Search Engine Guide: Editor’s Note: Search on the Brain

One of the nine movies starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn featured a computer versus the know-it-all head of a broadcasting network’s research department. In “Desk Set,” Tracy’s room-sized computer, which was called an “electronic brain machine,” could calculate the weight of the world in less than a minute, but it was no match for the encyclopedic knowledge and witty repartee of librarian/ researcher Bunny Watson, played by Hepburn.

In the end, though, the computer turned out to be an asset, Tracy and Hepburn got together and the world was a better place.

Ah, the days before the Web.

Today, Bunny would be sent to the glue factory. Who needs libraries? Index cards, periodicals rooms and newspaper morgues are a thing of the past. Teens would be lost if they had to page through a Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature to track down a magazine article. Thanks to the Internet, they don’t remember those expensive leather-bound encyclopedias that lined most families’ bookshelves in previous decades.

In the mid-’90s, the top three Web sites were AOL, Netscape and AOL’s WebCrawler – two Internet service providers and a search engine. Each had an audience of barely 6 million people a month. Now you get that many users in a few seconds. When I came to DM News in 1997, I remember using Alta Vista, Infoseek and Yahoo for most of my searching.

But then someone said to try this new search engine with an odd name, not that the other search companies had better names.

“Only now in the bright light of the Google Era do we see how dim and gloomy was our pregooglian world. In the distant future, historians will have a common term for the period prior to the appearance of Google: the Dark Ages,” The Washington Post wrote last year. “Google is the first [search engine] to become a utility, a basic piece of societal infrastructure like the power grid, sewer lines and the Internet itself.”

Google did this by taking the opposite approach. While other search companies added content and features in the rush to become portals, Google kept things clean and simple. And somewhere along the way, it turned into an icon … and even a verb. Last month, Google became the most highly valued media company, passing Time Warner in just 10 months of trading as a public company.

In the early days of search, it was much more hit and miss. Not anymore. A world of information can be found at your fingertips. The search engines have more to comb through, and metasearch engines give you searches of the search engines. You just need to know what to search for.

The landscape has changed since the late ’90s, and technology is in the driver’s seat. Not a day goes by without an announcement, update, change or new feature being released by Google, Yahoo, MSN, Ask Jeeves and the other search companies. To us ordinary Joes, most of it is confusing, much of it intriguing. That’s why we’ve put together this supplement: to help take away some of the mystery so you can put these technologies and strategies to use. Because in the end, everyone wants the same result.

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