Search Marketing

Google’s 2001 Time Warp

October 14, 2008

What were you searching for in January 2001?

Google can jog your memory, as it brought back the earliest index it has in honor of its tenth anniversary. That was the month President George W. Bush was inaugurated, Andre Agassi won his third Australian Open, and the Indian state of Gujarat endured an earthquake that killed 30,000 people (thanks go to  mapreport.com, and to  Jennifer Kim on Twitter, for the story idea).

Here’s a rare opportunity to experience the Web as it once was, when it was about half as old as it is now, if you date the origin to the launch of the Mosaic Web browser in 1993.

So, how do search results on Google compare then and now?

In 2001, “myspace” led to data storage site freediskspace.com, “facebook” brought up several obscure links from Harvard and Princeton, and “youtube” did not match any documents. There was no sign of Wikipedia, which launched that January, except for references to its early incarnation as part of the Nupedia encyclopedia project. “Hulu” referred to a San Francisco-based Hawaiian dance company. “Twitter” meant a lot of things, but mostly nothing (to many, the same holds true today).

IPod meant the Image Proof of Deposit Document Processing System. DVR meant just about anything, but there was a reference from Sigma Designs to a digital video recorder (the technology existed; TiVo’s IPO was in 1999). Android didn’t refer to mobile phones, but there was at least one reference to mobile robots.

In 2001, “Dell laptops” brought up lots of Geeky results revolving around Linux and wireless networking. That was well before the news story entitled “Dell laptop explodes at Japanese conference” etched itself into the top ten search results, where the 2006 story still resides.

Starbucks detractors have been a constant. Back then, there was Starbucked.com in the third result, and now it’s IHateStarbucks.com at number eight.

Few brands fared worse than Al Gore’s by early 2001. Nogore.com ranked second in Google, and several sites on the first page took jabs at him.

We’re reminded by searching on their names that in 2001, Barack Obama was a state legislator (with all of 768 results indexed for his name without quotes), John McCain was still running with his “Straight Talk America” theme after falling short in the 2000 Republican primaries, Joe Biden was continuing his Senate career, and Sarah Palin was, for Google’s purposes, a ghost (there were no results for her name in quotes).

The Y2K bug was still fresh in people’s minds – and in Google’s results. The top site was Y2K.gov, an official governmental clearinghouse of important information. The sixth result promoted a free report on “How the Year 2000 Millennium Bug will bankrupt Social Security and Medicare, crash the world’s stock markets, paralyze the West’s military…” Maybe we should blame today’s economic crisis on Y2K.

In 2001, “Bailout” led to stories about Korea and Japan, and Chrysler and Microsoft.

“Katrina” then referred to anyone and everyone — a photographer, a traveler in Africa, an Australian country singer.

By January 2001, “Harry Potter” fans had had six months to read the fourth book in the series. The first film hadn’t even been released.

Tune into these now top-ranking results as they showed up in 2001: “Heroes” brought up a page on Greek mythology, “Lost” brought up a site about the “Jurassic Park” sequel “The Lost World,” and “Entourage” brought up a site about a Microsoft e-mail manager.

MediaPost was then “an on-line contact directory of all advertising media professionals.” Now it’s “an online resource for all advertising media professionals” (based on the search results description).

More tagline evolutions: Google was “Web Directory the web organized by topic,” and now it “Enables users to search the Web, Usenet, and images.” Yahoo went from “Personalized content and search options. Chatrooms, free e-mail, clubs, and pager” to “the world’s most visited home page…” Microsoft was “Find software, solutions and answers. Support, and Microsoft news.” Now it’s “Get product information, support, and news from Microsoft” — at least something’s still the same.

In 2001, there were no signs of Petco Park, Citizens Bank Park, or the Washington Nationals. There still aren’t many signs of the Washington Nationals — at least in October baseball.

In 2001, three of the top ten results for “patriots” referred to the New England football team. Today, the team commands all natural results but one.

In early 2001, the first Google listing about me ranked #71 when typing David Berkowitz (without quotes), though my writing appeared first when searching for “Dave Berkowitz.” Now I have three listings in the top ten for David, one for Dave.

Comparing the indexes from 2001 and 2008, it hardly seems like the same search engine. Now there are images, videos, quick answers, news stories, related searches, desktop results, books, personalized results, and of course ads. There’s also greater competition to appear on page one.

Despite all the changes, the results page is still mostly a bunch of left-aligned blocks of links and text with their blue headlines on the white background. The content of the index has changed far more than the user experience, while the results have become more relevant. We’ll see if that strategy keeps them around for their 20th anniversary.

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