The Evolution of Search (and What it Means for the Future)

It’s easy to take online search for granted. If you’re looking to buy something online, connect with an old friend, or just figure out who was in that movie you just watched, you’re a short query and a few seconds away from getting what you want thanks to Google and other search engines. It’s been that way for so long that there’s an entire generation of adults who don’t remember a time before search was available.

But the truth is, online search has a long and storied history — and it wasn’t always very effective. Over the course of decades, online search evolved to the masterful form it exists in today. And learning about this path of evolution can help us understand – and prepare – for what search has in store for us next.

The Origins of Online Search

Online search originated as a kind of digital transformation for historical archive and searching functions. Rather than consulting the Dewey Decimal System and combing through card catalogs — an automatic algorithm could connect users to the resources they want to find.

The earliest known search engine was Archie Query Form, a program from 1990 designed to search FTP sites and automatically create an index of files that could eventually be downloaded. Throughout the 1990s, as the internet became more widely known and accepted, a number of competing search engines arose to serve the general public.

Names like Yahoo!, Lycos, WebCrawler, and AskJeeves became household names, and people began getting used to the idea of using search engines to direct their online traffic.

The Rise of Google

Of course, it wasn’t until Google arose that search engines became streamlined and universally popular. Google wasn’t the first search engine – in fact, it didn’t launch until 1998, almost a decade after the earliest known search engine. But it was easily the best to date.

There are several factors that gave Google the edge, including:

Faster speed. To the average user, speed was a top factor for consideration – if you could get results 10 times faster with Google than with other search engines, why would you use anything else?
A deep index. Google’s bots crawled webpages constantly, always discovering new information on the web. Within a year of launch, searches were capable of generating tens of millions of results.
Simplicity. Yahoo! and other search engines attempted to make their search engines a small component of a bigger web service, offering news, products, and services in addition to search and complicating the online search process. Google’s homepage only included a search bar and two simple buttons. It was remarkably easy to understand.
Quality of results. Thanks in part to PageRank, people could reliably get high-quality results –in terms of both relevance and authority.

Accordingly, it was only a matter of years before Google became the absolute dominant search engine. It remains in that position today. But how has it grown?

SERP Evolution

Some of the earliest updates to Google were focused on improving the functionality of components that already existed (such as Googlebot and PageRank). From there, it was a matter of perfecting search engine results pages (SERPs). Early updates attempted to streamline SERPs, making them easier to see and comb through, and incorporating extra features – like separate tabs for News and Images (and later on, Videos).

Future updates would advance SERPs even further, eventually morphing them into the form they enjoy today. But from the start, the focus was on providing a faster, simpler, more streamlined process for search users.

Anti-Spam Measures

Early on, people began to realize just how much potential SERPs had to make websites more visible and easier for potential customers to find. To take advantage of this, webmasters tried to game the system, stuffing their websites with keywords that might help them rank for relevant terms and spamming links across the internet.

Google quickly took notice of the black-hat-hackers and put measures in place to prevent and address the most egregious offenses. But these “black-hat” tactics in search engine optimization (SEO) persisted for many years, until Google took more serious efforts to combat spam. Google’s efforts were in the form of the much-needed algorithm updates.

Panda and Penguin

The Panda and Penguin updates, from 2011 and 2012, respectively, drastically changed Google – arguably for the better.

Panda was released to improve Google’s ability to detect (and reward) content quality. Websites that stuffed keywords into content, hired non-native speakers, or engaged in other low-quality content production practices were penalized with lower rankings. By contrast, websites with high-quality content were greatly rewarded with higher rankings.

Penguin was released a year later to apply higher quality standards to the world of link building. In the old days of SEO, you could get away with spamming links recklessly, without much planning or forethought. Today’s link-building practices, post-Penguin, are much more sophisticated, prioritizing quality and relevance over all else.

Hummingbird and Smaller Updates

From there, Google rolled out Hummingbird, designed to improve Google’s capacity for “semantic search.” In short, Google wanted to “understand” the intent behind a user’s query, and not simply look for keyword matches on the internet. A follow-up to Hummingbird, RankBrain, introduced a machine-learning algorithm to get better at understanding complex user queries.

After around 2015, major updates stopped coming. Instead, Google introduced small tweaks and minimalistic updates on a near-constant basis, refining the algorithm progressively.

Voice Search and New User Interactions

Over the years, Google and other tech companies have also introduced more ways to search. Instead of typing a query into a search bar, you can search using your voice. Instead of using a desktop computer, you can use your phone, a tablet, or even a “smart speaker,” with no visual interface whatsoever.

The Goals of Search Evolution

All of Google’s updates have focused on one or more of the following goals:

Quality and accuracy. To make money, Google needs people to use and trust its search engine. That means prioritizing content quality, relevance, and accuracy. Disinformation and “fake news” continue to be problems, but today’s search engine experience is very streamlined.
Speed. Speed is a non-issue today, but it took time to get to a point where users could get information in a fraction of a second.
Intuitiveness and convenience. It should be easy even for a novice to get accurate search results. Voice search and other mechanisms have simplified the search experience even further.
Reduction of manual effort. Recently, Google has leveraged the power of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to improve its search algorithm automatically – with no manual human design or development.

What Does the Future of Search Look Like?

Knowing all this history helps us understand what has made Google so successful, what Google’s priorities are, and how the search engine must operate if it’s going to survive. So what does that mean for the future of search?

For starters, we’ll see more efforts to automate search engine improvements — learning more from user interactions and constantly refining how search results are found and presented. Quality standards could grow to become more significant and more impactful, eventually targeting disinformation and inaccurate content.

We could also see the development of more interactive forms of search, such as the development of advanced chatbots that can work with users to help them find what they’re looking for. Gesture-based search and other advanced forms of input could also catch on.

But we also need to recognize that novel forms of technological advancement are often fast, and so novel they’re unrecognizable. While Google keeps making iterative improvements and taking baby steps, we could see the next leap forward in search from a young, agile competitor – with a model for online search we’ve never even considered.

In any case, online search remains an important technological staple of the modern world, and it’s come a long way from its humble beginnings. Whatever the future holds in store for search, it’s bound to be amazing.

Image Credit: christina morillo; pexels

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