web pages would emerge, grouped loosely by category, not always helpful.  And that was all.  Roll the mouse over a page title and the URL would appear in the Status Bar at the bottom of the screen, but that was not always helpful either.  Ah, those URLs.  Today it seems that you just need to type and up comes your target.  That's a lot easier than remembering <> or <> or <>!

I have already mentioned some of those early search engines.  Take a tour through the Internet Archive <> for some early emanations of well-known (and less well-known) search engines.  In their attempts to be different, they would add more and more features, and the home pages would become more and more cluttered and crowded.  This is not to say that the added features are not useful.  They often were and they often are. The weather in your home-town, current exchange rates, news headlines, calculators, calendars, maps, phone numbers, shopping, check your email, find flights or hotels, and more and more and more.  And ever more difficult to use, especially for first time visitors who have not seen a search site slowly evolve and grow.  2.   On some search engines, even today,  it can be difficult even to find the search box!

And then, and then, and then… and then along came Google. 3.  

From the first and through to today, Google has maintained one of the most simple search pages ever.  It fits on a single screen.   Google does have many of the features and functions of other search engines and directories, but they are hidden beneath the tabs and the links on the front page.  Indeed, Google has many features and functions not found in any other search tool, but again, they are buried.  Google came to prominence for many reasons.  It was and remains innovative, it used different approaches to the existing search engines, it was faster than other search engines, its database was large and became one of the largest available, it re-visits found sites more frequently than most other search engines, it explores documents other than html web documents, it brought in regional and national and language features and sites, it allows one to search a cached version of a hit in case the current URL has changed from the page which the googlebot actually found and indexed, it introduced features found on other search engines, it introduced many features of its own.

Above all, it was successful.  It seemed to have an uncanny knack for knowing what the searcher was actually seeking, and placing these hits high on the first page of results.  It introduced an "I'm Feeling Lucky" button, which would circumvent the results page and take the inquirer directly to the first of the hits.  Many other search engines have adopted Google-type approaches to searching and have adopted Google features.  Searching on many search engines is easier and more rewarding than in on earlier visits.  Google, and its rivals, are changing almost daily as each attempts to keep up with each other.  For many specific searches and types of search, Google may not be the best tool, but for the moment it remains the best of the general tools.

Google's many features are not always easily found; that simple interface comes at a price.  Confident searchers should explore the tabs on Google's home page, explore the Advanced Searches options, the preference settings, the language tools, check out the Help pages and investigate Services and Tools.  Internet Explorer users may find it worth downloading a Google toolbar, for they can then make a Google search without leaving the page they are on, without having first to go to the Google home page.  I find the toolbar site-search option especially useful:  once I have found a possibly useful site, I can set Google to find pages carrying particular terms which I feel should be somewhere on that site.

Google has its failings, but it is often quick to address them when they are pointed out.  Until recently, Google did not recognize a boolean OR; now it does.  The "phrase search" using inverted commas is also relatively recent.  Google is evolving. Even now, though, Google does not search below the first 100 Kb or so of a large document, it does not allow truncation or the * wild card, nor does it recognise the boolean NOT or NEAR, without instruction from the searcher it will list only two results from any one site.  4.

It is worth checking the preferences link, for it may be set to a default safe search and so not find many valid documents – or it may be set to a default unsafe search, which may thus include undesirable documents.  But its filter is no more reliable than any other filter, and a safe search may eliminate perfectly acceptable and extremely relevant pages and sites. Its synonym search option (whether using OR or using the ~ tilde character) may leave a lot to be desired. 5.   Google may save lives, but it is not infallible.  6.

And of course, Google does not search the invisible web, those sites which general search engines can not or will not search and index.  Many areas of the Internet are easily and freely accessible, but not by the general search engines.  Many of these areas contain valuable, reliable, authoritative and relevant information, often more accurate, recent, and useful than information found on the open web.

For the moment, though, for a one-stop search tool, Google is as good as it gets.  Other search tools may do some things better than Google, but unless I know more definitely where better to go, Google remains my first stop.  If I do not find what I am looking for, then I will try elsewhere.  The important thing is, I believe, to keep an open mind.  Google does not find ALL there is to be found.  A find by Google is not a guarantee of accuracy, currency, authority, relevance, reliability.  There may be other places to look and they are not all on the Internet, there may be people it is quicker and easier to ask.

And five years time? Five months? My favorite search tool?  Watch this space!

1.    Sherman, Chris.  "Search Engine Birthdays." Search Engine Watch, 10 September 2003. <http://searchenginewatch/searchday/…..>  (10 September 2003).  return to text
2.    reference Nielsen's comments on Yahoo!  in Nielsen, Jakob and Marie Tahir, Homepage usability: 50 websites deconstructed.  New Riders Publishing, 2002, p. 293.  return to text
3.    With apologies to The Coasters.  Sorry! (but I did enjoy that!!)  return to text
4.    Notess, Greg R. "Google inconsistencies." Search Engine Showdown: the user's guide to web searching, August 17, 2003 <> (28 September 2003);
also see Notess, Greg R. "Google Review on Search Engine Showdown," August 18, 2003   <> (28 September 2003).  return to text
5.     Johnson, Steve.  "Digging for Googleholes."  Slate, July 16, 2003 <> (22 August 2003).   return to text
6.    There are several stories of people suffering heart attacks, who discover what to do after doing a Google search listing their symptoms.  A wry comment on such stories can be found in Steve Orlowski's article "Google heals the sick," at <>. return to text

John Royce, BA, MLib, ALA

Library Director, Robert College
Arnavutköy, TR-80820 Istanbul, Turkey.

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It was last revised on 4 October 2003.