Google is the undisputed king of search engines. However, they weren’t around until 1998 and there were already numerous well-established search engines at the time. Let’s take a look at five early search engines that once had the potential to become the leaders of search.
The first to market is often the winner, even if it is not the superior product. JumpStation, launched by Jonathan Fletcher, the “founder of modern search”, on December 12, 1993, was the first official web search engine with the big three features: crawling, indexing, and searching. JumpStation saw impressive initial traction, reaching 275,000 web entries in the first year, but the project was shut down after Fletcher could not obtain the additional funding needed to expand and it began to lose momentum. The early start was not enough to propel JumpStation to greater glory.
WebCrawler was launched by Brian Pinkerton on April 20, 1994. It was the first search engine to use full-text search and index entire pages. In 1995, WebCrawler became fully supported by advertising and reached high popularity across the US. This same year it was acquired by AOL and introduced its site mascot, a spider on a surf board. At its peak in 1996, WebCrawler was the second most-visited website, trailing only AOL themselves. The site was quickly outmatched by industry rivals like Excite, who bought them for $12.3 million in 1997. The site was maintained until it went bankrupt in 2001; proceeding to be acquired by InfoSpace. WebCrawler is still around today, but has been essentially obsolete since its short-lived 90’s run.
Despite sounding like the name of a nasty disease, Lycos was once a prominent search engine that looked poised to take the top spot. Lycos was developed in July 1994, by Michael Mauldin, and it separated itself from the pack by being a truly corporate business project from the beginning. In 1996, Lycos became the first search engine to go public and was initially valued at $300 million by NASDAQ. The following year they became the most profitable internet company in the world.
In 2000, they were acquired by Terra Networks, a Spanish internet company, for a staggering $12.5 billion. Lycos was a top-10 most popular internet site from 1997-2003, but slowly lost the battle to Google, who had a superior, less-invasive ad system and much quicker loading times. In 2004, Terra Networks sold Lycos for $105 million, less than two percent of what they had paid four years prior. By the mid-2000s, Lycos had abandoned the search engine battle and was re-branded as a community entertainment content platform. Despite the hot start, presently, Lycos is as unrecognizable as all of the other original search engines not named Google.
Excite was originally part of a research project called Architext, which was started by a few Stanford students in 1993. They grew rapidly and went public in 1996, while also partnering with 90s web powerhouse AOL to become their exclusive search and directory service. Excite was among the top-visited websites in the late 90s, and was acquired by telecommunications network @Home for $6.7 billion in 1998.
Excite was quickly outmatched by Google, with their superior search algorithms and more user-friendly home page. This is an ironic fate, considering they turned down a $750,000 offer to acquire Google in 1998 because they preferred their algorithms to Google’s. Excite was bankrupt by 2001 after falling well out of the search engine race.
Yahoo! is likely the only household name on this list, and for good reason. They’ve stuck around since the early years in search and were the biggest threat to Google we’ve seen. They were a top-five visited site on the web from 1996-2013 and were well within reach of winning the search battle with Google.
Yahoo!, like Excite, also turned down a chance to buy Google in both 1998 and 2003. They initially feared purchasing them would draw attention away from their web portal service, and later wouldn’t come to terms with Google’s $5 Billion asking price. In 2003, Yahoo! purchased a few search engine companies and started their own self-crawling service.
Despite adequate success, Yahoo! ended up being crushed by Google in the search war for a multitude of reasons. Yahoo! still saw themselves as a media company and was ambivalent about being a tech company, leading to a lack of initiative and resource allocation to really compete with Google. Their front page was cluttered with links, in sharp contrast with the simplicity of Google’s. Google had superior data technology and algorithms, which attracted more advertisers and propelled the site to the top.
At one point all five of these companies had the potential to be what Google is today. They all failed for a variety of reasons, most notably Google was simply a better search engine. Unfortunately for Excite and Yahoo!, they have to live with the fact that they could have acquired Google early in the search war, at a tiny fraction of their present valuation.
In the end, Google came out on top in the search war, despite being a few years behind many of the pioneers. They are the champions of search, and remain so for the foreseeable future.