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The History of Search Engines - Epilogue

We have come to the end of a great series, fellow search engine researchers. We have covered a lot – not just regarding search engine technology advancement, but regarding human advancement.

Starting with our brain, we transitioned to the Scriptio Continua, then to the Printing Press, then to Charles Babbage and the Analytical Engine. At this junction, technology began to limit the search engine’s progress. Once technology caught back up, we then explored Paul Otlet and the RBU, Vannevar Bush and the Memex, and Ted Nelson and Douglas Engelbart’s hypertext innovations. Finally, we ended the series with the advent of the World Wide Web and the modern search engine model, culminating with the founding of Google. Those milestones cover thousands of years of human history and, as I sit here writing this final post, I can’t help but wonder – what technology is lying in the shadows of our existence that is begging to be discovered?

That is a multi-trillion-dollar question with no obvious answer, and don’t think for one second AI will be able to give you one. If there’s one thing I’ve learned writing this blog series is you never know who or what is going to produce the next technological quantum leap that moves society forward. Paul Otlet, for example, was slated to be an international lawyer before he discovered his love for information organization. Larry Page and Sergey Brin were ordinary college-age computer geeks before they became the titans behind Google. I’m not going to name every person who’s contributed to the search engine’s development, but I believe you see a theme forming. These people weren’t prodigious individuals. They were simply intellectually curious problem solvers. That brings me onto another important thing I learned – the role timing plays in technological advancement, or lack thereof.

WebCrawler and AltaVista are the most potent examples of this timing phenomenon. From a technical perspective, one could argue these two search engines were more advanced than Yahoo. The difference was, Yahoo positioned itself such that it was immune to the effects of the Dotcom Bubble. The Dotcom Bubble was something none of these three companies had any control over, nor would it have been wise to account for this event whilst building out their search engines. Paul Otlet’s invention of the RBU, and it coinciding with two World Wars, is another prime example of poor timing halting innovation. Who knows what would’ve happened if either scenario played out in the opposite manner? We might have WebCrawler Search on our smartphones or, perhaps, the RBU might have taken hold worldwide. In the latter hypothetical, an entirely new search engine model could’ve evolved. Sit on that for a minute…

No matter how you interpret the history of search engines, there is no doubt they’ve had a tremendous impact on how we function as a society. It has provided a gateway of infinite information to the masses, an innovation with an incalculable effect. Going forward, the challenge will not be if we have enough information, but if we have too much. After all, our brain is the same organ it was thousands of years ago. We may know more about how this organ works, but a better one has not evolved that can sort, store, and retrieve the volume of information in the same way as a search engine. God help us if that organ ever comes to be.

Before I conclude this series, I wanted to thank you the reader for sticking with me until the end. I hope you have learned a thing or two about search engines, and maybe taken away a thing or two about how their story parallels your own. It has been a great honor to write on this subject for fourteen weeks, and I can’t wait to find another subject like this to write on. When that day comes, you can guarantee my first action will be to type “history of [fascinating subject]” into Google.

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