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What is a search engine?

A search engine is an information retrieval system designed to help find information stored on a computer system. Search engines help to minimize the time required to find information and the amount of information which must be consulted, akin to other techniques for managing information overload.

The most public, visible form of a search engine is a Web search engine which searches for information on the World Wide Web. Of course, it is precisely search engine technology that allowed Wikipedia to revolutionize information seeking, with the creation of an online, searchable encyclopedia. The popular web browser Firefox has an add-on that installs the Wikipedia search engine directly into its Search Bar.

How search engines work

Search engines provide an interface to a group of items that enables users to specify criteria about an item of interest and have the engine find the matching items. The criteria are referred to as a search query. In the case of text search engines, the search query is typically expressed as a set of words that identify the desired concept that one or more documents may contain. There are several styles of search query syntax that vary in strictness. It can also switch names with in the search engines from previous sites. Where as some text search engines require users to enter two or three words separated by white space, other search engines may enable users to specify entire documents, pictures, sounds, and various forms of natural language. Some search engines apply improvements to search queries to increase the likelihood of providing a quality set of items through a process known as query expansion.

The list of items that meet the criteria specified by the query is typically sorted, or ranked, in some regard so as to place the most relevant items first. Ranking items by relevance (from highest to lowest) reduces the time required to find the desired information. Probabilistic search engines rank items based on measures of similarity (between each item and the query, typically on a scale of 1 to 0, 1 being most similar) and sometimes popularity or authority (see Bibliometrics) or use relevance feedback. Boolean search engines typically only return items which match exactly without regard to order, although the term boolean search engine may simply refer to the use of boolean-style syntax (the use of operators AND, OR, NOT, and XOR) in a probabilistic context.

To provide a set of matching items that are sorted according to some criteria quickly, a search engine will typically collect metadata about the group of items under consideration beforehand through a process referred to as indexing. The index typically requires a smaller amount of computer storage, which is why some search engines only store the indexed information and not the full content of each item, and instead provide a method of navigating to the items in the search engine result page. Alternatively, the search engine may store a copy of each item in a cache so that users can see the state of the item at the time it was indexed or for archive purposes or to make repetitive processes work more efficiently and quickly.

Other types of search engines do not store an index. Crawler, or spider type search engines (a.k.a. real-time search engines) may collect and assess items at the time of the search query, dynamically considering additional items based on the contents of a starting item (known as a seed, or seed URL in the case of an Internet crawler). Meta search engines do not store an index nor a cache and instead simply reuse the index or results of one or more other search engines to provide an aggregated, final set of results.

History of popular Web search engines

The very first tool used for searching on the Internet was Archie. The name stands for "archive" without the "vee". It was created in 1990 by Alan Emtage, a student at McGill University in Montreal. The program downloaded the directory listings of all the files located on public anonymous FTP (File Transfer Protocol) sites, creating a searchable database of file names; however, Archie did not index the contents of these files.

The rise of Gopher (created in 1991 by Mark McCahill at the University of Minnesota) led to two new search programs, Veronica and Jughead. Like Archie, they searched the file names and titles stored in Gopher index systems. Veronica (Very Easy Rodent-Oriented Net-wide Index to Computerized Archives) provided a keyword search of most Gopher menu titles in the entire Gopher listings. Jughead (Jonzy's Universal Gopher Hierarchy Excavation And Display) was a tool for obtaining menu information from specific Gopher servers. While the name of the search engine "Archie" was not a reference to the Archie comic book series, "Veronica" and "Jughead" are characters in the series, thus referencing their predecessor.
Timeline
Note: "Launch" refers only to web
availability of original crawl-based
web search engine results.
Year Engine Event
1993 Aliweb Launch
1994 WebCrawler Launch
JumpStation Launch
Infoseek Launch
Lycos Launch
1995 AltaVista Launch (part of DEC)
Excite Launch
1996 Dogpile Launch
Inktomi Founded
HotBot Founded
Ask Jeeves Founded
1997 Northern Light Launch
1998 Google Launch
1999 AlltheWeb Launch
Naver Launch
Teoma Founded
Vivisimo Founded
2000 Baidu Founded
2003 Info.com Launch
2004 Yahoo! Search Final launch
A9.com Launch
2005 MSN Search Final launch
Ask.com Launch
AskMeNow Launch
Lexxe.com Founded
2006 wikiseek Founded
Quaero Founded
Ask.com Launch
Live Search Launch
ChaCha Beta Launch
Quintura Beta Launch
Guruji.com Beta Launch
2007 wikiseek Launched
AskWiki Launched

The first Web search engine was Wandex, a now-defunct index collected by the World Wide Web Wanderer, a web crawler developed by Matthew Gray at MIT in 1993. Another very early search engine, Aliweb, also appeared in 1993, and still runs today. JumpStation (released in early 1994) used a crawler to find web pages for searching, but search was limited to the title of web pages only. One of the first "full text" crawler-based search engine was WebCrawler, which came out in 1994. Unlike its predecessors, it let users search for any word in any webpage, which became the standard for all major search engines since. It was also the first one to be widely known by the public. Also in 1994 Lycos (which started at Carnegie Mellon University) was launched, and became a major commercial endeavor. For a more detailed history of early search engines.

Soon after, many search engines appeared and vied for popularity. These included Excite, Infoseek, Inktomi, Northern Light, and AltaVista. In some ways, they competed with popular directories such as Yahoo!. Later, the directories integrated or added on search engine technology for greater functionality.

Search engines were also known as some of the brightest stars in the Internet investing frenzy that occurred in the late 1990s. Several companies entered the market spectacularly, receiving record gains during their initial public offerings. Some have taken down their public search engine, and are marketing enterprise-only editions, such as Northern Light.

Google

Around 2001, the Google search engine rose to prominence. Its success was based in part on the concept of link popularity and PageRank. The number of other websites and webpages that link to a given page is taken into consideration with PageRank, on the premise that good or desirable pages are linked to more than others. The PageRank of linking pages and the number of links on these pages contribute to the PageRank of the linked page. This makes it possible for Google to order its results by how many websites link to each found page. Google's minimalist user interface is very popular with users, and has since spawned a number of imitators.

Google and most other web engines utilize not only PageRank but more than 150 criteria to determine relevancy. The algorithm "remembers" where it has been and indexes the number of cross-links and relates these into groupings. PageRank is based on citation analysis that was developed in the 1950s by Eugene Garfield at the University of Pennsylvania. Google's founders cite Garfield's work in their original paper. In this way virtual communities of webpages are found. Teoma's search technology uses a communities approach in its ranking algorithm. NEC Research Institute has worked on similar technology. Web link analysis was first developed by Jon Kleinberg and his team while working on the CLEVER project at IBM's Almaden Research Center. Google is currently the most popular Web search engine.

Yahoo! Search

The two founders of Yahoo!, David Filo and Jerry Yang, Ph.D. candidates in Electrical Engineering at Stanford University, started their guide in a campus trailer in February 1994 as a way to keep track of their personal interests on the Internet. Before long they were spending more time on their home-brewed lists of favourite links than on their doctoral dissertations. Eventually, Jerry and David's lists became too long and unwieldy, and they broke them out into categories. When the categories became too full, they developed subcategories ... and the core concept behind Yahoo! was born. In 2002, Yahoo! acquired Inktomi and in 2003, Yahoo! acquired Overture, which owned AlltheWeb and AltaVista. Despite owning its own search engine, Yahoo! initially kept using Google to provide its users with search results on its main website Yahoo.com. However, in 2004, Yahoo! launched its own search engine based on the combined technologies of its acquisitions and providing a service that gave pre-eminence to the Web search engine over the directory.

Microsoft

The most recent major search engine is MSN Search (evolved into Live Search), owned by Microsoft, which previously relied on others for its search engine listings. In 2004, it debuted a beta version of its own results, powered by its own web crawler (called msnbot). In early 2005 , it started showing its own results live, and ceased using results from Inktomi, now owned by Yahoo!. In 2006, Microsoft migrated to a new search platform - Live Search, retiring the "MSN Search" name in the process.

Baidu

Baidu was launched in 2000 and is the leading Chinese search engine, providing an index of over 740 million web pages, 80 million images, and 10 million multimedia files. Its interface is very similar to Google's. (Credit: Wikipedia).

 

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