• Comedian John Robins hosts new quiz show, 'Beat the Internet'. (SBS)Source: SBS
The history of search engines, from AskJeexes to Alexa.
By
Shane Cubis

24 Apr 2019 - 10:50 AM  UPDATED 3 May 2019 - 10:09 AM

In new comedy quiz show, Beat the Internet, hosted by comedian John Robins, contestants try to finish sentences based on some of the internet’s most popular search terms. It has us recalling how search has evolved over time. 

Cast your minds back to the mid-to-late-'90s, when Australians had four solid options for looking things up online: Infoseek, Lycos, Yahoo! and AltaVista. There wasn’t actually a huge amount to find back then, unless you were hoping to track down the one extant fan page for The Young Ones or some Doug Anthony All Stars lyrics that were wrong anyway. But the main thing was that if you’d grown up playing adventure games like Hero’s Quest or Zork, you had a leg-up on everyone else, because you’d learnt how to speak to computers through hard experience (“take lamp”). 

What is a search engine anyway?

Ask Google, and this is what you’ll get…

… which isn’t very helpful, really. Beyond the basic answer of “a magic box you ask for info, then have to trawl through the results looking for the thing you sought”, search engines are very sophisticated and interesting pieces of technology. They’re also very easy to get wrong, even with a great deal of time, work and money invested in their development.

These days you probably wouldn’t even bother trying to catch up, but back in that decade of Third Eye Blind and Bic Runga, it seemed like everyone was looking for the silver bullet that would index the entire contents of cyberspace, connecting users with content as efficiently as possible. 

The first search engines

Back in 1990, before you even knew what an internet was, Archie hatched. The brainchild of Canadian uni student Alan Emtage, it searched FTP sites to create an index of downloadable files. Unlike future search engines, Archie was only a listing – you couldn’t access the sites’ contents. Things evolved from there in the usual way things do when they’re new, as different entrepreneurs added different bells and whistles: Yahoo! had personalised descriptions of each site, WebCrawler indexed entire pages and AltaVista introduced natural language queries… which meant we lost our Zork advantage over rival hunters.

Enter AskJeeves

Natural language turned out to be a good wicket, but it was still fairly primitive in 1996, when AskJeeves’ team of human editors tried to match search queries. The idea was that you could speak to the search engine like you would another human, and it would find exactly what you needed. In practice, they had a solid pool of common questions under their cummerbunds, but the dot-com bubble popped… leading to a $425 million loss in 2001, followed by a share price drop from $190.50 to $0.86 in 2002. And, of course, in the end a dapper butler with a database of answers couldn’t compete with the less human approach of Google.

It’s all about the algorithm

Today’s premier search engine, Bing Google, is in an eternal war with the SEO mavens who are always trying to help you get your site on the first page of search results. Algorithms are closely guarded and constantly changing in order to maintain the optimum search à find ratio. In fact, this was how they conquered the market – constantly refining algorithms to score content they’re indexing against specific criteria, including inbound links from trusted sources and keyword frequency.

When Donald Trump complained that they rigged search results to favour articles that were anti-him, Google declined to offer the “truth has a liberal bias” defence, opting instead to say, “When users type queries into the Google Search bar, our goal is to make sure they receive the most relevant answers in a matter of seconds. Search is not used to set a political agenda and we don’t bias our results toward any political ideology.” Suffice to say, Excite never had to put up with accusations of politicising search. 

Do I need a jacket?

Today, you can actually ask your Google Home Mini that question, and she’ll give you an answer like she’s your Nanna Jean. You can also ask her to flip a coin, roll dice, do some maths, play music, tell jokes, pay you a compliment and have a male voice instead, please. Alexa has proven very helpful when you need someone to do your homework.

Sure, these convenient in-home devices are always listening, and almost certainly sending data back to HQ for quasi-nefarious purposes, but it’s all worth it to be able to converse like an actual human with your personal robot. Remember to say “thank you”, so they’ll spare you when the uprising comes. 

Beat the Internet screens on SBS VICELAND Saturdays at 6:30 pm. Watch the latest episode at SBS On Demand:

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