The History of SEO and Search Engines

The History of SEO and Search Engines

Last Edited May 2, 2018 by Garenne Bigby in Search Engine Optimization

Search engines are used by millions of people every day to find out information about almost any topic you can think of. It is almost hard to imagine a time before you were able to ask the internet a question and find the answer in just a few seconds.

Search engines today are much more advanced than they used to be – even just 30 years ago when they first came about. Using this internet feature is so easy these days. It is even possible to use your voice to find what you are looking for instead of typing in keywords or phrases. Previously, internet search engines were not this simple. In fact, you had to know precisely what you were looking for to find it successfully when they were first being used. Here is a brief history of internet search engines, beginning with the creation of the internet.

The History of Search 

The History of Search

The history of search engines really is dependant upon the creation of the internet. Without the internet, there would be no ability to use search engines to find what you are looking for. While there are ways to search databases that don’t have to do with the internet, there would be no Google or Yahoo! without the World Wide Web. While many people can hardly imagine life without the internet, there was such a time. It all began in the 1960s when the government was researching new ways to communicate with others.

The idea of the internet actually came about because the military was afraid their communications was going to be wiped out by the Soviet Union. The Secretary of Defense at the time, Neil McElroy, initially launched the project in 1958. The precursor to the internet started off as a way for the government to communicate information that was secure and faster than sending information through the telephone or mail system. No one anticipated that it would be as popular and necessary as it is today. In the 1980s, ARPANET was the very first network that the military used to communicate sensitive information.

On January 1, 1983, the internet was born and has not stopped growing ever since. While ARPANET had been around for many years, 1983 was when it became an international way to communicate between computers. Http was created in 1989 and in 1990, ARPANET no longer existed. Eventually, web browsers came into play, which was the catalyst for the internet and the search engines that we know today. It is amazing to think that the internet began as just a small idea for military research and has expanded to connect people globally today.

The internet has changed lives as we know it, and it certainly isn’t done as it continues to evolve every day. Understanding how the internet came about is important to understanding the history of search engines.

The Early Ideas for Search Engines

There were search engines before the web, which helped to pave the way for later ones that we use today. In the 1960s at Cornell University, there was a man named Gerard Salton, who with his colleagues created the SMART Information Retrieval System.

In the early 1980s, the WHOIS protocol was the first of its kind. It is said to have been the first tool to be used on the internet related to search engines. It would query the internet databases for information. It was initially used to find information of resources to try and locate any files located with a person or organization. It is still used today, but its ability—compared to modern day search engines—is very limited.


Yahoo! was one of the first well-known search engines, but it was not exactly the first. A student from McGill University was invented and called “Archie”. The student’s name was Alan Emtage. Emtage created the search engine, which helped locate files on public archives. It was a bit more advanced than the search engines created back in the 19060s. It was actually not an internet search engine, but it paved the way for what is now one of the most important parts of the internet.


In addition to Emtage, there was also another student named Mark McCahill from the University of Minnesota who developed the next search engine. This time, his innovation was directly related to the internet. The search engine was called “Gopher”. His technological work was directly involved in the first coding for URLs. This eventually led to POPmail, which was one of the first types of email.


Another search engine before Yahoo! was Excite. Excite was the first commercial search engine. It was fully released in 1995, but had been created in 1994 by another group of students at Stanford University. In short, this internet tool was able to give weather and news updates as well as search results, stock market updates, IM, email and a homepage that could be customized to the user’s liking. Eventually, Excite would pave the way for other search engines like Yahoo!, Bing, and Google. It was popular in the mid to late 1990s and was recognized by most internet users. In the early 2000s, it began to decline and still exists today. These days, Excite is powered by Bing, another popular search engine.


Yahoo! is still one of the most well-known search engines today. It was created in 1994, but didn’t become popular until the early 2000s when it began using its own services to look for search results. Previously, it was powered by other search engines. It was, however, one of the first search engines that were used for collecting popular sites and turning them into search results. Yahoo! began as a web crawler, collecting web results and storing them into a huge database of information and where those results could be found on the internet. At this time, it was not self-powered. While it wasn’t the first web crawler to come about, it was one of the most well-known ones and had a very large database compared to the others.

For the first few years Yahoo! was in use, it depended on other search engines until 2003 when it became its own self-crawling engine to produce search results. One of the other search engines Yahoo! relied upon was Google, which would eventually become more popular than Yahoo!. Over the years, Yahoo! did buy some other search engines. They were Alltheweb, Overture, and Inktomi. Previously, Inktomi had been one of the search engines to power Yahoo!.

Yahoo! is known for many of the tools our modern day search engines use. It allowed users to search for keywords within a specific category, which was the first feature of its kind. This meant a person could look for just images, search the news, or sports. This helped users to narrow down their search, so that they could find what they were looking for more easily. Even today, Yahoo! has been able to remain one of the most popular search engines. Yahoo! still owns companies like Tumblr, Overture Services, and today.


WebCrawler also came about in 1994 and was a metasearch engine that would take the results from other search engines, like Yahoo! and Google, and blend those searches together. It was yet another search engine that allowed its users to search for items in specific categories, like Yahoo!. It seems the early 1990s was a popular time for internet search engines as many of them came out of this time. This search engine was known for allowing a user to search for a full line of text, rather than just one word. It was able to run on Monday made solely by displaying ads, but was later bought out by Excite and is now owned by Infospace. It was then used as a tool that collects search results from multiple search engines. Now, it is a search engine powered by Bing.


As mentioned before, the 1990s were an important time for the internet and search engines. Lycos was another search engine that was created in 1994. It was created at Carnegie Mellon University by Michael Loren Mauldin, a Ph.D. student at the university.  It began as a research project and includes social networking, email, and web hosting, among other features that are common in search engines. It was also used for advertising and became rather popular in the 1990s. In 1999, it was said that it was one of the most visited places on the web across the whole world.

It acquired other companies throughout the years, including Terra, a Spanish telecommunications company. Eventually, it came under new ownership, which changed the direction from a search engine to more of a broadband entertainment site. Lycos sold companies that were not part of this new goal. Around 2006, Lycos became a site that supported more broadband social media by introducing a real-time chat and video feature. Today, Lycos is still considered a top site on the internet.


Infoseek is yet another search engine that was created in 1994, this time by Steve Kirsch. It began with its headquarters in Sunnyvale, California, but was then bought out by Disney in 1999. In 1997, Infoseek had over 7 million users visit each month. In 1998, Infoseek bought the WebChat Broadcasting System before being bought out by Disney. It is known for being one of the first search engines to sell advertising to other companies. It was the first known Cost Per Click site out of all the search engines, which is still an advertising strategy used today. It was also the first search engine for behavioral targeting using algorithms. Today, if you look up Infoseek, you will be redirected to


The search engine, AltaVista was created in 1995, and even though it was after many other successful search engines, it was also popular. Launched by the Digital Equipment Corporation, it competed against the other search engines of its time. In short, it was very popular in the later 1990s and early 2000s. In 2003, it was bought out by Yahoo! and now if you were to search for it, you would be redirected to Yahoo!. AltaVista was a bit faster than the other search engines, which made it easier to use. It also had a crawler, called Scooter, that was able to pull information for searches from many sites all over the internet, which the other search engines were not as advanced to do at this time.

Besides, it had efficient back-end search, which was the first of its kind. Just by the second year after AltaVista was launched, it had over 80 million searches per day. Another innovation for AltaVista was that the search engine offered a service called Babel Fish, which allowed users to translate phrases into other languages. It remained until 2013 when Yahoo! closed it and now uses it to redirect users to its own homepage.

Ask Jeeves

Ask Jeeves was a search engine that came about in 1996 by two men out of Berkeley, California. If you are unfamiliar with this search engine, users were able to ask a question, to which the search would list web page results. The purpose of the search results was to answer the question that was asked by the user. The creators of Ask Jeeves also created their own algorithm that could rank the web pages. This was one of the first of its kind. It was called ExpertRank. It allowed users to find the most relevant information, which is still important today to searches and search engine optimization.

ExpertRank took into consideration backlinks from other sites to determine how relevant a web page was. Ask Jeeves is still around today, but its main focus is more so on a database that hosts questions and answers by users. This change came about in 2010. It is no longer Ask Jeeves, but it is just now.


Google was actually one of the last major search engines to come about in the late 1990s, and as many people know, it is the most widely used search engine today. It was launched in 1997 and has taken the world by storm. Two Ph.D. students at the University of Stanford were working on a research project. Sergey Brin and Larry Page created an algorithm using backlinks to find how math related to the internet. Before 1998 was over, Google had the information for about 60 million web pages.

Many felt that their search results were better than the rest of the search engines out there, so they were very highly regarded early on. Most people liked that it was simple to use and understand. At first, its creators were against any kind of advertising, but they changed their minds when they realized how profitable it could be. In the beginning, they only allowed text ads, but have further developed their advertising policies.

Since its creation, Google has become very useful. Google is not only a search engine but has developed an entire suite of online technologies that many people use today for both personal and professional reasons. The term, “to Google” something has also been defined as a way to look something up on the internet.

Bing - Microsoft

Bing is another major search engine that is used by many today. It is powered by Microsoft, and even though Bing was launched in 2009, it actually dates back to 1998. It began as MSN Search and Live Windows Search. Microsoft owns Bing, and they began using their own search results in 2004. Before this change in 2004, other third-party search engines powered the results. Bing also began to power Yahoo! in 2012. As of 2015, Bing has backed off of Yahoo! for the most part and is now only using Bing for some of its searches.

One interesting piece of Bing’s development is that it created a feature that could search not only websites but also social media profiles to find relevant information. While Google is still the number 1 used search engine today, Bing is the second largest search engine that is used on the internet.

The Future

While no one really knows what exactly the future of search engine holds, it is safe to say that we probably can only dream about what is coming next. Who would have thought that just 30 years ago we would be where we are today with search engines and how much they benefit our lives. While there have been many search engines that paved the way for Google, Bing, and the other ways we get to search for what we need, no one can be certain what we will be using next.

Search engines help us to find the information we are looking for quickly and accurately. They have come a long way from where they began. Technology is changing each and every day as rapidly as we can blink and search engine advancement is no exception.

Garenne Bigby
Author: Garenne BigbyWebsite:
Founder of DYNO Mapper and Advisory Committee Representative at the W3C.


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