When we use the Internet, we don’t say, “I’m going to search online”, we say, “I’m going to Google it”. This in itself is synonymous with modern-day thinking – adopt a brand and it’s seemingly the only one to buy or use or talk about, and this is no exception.
Google obviously isn’t the only search engine out there, but it is the one that has consistently returned the results users want to see, especially over the past 5-6 years when it has definitely dominated the search engine sphere.
Competitors to Google come and go; some still remain (but with smaller market share), some disappear quietly into the ether, and some fail spectacularly.
From those which are now defunct, those termed as “Google Killers” are the ones that perhaps remain etched in people’s memories as the most famous competitors to Google that have failed.
Speaking of “Google Killers”, Cuil is an obvious choice to start with.
Launched in July 2008, Cuil (pronounced “Cool”), was developed by ex-Googlers, Anna Patterson and Russell Power, and CEO Tom Costello came from IBM.
One of their strongest attractions was the fact that they did not store the IP addresses or search activity of their users – a strong attraction for anyone concerned about privacy.
Cuil was cited as one of the most successful US start-ups of 2008 by Businessweek.com, and it seemed all was set to be rosy for the search engine, with features such as a link up with Facebook and availability in 8 languages, with more planned.
Unfortunately, due to factors such as slow processing of queries, adult images in results and irrelevant results, the user base for Cuil fast dropped off, and on September 17th 2010 the servers were taken offline.
Not so much a “Google Killer” as “Google Killed”.
Whilst it’s still just about live, and can be found at www.altavista.com, the original AltaVista index and spiders have long since been buried and forgotten.
Having started life as a privately owned company, in 2003 it was taken over by Overture, which in turn then was taken over by Yahoo!, and has remained this way ever since.
As of May 2011, the AltaVista page remains, but search queries are redirected to a Yahoo! search page. This seems to be part of Yahoo!’s plans to eventually shut it down altogether.
The reason for AltaVista’s demise can be largely attributed to Google’s rise in popularity, although of course this isn’t the only reason.
From 300,000 hits on its launch day in 1995 to its “exclusive provider” status to Yahoo! in 2006, you’d be excused for thinking the future was bright, but as Google continued its steady climb up the search ladder and changes were made to AltaVista’s interface (such as its redesign to a web portal in 1999), market share and users began to drop, and in 2002 another redesign took place to refocus the engine on search.
Too little, too late though, as by this time Google had a firm grip on the market, and even the buyouts by Overture and then Yahoo! couldn’t make AltaVista regain the search popularity that it once had.
Infoseek was founded in 1994, and was actually bought out in 1998 by The Walt Disney Company. The technology was then merged with Starwave, Disney’s acquired software, and this then formed the Go.com network, which is how it remains if you type “infoseek” into a search engine today.
In the time between its 1994 launch and September 1997, Infoseek steadily gained a strong user base with reported visitor figures at 7.3 million per month.
The first search engine to provide a paid-for cost-per-impressions service (CPM), it also was the internet company to launch user behavioural targeting results, using its UltraMatch algorithms.
With the Disney buyout in 1998, Infoseek looked set to continue growing, but with staff changes internally and the fact that it wasn’t making money, even when rebranded as Go, it meant that Disney stopped powering the service in early 2001.
AlltheWeb had relatively long lasting power, launching in the middle of 1999 and finally closing its virtual doors in 2011. The doctorate thesis FTP Search by Norwegian Tor Egge provided the basis for the engine which was owned by the company FAST (Fast Search & Transfer), founded by Egge in 1997.
FAST revelled in the fact that AlltheWeb once rivalled Google in technology and size, and sold its web search section to Overture in 2003 for a cool $70million.
Unfortunately for Overture, and later Yahoo!, AlltheWeb never quite gained the popularity of Google. As Google’s technology advanced and their product range expanded at a rapid rate, market share for AlltheWeb began to fall.
In 2004, once Yahoo! had bought out Overture, AlltheWeb began to use Yahoo!’s database instead of its own and advanced functions, such as direct image search, were removed.
Come April 4th 2011, AlltheWeb redirected to Yahoo! search and the sun finally set on the engine.
5. Direct Hit Technologies
Direct Hit started out in 1998, the same year that Google went live, and was one of the pioneers of search result relevancy. The results that were served from any particular query were measured for their click-through rate (CTR), and adjusted accordingly in order to make the website listings as relevant as possible for users.
Ask.com, then known as Ask Jeeves, bought Direct Hit in 2000 with the aim of continuing to utilize the technologies available. This wasn’t to be though, and only two years later the engine was formally closed.
The reasons for this remain unclear, but the primary conclusion is that the engine was neglected after the buyout in order for Ask.com to focus on other elements of the business; a decision which eventually led to its closure.
KartOO operated from 2001 to 2010, and in hindsight, some have said that this search engine was ahead of its time and had it been launched in today’s climate, may very well have seen much more success than it did in its day.
Instead of text-based results, KartOO presented results in a sort of “map”, which connected related results by masses of different colours.
When users rolled over specific results, this then showed related links in red. This type of search helped users to narrow general topics down into specifics, and acted very much as an interactive spider diagram.
KartOO was never designed to be a direct copy of how Google or any other search engine of its time worked, but rather a new idea for semantic and visual presentation of results.
It seemed the world wasn’t ready for this type of display, however, and even the launch of UJIKO in 2004, which was a new version of the interface and linked websites as “playlists” for its “jukebox” layout, failed to keep users returning to the website.
In January 2010 KartOO was closed, and all that remained was a message in French on the website thanking users for the support they had given. This was removed in 2011.
7. Wikia Search
Wikia Search only survived in the competitive search market for a year before closure, an all-time low on the competitor stakes. Created by Jimmy Wales and Angela Beesley in 2008, Wikia Search was free and open source, and was the latest in a long line of experiments into search engine technology by Wikia.
It was widely publicized before launch, with users waiting for over a year for the engine to go live, and was seen as a massive let-down when it did finally enter the market.
Upon roll-out, the layout and technology was widely criticized, including the facts that the index was small, there was no human element to the results, and the social link-up seemed to be a direct rip-off of Facebook, with activity streams providing the basis of the social hub it had been hyped up to provide.
With a strong backlash from influential websites, such as Businessweek.com and Search Engine Land, Wikia Search struggled to keep and attract users, leading to its somewhat speedy closure a year later.
8. AOL Search
AOL Search was launched as AOL’s foray into the search engine world, and initially did relatively well, although it did attract criticism from the fact it was obviously based on Google’s presentation and layout. Whilst initially the search engine grew and attracted new visitors, in 2006 AOL suffered a massive backlash when there was a huge data leak of detailed search logs from AOL users onto the public domain.
This was an intentional release of data for research purposes, but accidentally shown to all users instead of being locked down for just those to whom it was intended.
The data in the search logs contained 20 million search queries from over 650,000 AOL users over 3 months, and whilst individual names weren’t included, numerical user account IDs were, which meant different people could be matched up with their data queries publicly. The New York Times actually did this and released their report to an extremely angry audience.
Coupled with other negative reports that were ongoing in the press at that time, AOL Search suffered badly from this disaster. When Google purchased shares in AOL in 2006, AOL Search became integrated and swallowed by Google’s search division. Definitely a case of big shark, little fishy!
One of the biggest ’90s dotcoms, Excite was launched in December 1995 as a general use search engine that soon became well known in the search world. It is now serving life out as a portal using Ask.com’s index, due to Ask Jeeves acquiring the Excite Network early in 2004.
Excite’s biggest downfall following its years of success has been attributed to the fact that, despite different buyouts and acquisitions over the years, the final buyer of the Excite network, Ask Jeeves, did not seem to put the work needed into making the search engine “come good” again.
Having bought both Excite and iWon, Ask Jeeves did promise to rejuvenate both, but in the end didn’t follow through with either.
Due to this, and the fast changing search sphere in which it exists, in the end Excite became a portal that is a shade of its once former glory.
Launched in 1996 by Wired Magazine, HotBot was at one point one of the most popular general use search engines on the web, serving website results from the Inktomi database and directory results from LookSmart. From mid-1999, it used directory results from the Open Directory Project to serve user queries.
HotBot’s main attraction was its claims of a fresher index than any other competitor, and for a time offered free webpage hosting too.
HotBot looked set to dominate the search world, but upon being acquired in 1998 by Lycos, it suffered from poor development and took second place to the original Lycos search engine.
Market share soon fell, and in 2002 it was relaunched to allow users search using Google, Inktomi, Teoma or FAST databases. This is how it remained until 2011, with a small number of loyal users continuing to utilize its outdated design.
The relaunch in 2011 saw HotBot as a portal, with a new mascot, logo and site design, but the portal element was soon dropped, and it is now just another search engine.
What the future holds for HotBot is as yet unknown, but one thing’s for sure – it’s got a long way to go before it has any hope of knocking Google off the top spot!