Search Engine Study – part 2: History of Early Search Engines

Posted by: Rea Maor In: Search Engines - Saturday, July 7th, 2007

As has been mentioned before, there is a difference between the Internet and the World Wide Web. The Internet existed for decades before Tim Berners-Lee came up with the WWW system we use today. It was Berners-Lee who saw the mess we had before and said, “Let’s have a simpler system.”

At first, the Internet was simply connections of machines, each of which had a folder full of files available for FTP. You couldn’t find out what files were on what machine until you’d sent your computer to check on it via telnet. The first attempt to help users find files was the “Archie” program. Archie (named for it’s ‘archive’ function) would go check computers and list the files it found there. Similar to an IRC server, Archie needed a server to run from, and could only know about the computers that had direct contact with that server.

Despite what Wikipedia will tell you, Archie was really not the same thing as what we’d call a search engine today. It could only find file names; it could not search within files. So it could not find all the files containing the string “muffin”, but it could tell you which computers hosted “muffin.txt”, “/bakery/muffins/recipes.txt”, and so on. Later revisions of Archie became Jughead and Veronica, named after cartoon characters.

Alongside this system arose “Gopher“. Gopher was the closest thing we had to Tim Berners-Lee’s WWW system, before it came along. Gopher was named to phonetically sound like “go for”, and that’s exactly what it did: you told it what file to fetch, and it would tunnel through the net checking every Archie listing on every server until it found what you told it to get. Astoundingly, that Wikipedia link for Gopher I just gave you shows that it is quite possible to use a Gopher protocol today in Mozilla browsers, and even in Internet Explorer if you enable it from the registry.

Here’s one example of “HAL 3000“, a “phlog”, a blog running on a gopher server. Note that it starts with “gopher://” instead of “http://”! Nevertheless, Gopher is mostly dead except for a few geek hobbyists who use it just for kicks.

The link to search engines from Gopher is tenuous at best, but we’re showing some resemblance of the search engine system coming into effect. Gopher had rigid directory hierarchies it needed to use, and could still only navigate through menus which became known as “gopher holes”, but otherwise it was obvious that the perfection of the idea of an efficient Internet through which information could freely flow was on its way.

That directory idea from gopher menus influenced one of the first attempts to catalog the newly emerging World Wide Web – leading to the first modern search engine still in very wide use today. It was originally named “Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web”, but it soon found a more marketable name, which we will learn next time…


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