What Did Search Look Like a Decade Ago?

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Search engines have evolved tremendously since they first started appearing on the Web more than a decade ago.

I thought it might be fun to take a look back at some of the popular search engines of yesterday and spent a little time at the Internet Archive traveling back to the earlier days of search.

I remember visiting these pages when I put my first site up on the Web and decided to share some screenshots. The dates after each search engines’ name are when the pages were captured by the Internet Archive.

October 22, 1996

The sister of a friend used to work at DEC, the company where AltaVista began, and one day she sent him an email with a link to the search engine they had launched the week before. He forwarded the email to me, and I found myself using Altavista for most of my searches for the next year or two.

Ask Jeeves
December 19, 1996

I remember trying out Ask Jeeves in the early days, but never really got into the hang of searching in question form. I missed out on beta testing for Ask Jeeves but got a kick out of seeing the very early days of Ask.

October 25, 1996

I never used Excite that much either, and looking back, it’s interesting to see the focus upon reviews, news, and local features like the weather.

November 11, 1998

From the very early days, Google seemed to show results that were a lot more relevant than most of the other search engines. I started finding myself getting more disappointed in the pages I found at AltaVista and turning more frequently to Google.

December 12, 1997

HotBot’s bright colors always stood out, but I never found myself visiting regularly.


January 3, 1997

I’m not sure if I ever used Infoseek for any of my searches back in 1997, but I’ve looked at a number of the patents that Google acquired from Infoseek, and they had some interesting technology and ideas back then.

December 22, 1996

Hover over one of the main categories at LookSmart, and a submenu would appear, and then a sub-submenu, and then another. For some reason, the site always reminded me of Russian Nesting Dolls with all of those menus inside of menus.

October 22, 1996

I don’t remember searching at Lycos too often, though I would sometimes type in a query now and then.

October 25, 1996

I can’t say that I ever used the MSN search feature, but I thought it would be interesting to include this page given Microsoft’s efforts towards building a search presence with the launch of Bing, and the take over of Yahoo’s search – especially with Yahoo being the “featured search of the day,” on this page.

Northern Light
December 10, 1997

I enjoyed the way that Northern Light classified results and presented them in different categories, and for a couple of years I would often follow a search at either AltaVista or Google with a search at Northern Light to find pages that I might have missed at one of the other search engines.

December 19, 1996

I remember adding pages to WebCrawler, but not spending a lot of time searching there.

October 17, 1996

The search box at the top of Yahoo’s page might be a little misleading. It wasn’t there to search the Web, but rather to explore Yahoo’s directory. The Yahoo Directory was a great place to discover new pages on the Web in different categories.

Search engines have changed significantly from those days, with personalized search as well as images and videos and news and blogs and tweets and other specialized search results blended amongst web pages. The Web has changed considerably as well.

I’m wondering what they might be like a dozen years from now.

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73 thoughts on “What Did Search Look Like a Decade Ago?”

  1. Good time, good time.
    I remember when Altavista was one of the most used search engines and then it got beaten by Yahoo!’s directory (do you remember at this time Yahoo! indexed the pages manually… it used to take several months to get indexed by Yahoo!) Finally Google got the last word with its robot crawler.
    I wrote an article on the search engine history on my blog:


    Hope you like it!

  2. I especially remember AltaVista, but here i Denmark we often used a local index called Jubii, as the big international sites were generally bad at indexing Danish websites.

    But it’s nice to see that we were not alone in designing ugly webpages at the time ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. I must be getting old, because I can remember most of these, particularly HotBot, Yahoo! and that Fisher Price style Google logo.

  4. Sorry but i didn’t remember any of this as in the year of 1997, i was studying in 8th Stand. ๐Ÿ™‚ But i’d be happy to see if i can go back in 1997 with an existing knowledge ๐Ÿ˜‰

  5. These were happy days. My favourite just before these fledgling sites was a program called “Gopher” which was a results fetch engine that ran locally! and then returned a primitive SERPs. I used to love adding keywords to the meta tags and winning!
    Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  6. Hey, I remember yahoo and google old version. I used that two search engines in old time. Many visual differences with the current search engines!

  7. Hi Bronson,

    They all brought back a lot of memories. Google’s search was a lot simpler than any of the others back then, and in some ways, it’s even more simple now. The older Google logo does remind me of a toy. ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Hi Guillaume,

    With Altavista, I remember doing most of my searches with the advanced search page. I rarely do that with any of the search engines now, though I will sometimes use some of the advanced search operators. I also remember their FAQ statement on keywords for pages – they told webmasters to limit their meta keywords tags to 1024 characters (enough to include a dictionary, which unfortunately many people did do). And, if you wanted to submit a site, you used to have to do it page-by-page, which wasn’t too fun if you had a large site.

    Thanks for the link to the article – I think there were times when Excite, AltaVista, and Yahoo were all the most used places to search for information on the Web. Right now, Google holds that position, but it’s possible that another search engine might take that away from them in the future. I hope competition gives us more choices and better search in the future.

  9. Hi Magnus,

    It’s been interesting watching the “international” sites striving to actually become international. I do have to say that people are paying more attention to the look and feel of their sites, and designs have become better. Actually, the images that they show at Bing are so nice, that I find it a little distracting to search there.

  10. Hi Adrian,

    Those were happy days. You’re welcome. I remember gopher too, but didn’t really get into using it much. I was spending a lot more time in electronic databases like Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis back then, when gopher was more popular.

  11. Wow! I was always a big fan of AltaVista, and was slow to jump on the Google bandwagon. Odd to think about it in retrospect, because the reasoning was purely aesthetics. I didn’t like the way Google looked…insane.

    Hey, you forgot Dogpile! That had to be one of the worst engines, but definitely had an important role in history.

  12. I was really a “user” back when this was the norm, I had no idea how any of this worked, in fact back then I was the type of user who now would greatly get on my nerves!

    Webcrawler was my engine of choice because I think I wanted to be different.

    If I could go back to that time knowing what I know now I would be retired and sitting on a bigger nest than I dare to imagine.

  13. Does anyone use still use these sites?
    This post has a clear message, you would be useless, if you don’t innovate.

  14. Oh, the memories these screen shots bring back! I loved Alta Vista; I was convinced it was the end all and be all of searches. Funny how things have evolved.

    thanks for the memories!

  15. I was slow to jump on the Google bandwagon. Odd to think about it in retrospect, because the reasoning was purely aesthetics. I didnรขโ‚ฌโ„ขt like the way Google looked.

  16. It’s interesting how innovative search engines (Google may the the only one) thrive and the rest go away. clients are always looking for ways to attract targeted traffic to their websites. The best search engines are those that provide well-focused SERPS. Cheers!

  17. Hi Antony,

    They really have changed in appearance. Yahoo has added considerably more to its front page, and the focus is much less on the directory, and more on the portal features they offer. Google has simplified what was already a fairly simple interface.

  18. Hi Anthro,

    I was a big fan of AltaVista back then, too. I remember doing a lot more searches on more than one search engine in those days then I do now, so switching over to doing more searches on Google than AltaVista wasn’t a big step.

    I remembered Dogpile, and some others like Vivisimo and thought about including them, but decided to limit myself to a dozen.

  19. Hi People Finder,

    Looking back at these older versions of search, it does feel like a different lifetime. I don’t think I could have anticipated then what I would be doing now.

  20. Hi Jimmy,

    I remember spending a lot of time online searching, and doing a lot of comparisons of what I was finding at different search engines, but not digging as deeping into how they worked as I do these days. If we could only go back in time – there are a number of domain names that I wish I had registered as well. ๐Ÿ™‚

  21. Hi Wahid,

    At least a couple are still amongst the most used sites on the Web, a few are long gone, some have changed ownership and direction, and some are still out there with slightly different looks. Innovation does seem to be what has kept Google and Yahoo around.

  22. Hi Jeff,

    Fortunately for Google, enough people seem to have liked its appearance that it captured a lot of attention over the past decade. I do wonder if it would have if it didn’t keep its simple interface.

  23. Hi Gregg,

    It would have been nice to have shown off search results pages from the different search engines too. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if those are available at the Internet Archive.

  24. tks for those data.

    I don’t think it s changed drastically.

    I mean in 10 years, we have got at least 2^10 ~ 1000 times faster, more powerful, larger
    computers and memories.

    Based on that tremendous progress in terms of hardware, we have to create the software.

    The software has not changed because of the way we think: we think like numb people.

    The search bar is still there, the quantity of information that you can input is still limited to 2.1 in average because
    we still rely on a Boolean paradigm that is not so much flexible.

    Time to rethink the search bar.
    Time to kill it and replace it with a new search bar

    This is what we are trying to do at ASCOT PROJECT: http://ascotproject.blogspot.com/

    Pascal Hamonic, from Tokyo.

  25. Its funny how Google looked in the past..really interesting post there bill I loved it ๐Ÿ™‚

  26. Hi Pascal,

    I do think that the real changes have taken place behind the interface for the search engines that are still going strong and thriving.

    The image from AltaVista mentions that they have indexed 30 million pages from the Web. The size of search indexes now from the major search engines are significantly larger.

    Search results are no longer just a list of web pages – we also see images, videos, news, scholarly articles, local search results, books, and other kinds of results other than just web pages.

    The amount of time that it takes for fresh new content to make its way into the major search engines is no longer weeks or months in many cases, but often minutes or days.

    The search engines are increasing looking at the data they are collecting about the ways that people search, and the ways that people browse the web, to influence query suggestions and search results that we see. For example, personalization at Google is live for everyone, regardless of whether we are logged in or not.

    Search engines have been evolving from systems that match keywords, and rank pages more highly when keywords appear more prominently and frequently (to a point) on a page, to systems that attempt to look at the intent of a search, and return pages to searchers matching that intent even if the keywords used in the original query don’t appear on some of the pages returned to a searcher.

  27. Lovely post at the end of this year. It’s always really great to freshen up memories and see how thing looked in past, and how we lived with them. I suppose no one could imagine what we would do today, if search engines didn’t evolve so much in not so big time frame of about 10 years. We can only guess what can we expect in next decade… Something to thing about…

  28. Hi Web Design Beach,

    Thank you. I’m guessing that the next decade will bring much greater changes than the last one, as well as a lot of surprises.

  29. Hi remonatrix,

    It was very tempting to start including all of the meta search engines in this post, too. I remember a few charts that different people had published that they tried to keep up to date, that showed where that data came from that powered many different search portals. I restrained myself from including Dogpile, mama.com, Vivisimo, and many of the others that combined and presented results from other search engines – but it’s something I might write about in the future. Thanks.

  30. Those old search engine screen shots are making me feel old.
    I really don’t like to use them…

  31. Google hasn’t changed a bit. I like its clean interface and I hope they never change that ever.

  32. Hi NiceBlogger,

    The screenshots stirred up some memories for me as well. I’m actually sorry that a few of those search engines don’t work the way that they did, like Northern Light.

  33. Hi Rinnell,

    Google has gone through some changes, but they have managed to keep their home page very simple and similar over time. The real difference at Google now are the earch results pages that they show, and the algorithms behind them.

  34. As I scrolled through the list, I was surprised how I connected with Altavista, Lycos and Webcrawler as I viewed the screen grabs. How many times did I used those products before Google came along? I just went to each and did a search for old times sake. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  35. Hi Chicago Web Design Guy,

    You’re welcome. I’ve given up on trying to remember the last time that I used a few of them to do searches with, but it might be fun to do some comparisons of search results with some of the ones remaining.

  36. As far as I remember I’ve always used google to search the web. When Bing first came out few months ago, I tried for a few minutes and went right back to google again. It’s scary how big Google Inc. has become.

  37. Hi Torino Creative,

    I often search using more than one search engine, but I like doing that so that I can see the differences between results. You have me wondering how many people tend to stick to one search engine most of the time, and how many people tend to use more than one.

  38. wow this almost brought a tear to my eye…I must be Ancient in terms of my internet age because I remember all of these. I thought at one time that Alta Vista was the search engine that would never be beat, sadly…we see how that worked out.

    Its sad all these others like Northern Light, and the like are gone today…we definitely had a lot of choices back in those days eh? ah the memories.

    thanks for the great post!

  39. And when “ask jeeves” had just come and people would type in long, ridiculous questions in expecting a real answer…

  40. Hi Brian,

    I’m wondering if that’s why I had such a hard time coming up with queries for Ask Jeeves. I had already been used to searching via keywords rather than questions after using a number of electronic databases, but the idea of asking a computer program questions instead felt limiting.

  41. Hi Raygen’s Basement,

    You’re welcome. I’m not sure if the relevancy of Alta Vista diminished as much as other search engines were just a little better, but I remember when I started using it less, and other search engines more. Guess I must be ancient in terms of internet age, too. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Hopefully we’ll start seeing some more choices. It’s sad to see search engines go away, including those disappearing today. Did you see the pdf describing the sale of SearchMe’s intellectual property:


    It provides an interesting look at the technology behind the search engine.

  42. Hey Bill I agree that it seemed Alta Vista never kept up with the times nor did they do anything to really improve their product. Yahoo and Google on the other hand just got better eventually.

    Well I am glad i am not the only Ancient one ๐Ÿ™‚

    I will have to check out that PDF, thanks for sharing Bill

    Take care! Look forward to reading more of your posts.

    I think a post about Geocities would be good…its a shame Yahoo closed it…

  43. Hi Raygen’s Basement,

    A post on Geocities would be interesting. I know I’ve seen a few recently on the closing of the portal, but a look back at the history would be fun. Thanks for the suggestion.

    The Searchme PDF was the first document I can recall ever seeing that provided so much detail on the inner workings of a disappearing search engine. I hope someone considers taking a chance on it.

  44. Hey Bill, thanks for including Northern Light in your roundup. We evolved from being a public search engine to building highly specialized and private search engines for large companies to use for business analysis and market research using text analytics to automatically discover and extract meaning from huge document repositories of research content. However, you might be interested in knowing that we still have a publicly available “demonstration” project at http://www.nlsearch.com searching a business news database. (A business news database that includes your blog by the way, which is why I saw the post!) Check on the text analytics sample on the left side of each results list. We call the text analytics “MI Analyst” and it is the successor to our Custom Search Folders you may fondly recall from the 1990’s.

    ——–C. David Seuss, CEO, Northern Light

  45. Hi David,

    I remember when Northern Light stopped acting as a public search engine. It was one of my favorites, as I mentioned above, and I was pretty sad by the ending of public searches.

    I probably should have noted that Northern Light evolved towards providing search for businesses, and I’m very thankful that you’ve stopped by, and let us know more about the Northern Light of today, and for pointing out the demonstration project. I’ve tried a couple of searches, and the results are pretty interesting. I’ll probably be visiting on a regular basis.

    The MI Analyst application looks pretty interesting as well.

    Again, thank you.

  46. Wow just look at the way that these people were bragging about having 30 million web pages indexed. How far we have come since then!

  47. I think the current search technology is getting pretty obsolete, even for the casual non-power user. If I could only get the funding I’d bust one helluva search engine it would at least put some meaning to my life cause all I do now is meaningless “projects” ๐Ÿ™‚

  48. Hi RD,

    I’m not sure that I would say that current search tech is getting obsolete, but maybe that’s because I spend so much time looking through search related patent filings and whitepapers to keep an eye upon developments that might be on the horizon.

    I think there may be opportunities to develop something that can challenge the major search engines of today, though I suspect that the way to do it is to start out not challenging them directly, but rather by developing something that can grow and bring you that opportunity in the future.

  49. I certainly do remember those days. Webcrawler was always second to yahoo in the results. One website that has changed surprisingly little over time is actually Ebay. Back then it was a magical site and it was actually possible to pick up some serious good bargains. NO SEO required on their part. The amount of natural backlinks they received was phenomenal.

    Thank you for that bit of nostalgia.


  50. Hi Martin,

    You’re welcome. I haven’t looked back at past designs for eBay, but it sounds like an interesting idea. I haven’t done much with it, but know a few people who have used it a lot over the past decade or so. Seems like there’s still some interesting stuff that can be found there.

  51. One funny thing to note is that all of the old search engines, if you would notice, used to have directories built into the home pages. You don’t see that anymore. I believe that is really what the first search engines were, just directories that people would submit sites to. Then, they started searching beyond their borders and spidering the content and links found on the pages of submitted links. Once that ball started rolling, it only gained momentum. Eventually, the directories were taken off of the home pages and only organic results and ads were shown. Then, from that point forward, relevancy was and still is “king” and the determination of relevancy became an extremely complicated algorithm combined with statistical and behavioral monitoring and linking among other things thus giving rise to none other than S.E.O…something we are all familiar with here…:)

  52. Hi Mark,

    It is interesting to see the evolution of search. By providing both a search box and a directory, search engines let people choose which way they might want to try to explore a topic. If you don’t know too much about a specific subject, there is some value to letting people browse through a directory and narrow a topic down from a general topic to a much more specific one.

    Even as most search engines got better at crawling the Web, those directory interfaces lingered on with many.

    One thing important to keep in mind is that the concept of “relevance” has a number of different meanings. A page can be relevant because it contains the keywords found in a query. It can also relevant if it is a good match for a searcher’s intent, even if it doesn’t contain the exact query terms. It can also be relevant if it meets a searcher’s informational needs. SEO has been around through that kind of evolution of relevance, and the evolution of search engines.

  53. Yes, I remember them all. What’s interesting is how quickly they faded from glory. It used to be confusing to decide which search engine to use. When Google came out, the choice was clear. They figured out how to do it better, or at least deliver the perception of doing it better, and here they are (so far). Does anyone know the percentage of search engine users who use Google now?

  54. Most of these I’ve never even heard of, I only know Google, Yahoo, MSN and Ask Jeeves. When I look at some of these old websites it makes me think “wow websites used to be squareish”

  55. Hi Sarah,

    The internet Archive (archive.org), where I got the older images, is definitely an interesting place to find out more about the history of the Web, and of the history of Web design. It’s highly recommended.

  56. Hi Bill, I came across this and it brought back some old but slow memories. This is what it looked like when I got started with computers! Can you believe what it looks like today? And how fast it all works? I wouldn’t have guessed it then but my entire work life revolves around these search engines! Back then I thought they were weird and slow! Glad I came across this today.

  57. Hi Rudy,

    Glad that you enjoyed the post.

    It brought up a lot of memories for me as well. I still look at that HotBot page, for instance, and wonder what they were thinking when they used the bright green and reds on the page. Guess they wanted it to be memorable.

    I also remember performing a search at AltaVista, and having to wait a good number of seconds before they would show search results. Now, Google can’t wait until you’re finished typing to show you results.

  58. Actually most of the sites leaving out Google and Yahoo none of these sites ever made a much impact on the Indian market so I have never used them but yeah I remember using Alta Vista just to try its search. It is because of the high-relevancy in the results that Google provides than any other search engine that is way it dominates other search engines by a big margin.

  59. Hi Akash,

    A few of these were pretty popular before Google was even launched, and chances were that you either used a few of them back then, or you weren’t searching at all.

  60. Hello Bill,

    Yes Bill you are right I started using search engines after Google came into existence and maybe that’s why I didn’t used these search engines.

  61. Hi Akash,

    Those were pretty popular in their time. Will we be looking back at Google in 15 years, and wondering why some people didn’t remember it? Maybe.

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