A Search for More Intelligent Search Engines

Using a search engine to look up the history of search engines reveals everything you need to know about how far they have come, and how far they still have to go.

In just over half a second, “search engine history” triggers an astounding 37 million results on Google. That’s almost double the total number of pages that were indexed on AltaVista when it revolutionized search engines a quarter century ago.

It’s remarkable where search engines are today — but what’s even crazier is that they’re only now beginning to hit their stride. As search behaviors evolve and algorithms change, search engines will be able to more intelligently predict what information users really want so they can deliver more relevant results.

For instance, more users are typing long-tail questions into Google. In years past you would have to dive into individual results pages to find answers to your query. Now, Google serves up the best answer at the top of the page.

Although search engines are still evolving, they’ve already proven themselves to be completely invaluable. Whether you’re a student or teacher, doctor or patient, child or adult, you’ve probably used a search engine at some point in your life. That’s not exactly going out on a limb when you consider 3.5 billion searches are made on Google alone every single day.

Search engines have an ironclad grip on our lives, which is strange considering they haven’t always been around. Unlike other technologies we’ve long relied on, most Millennials can remember a time when search engines weren’t available. It was sometime between middle school and high school when they materialized, and even then they didn’t boast the diverse capabilities or blistering speed they do now.

Now we use search engines to look up everything from movie times and medical symptoms to sports scores and arcane laws; panda videos and hotel prices to local businesses and dress shoes. With more than 30 trillion indexed pages on Google, there’s almost nothing you can search for that it can’t find.

It’s not just what we search for that’s changing search engines, but how we search for it. Smartphones and tablets have made search engines even more accessible. In 2015, Google confirmed that more searches are conducted on mobile than desktop. This breakdown is poised to shift again in the coming years as digital assistants like Google Home and Amazon Echo grow in popularity.

When AltaVista broke through in late 1995 by becoming the first search engine to allow natural language queries, it was a huge deal. Still, the most you could do was search 20 million indexed pages — a process that took a relative eternity and wasn’t guaranteed to yield anything of substance. Compare that to today when search engines are sophisticated enough to predict what you’re looking for before you even finish typing.

It’s impossible to know what else the future holds for search engines, but if you Google it, you’ll find about 20 million possible answers. It will be fun to look back in a few years and see if any of them held up.