Credit: CoPilot

Search – Indexing the world’s information

The relentless pursuit of making vast amounts of information accessible and useful has been the primary driver behind the development of search algorithms. In the early days of the internet, the sheer volume of data being generated posed a formidable challenge: how to efficiently locate relevant information amidst an ever-growing digital sea. This challenge was not merely academic; as the internet became integral to daily life, the demand for efficient search mechanisms grew exponentially. It was initially solved by curated search sites like Altavista, Yahoo and AOL. That was feasible when there were still a limited number of websites that humans could find and index. These sites were among the early commercial successes of the internet. The quest for improved search capabilities was further fueled by the commercial potential of connecting users with information, products, and services quickly and accurately.

Beginnings of the search for data

Searching for data has always been a problem. Before the computer revolution, index cards and alphabetically organized data in libraries and dictionaries provided the only way to search for information. With the computer age came new opportunities such as the database. The concept of a relational database was defined by Edgar F. Codd at IBM in 1970. In his research paper titled “A Relational Model of Data for Large Shared Data Banks,” Codd introduced the term “relational” and outlined what he meant by a relation. His work laid the foundation for the relational database model, which has become the predominant type of database system. Although other early examples appeared, IBM and Oracle dominated the market for data search by the end of the 1970s.    Early forms of search algorithms were developed for databases and other information retrieval systems used in academic and corporate settings. To search for any information it would have to be loaded into the database and accessed through SQL code, which made it possible for the user to use Boolean search techniques and combine keywords with operators such as AND, OR, and NOT to refine their searches. This method, while effective in constrained environments, was limited in scalability and flexibility and did not apply to the Internet. 

The rise of search algorithms

As the internet evolved, tools beyond the RDBMS evolved. The first search engine for the internet was called Archie. The original implementation was written by Alan Emtage in 1990. It was the first tool for indexing FTP archives, which were common in the early days of the internet, using the Telnet protocol. It was superseded by more advanced search engines using the Gopher protocol designed for distributing, searching, and retrieving documents in IP networks. It provided a hierarchical system for accessing text files and marked significant steps forward. These systems, however, were primitive by modern standards, relying heavily on manually curated indices and lacking sophisticated algorithms to handle the vast and unstructured nature of web data.

The mid-1990s saw the advent of more advanced search algorithms. The pivotal moment came with the introduction of Google’s PageRank algorithm in 1998. It was developed by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, PageRank and revolutionized search by using the link structure of the web to determine the relative importance of web pages. This innovation dramatically improved search accuracy, making it easier for users to find relevant information and setting a new standard for search quality. Google also increased the amount of websites that could be indexed since they built crawlers to continuously monitor the entire internet rather than rely on human-curated indices. 

Parallel to PageRank, other developments included improvements in text analysis and natural language processing (NLP). Algorithms began to understand context and semantics, moving beyond simple keyword matching to grasp the intent behind queries. The incorporation of machine learning further enhanced search algorithms, enabling them to learn from user interactions and continuously improve their accuracy.

The transformative impact of search

The lasting impact of these developments is profound. Modern search algorithms have transformed the way we access and consume information. They have become indispensable tools for navigating the vast digital landscape, impacting every facet of our lives—from education and research to shopping and entertainment. The continuous improvement of these algorithms has also fueled the growth of big data and AI, as the need to process and understand massive datasets has driven innovation in these fields. 

This wave spawned one of the world’s largest companies: google but it also created other smaller and lesser-known search companies such as Elastic and Splunk used for log analytics while companies such as ThoughtSpot, Lucidworks and Sinequa allow users to use natural language to find data.

Search algorithms have also shaped the broader economic landscape, giving rise to entire industries centered around search engine optimization (SEO) and digital marketing. The power to rank highly in search results has significant commercial implications, influencing how businesses operate and compete online.


The evolution of search algorithms from simple keyword matching to sophisticated, AI-driven systems reflects a broader narrative of technological advancement driven by the need to manage and make sense of an ever-growing pool of information. The journey from the early days of Archie and Gopher to the cutting-edge algorithms of today underscores the dynamic interplay between technology, commercial interests, and the human quest for knowledge.

With the advent of the internet search became an early wave of AI that had a transformative impact on our economy, culture, and how we find information. Search algorithms allowed us to find information, which was not within reach earlier. It created entire billion-dollar industries and companies and boosted the efficiency of knowledge workers, writers and everyone else. It is sometimes easy to overlook but the impact of AI in the area of search cannot be underestimated.