by Mike Berry
Ancient Athenian Philosopher Plato described the human condition: “Man is a being in search of meaning.”
But where can we find it?
We humans are a curious species – I don’t mean weird, I mean nosy. We want to know stuff.
As parents we patiently answer our children’s questions with joy in our hearts. We encourage them to challenge and to think for themselves – to seek answers and meaning. To learn and so make their way in the world.
Educators encourage curiosity in students – every Lecturer/Professor I know welcomes dialogue in class – ‘chalk and talk’ can be as boring for the talker as for the audience. And great business leaders inspire, motivate and encourage questioning and knowledge-sharing, since they believe that mobilising facts and understanding will help their people do a better job and make their company more successful. Smart companies hire curious people and encourage them to keep asking questions and finding better answers.
For centuries, books have been good for answers. The story starts with cave paintings, then clay tablets in Mesopotamia around 3,000 BC. By 2,400 BC, the Egyptians were writing on papyrus. The Great Library in Alexandria, Egypt, was the largest library of the ancient world. The plan was that it would hold a copy of every scroll in existence. The idea of a universal library may have been proposed by Demetrius of Phalerum, an exiled Athenian statesman. The Library soon acquired many papyrus scrolls. It is unknown exactly how many such scrolls were housed at any given time, but estimates range up to 400,000 at its height. Many influential scholars worked at the Library during the third and second centuries BC, including Callimachus, who wrote the Pinakes, aka the world’s first library catalogue
I wonder how many reading this post this remember visiting a lending library – you borrow a book for up to 3 weeks (say) and bring it back on time for fear of getting fined. Physical Libraries have had a good run, though today they are suffering from Digital Disruption, like so many other parts of our world.
The Dewey Decimal Classification (DCC) is a library classification system first published in the United States by Melvil Dewey in 1876. DDC introduced the concepts of relative location and relative index, so that new books could be added to a library in their appropriate location depending on the subject. Libraries previously had assigned books permanent shelf locations depending on the order of acquisition rather than topic! The classification’s notation makes use of three-digit numbers for main classes, with fractional decimals allowing expansion for further detail. A library assigns a classification number that unambiguously locates a particular volume in a position relative to other books in the library, on the basis of its subject. So, it is possible to quickly find any book (and also to return it to its proper place on the library shelves). Today, the classification system is used in 200,000 libraries in over 135 countries. In addition to Dewey Decimal, traditional librarians had access to card indexes of all the books in their library (and sometimes other libraries) in order of author name, or alternatively of book title.
The idea here, of course, is to help us locate stuff – giving us ‘the answer’. Without the classification system and the librarian, the library would just be a useless pile of books. Finding a particular book would be “like looking for a needle in a haystack”.St. Thomas More wrote in 1532:
“To seek out one line in his bookes would be to go look (for) a needle in a meadow.”
So that’s where a good librarian can help; he/she loves books, but (more relevant for the potential book borrower), s/he knows the classification systems, so that s/he knows exactly where they all are!
“Everything is in its place and a place for everything.” -Benjamin Franklin
The ex-UK newspaper The News of The World had a slogan : “All human life is here.” (Until 2011, when it was closed by owner Rupert Murdoch amidst accusations of ‘cheque-book journalism’ and ‘phone hacking’).
But what if we could actually see all human knowledge? Are we sure we want this? Could we handle this ‘giant library in the cloud’? This sounds rather like looking into ‘the abyss’. In the Bible, the abyss is ‘an unfathomably deep or boundless space’. The term comes originally from the Greek ἄβυσσος, ie. bottomless, unfathomable, without limits.
“Whoever fights with monsters should see to it that he does not become a monster in the process. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”
Can we have too much knowledge? Or does it depend how it is presented for us to access?
Fast forward to the internet age, with a mind-blowing quote:
“Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.”
– Jimmy Wales. Founder, Wikipedia
When British Physicist Tim Berners-Lee invented the worldwide web (www) while working at CERN in 1989-1990, he had a vision that he was creating a place where all human knowledge could be shared and ideas exchanged openly and equally, free from domination by any corporation or government. He’s stayed with that project and recently commented: “The web is for everyone,” he says, “and collectively we hold the power to change it. It won’t be easy. But if we dream a little and work a lot, we can get the web we want.”
But of course, a lot of information is trapped in individuals’ brains/memories. How can it be effectively mobilised and distributed so that others may share it and build on it? Today, how can we ‘mere mortals’ find our way around Tim Berners-Lee’s worldwide web, replete as it is with all human knowledge, without collapsing through information overload?
What we need is a guide, a librarian, otherwise the wonderful worldwide web might overwhelm us, like Douglas Adams’s Total Perspective Vortex from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy.
So, what do we want from a search engine? Simply, the ‘best’ answer to our every question. Every time. Instantly on our screen. It comes from the Search Engine’s index of the web (which is not the whole web) but in fact we mostly don’t care where the answer comes from. We just want to know – and fast. The search engine must be a wise and kindly mentor, an intelligent friend, a loving and helpful parent, uncle or aunt. Never judging, nor condemning our ignorance, always supportive and generous, providing THE RIGHT ANSWER every time. Not necessarily to what we type, nor even to what we think we’re looking for, but to what we REALLY want to know (aka our INTENT). Enter Google, since 1998!
A web search engine is a software system that designed to carry out web search (ie. Internet search), which means to search the World Wide Web in a systematic way for particular information specified in a text search query. The search results are generally presented in a list of results, referred to as search engine results pages (SERPs). The information may be a mix of links to web pages, images, videos, infographics, articles, research papers, and other types of files. Search engines maintain real-time information by running an algorithm on a web crawler. Tough job!
The first well-documented search engine that searched content files, namely FTP files, was Archie, which debuted on 10 September 1990.
The first tool used for searching content (as opposed to users) on the Internet was Archie. This 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 Search Engine did not index the contents of these sites since the amount of data was so limited it could be readily searched manually.
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.
By 1993, there was still no search engine for the whole web, though numerous specialized catalogues were maintained by hand. Oscar Nierstrasz at the University of Geneva wrote a series of Perl scripts that formed the basis for W3Catalog, the web’s first primitive search engine.
Next JumpStation (created in December 1993 by Jonathon Fletcher) used a web robot to find web pages and to build its index, using a web form as the interface to its query program. It was thus the first WWW resource-discovery tool which combined the three key features of a web search engine (crawling, indexing, and searching).
One of the first “all text” crawler-based search engines was WebCrawler, launched in 1994. Unlike its predecessors, it allowed users to search for any word in any webpage, which has become the standard for all major search engines since. It was also the first search engine that was widely known by the public. In 1994, Lycos (which started at Carnegie Mellon University) was launched.
The first major web search engine was Yahoo! Search. Yahoo!, founded by Jerry Yang and David Filo in January 1994, launched Yahoo! Directory. In 1995, they added a search function, allowing users to search Yahoo! Directory. It became one of the most popular ways for people to find web pages of interest, but its search function operated on its web directory, rather than its full-text copies of web pages. Soon a number of other search engines appeared (including Excite, Infoseek, Lycos, Ask Jeeves and AltaVista).
In 1996, Robin Li developed a site-scoring algorithm for search engines results page ranking and was awarded a US patent for the technology. It was the first search engine that used hyperlinks to measure the quality of websites it was indexing, predating the very similar algorithm patent filed by Google two years later in 1998. Indeed, Google’s Larry Page referenced Li’s work in some of his U.S. patents for PageRank. Li used his Rankdex technology for the Baidu search engine, which was founded by Robin Li in China in 2000.
Google was founded in September 1998 by Larry Page and Sergey Brin while they were Ph.D. students at Stanford University in California. They incorporated Google as a California privately held company on September 4, 1998, in California.
Crucially, Google adopted the idea of ‘selling’ ads on search terms in 1998, from a small search engine company named goto.com. This move led to AdWords (now Google ads) and to Google becoming one of the world’s most profitable businesses.
Around 2000, Google’s search engine started to dominate. Google delivered better results for most searches with their algorithm PageRank, as explained in the paper ‘Anatomy of a Search Engine’ written by Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google. This iterative algorithm ranks web pages based on the number and PageRank of other web sites and pages that link there, on the premise that ‘good’ pages are linked to more than are others. Larry Page’s patent for PageRank cites Robin Li’s earlier RankDex patent as an influence. Google also maintained a minimalist interface to its search engine without ‘spam’ or clutter. Straight out of the blocks, Page and Brin’s new search engine provided superior results and won searchers over almost immediately.
Microsoft’s search engine, Bing, was launched on June 1, 2009. On July 29, 2009, Yahoo! and Microsoft finalized a deal in which Yahoo! Search would be powered by Microsoft Bing technology.
Before Google, most search engines relied on the databases of textual keywords to find and display relevant results. Whenever internet users entered a search term, programs such as Lycos and AltaVista would simply compare the term to their databases.
Web pages that included texts most similar to the search terms were considered to be most relevant, and they were featured higher in the lists of the search results. However, this automated approach did not always provide the best search results.
Google has succeeded where others failed (overtaking competitors and staying ahead) since it has consistently given users a better experience, first on desktop, later on mobile and indeed all devices. It has successfully focused on:
-UX (User Experience)
Page and Brin built Google in a way that was better at connecting users with more relevant results. Google simply gave users better answers.
Google began offering text ads (AdWords, now Google Ads) which were separate from the organic results but still relevant to their search query.
Today, Google’s businesses include Android Ads, Commerce Ads, Chrome Ads, Maps, Cloud Services, Search and YouTube.
Google’s biggest sources of revenue are Google Ads and AdSense. With Ads, advertisers submit ads to Google that include a list of keywords relating to a product, service or business. When a Google user searches the Web using one or more of those keywords, the ad appears on the SERP. The advertiser pays Google every time a user clicks on the ad and is directed toward the advertiser’s site.
AdSense is similar, except that instead of displaying ads on a Google SERP, a website owner can choose to integrate ads onto their website. Google’s spiders crawl the site and analyze the content. Then, Google selects ads that contain keywords relevant to the webmaster’s site. The website owner can customize the type and location of the ads that Google provides. Every time someone clicks on an ad on the site, the site receives a portion of the ad revenue (Google gets the remainder).
With both Ads and AdSense, Google’s strategy is to provide advertisers with ad placements that are directly targeted to the Google users who are most likely to buy their products or services and to give users information that is most relevant to what they’re looking for (which may include goods and services to purchase).
That relationship between users and advertisers is at the heart of Google’s business… though Google always puts users first.
“We believe if users get what they want, get what they’re looking for … then they’re going to keep coming back to look for more things, and we send more traffic to the Web and we keep the Web ecosystem healthy.”
-Pandu Nayak, Google
Google Search has become the most used search engine on the Internet, handling more than 3.5 billion searches each day. (See Google Search Statistics)
Google’s share of the global search market is a dominant 92.26% (ahead of Bing 2.83%, Yahoo! 1.59% and Baidu 1.14%) (Statcounter). https://www.internetlivestats.com/google-search-statistics
So, what about marketing? Well if we’re selling products which enhance people’s lives, we naturally want to tell everyone – ie. advertise them. But where? Very simply, wherever the target audience is. We must ‘fish where the fish are’. And today, a lot of fish/customers are ‘Googling’. So that’s where brands need to be – prominently displayed on Google’s results, either using Search Engine Optimization (SEO) or the paid ads on Google (pay per click=PPC). Search marketing should not be seen as a fight against Google – rather as a potential win-win. Google has customers visiting its search results pages, right now, who are looking for exactly what you sell – they just don’t know your company yet. Perhaps there is a mutually beneficial deal to be done? This can be good for the users, for your company and of course for Google. This idea (launched as AdWords, now renamed Google Ads) has made Google very successful; its parent Alphabet had revenues of 161.9 billion USD in 2019 – it is the 4th largest US company by Market Cap – not bad for a 21st century librarian!
Seek and Ye Shall Find* (*Matthew 7.7)
The www has changed the world and Google is our trusted guide to it. As consumers and business customers, we have become addicted to the web and at the same time, addicted to search. To ‘Google’ has become a verb and if we’re browsing using Chrome, we are probably searching on Google without even thinking about it. Google has won big and looks likely to continue to dominate in most countries as search changes (naturally, Google has advanced plans for voice, image, and AR search). Your business can win too. As always, all brand owners should stay close to their customers and specifically understand what they are searching for (via Google, Baidu, Yahoo!, Bing, Yandex, Alexa, Siri, Wikipedia, YouTube+++) so as to deliver it to them – conveniently, speedily and profitably. Today every marketer needs to understand and practise Search Marketing.
Mike Berry FCIM, F IDM, is an internationally recognised (digital) marketing lecturer, trainer, author and consultant.