Today marks an important milestone in the history of the Internet: Google’s 25th birthday.
With billions of searches being made every day, it’s hard to remember how we ever lived without the search engine.
What prompted Google to revolutionize access to information? And will artificial intelligence (AI) make them obsolete or improve them?
Let’s look at how our access to information has changed over the decades – and where that might lead as advanced AI and Google search become more intertwined.
1950s: Public libraries as community centers
In the years after World War II, it was widely recognized that a successful post-war city could have civic skills – and that included open access to information.
Therefore, in the 1950s, the information in western countries was mainly provided by local libraries. Librarians themselves were a kind of “human search engine”. They answered phone inquiries from companies and answered letters — helping people find information quickly and accurately.
Libraries were more than just a place to borrow books. Here, parents sought health information, tourists asked for travel tips, and businesses sought marketing advice.
The search was free, but required librarian assistance and a significant amount of work and catalog-driven processes. Answering questions that we can now solve in minutes took hours, days, or even weeks.
1990s: The rise of paid search services
In the 1990s, libraries expanded to include personal computers and online access to information services. Commercial search businesses thrived because libraries could access information through expensive subscription services.
These systems were so complex that only trained specialists could conduct a search and consumers paid for the results. Dialog, developed at Lockheed Martin in the 1960s, remains one of the best examples. Today it claims to offer its customers access to “over 1.7 billion records in more than 140 databases with peer-reviewed literature”.
Another commercial search system, the Financial Times’ FT PROFILE, provided access to articles in all UK broadsheet newspapers over a five-year period.
But finding it wasn’t easy. Users had to memorize commands they typed to select a collection, using specific words to reduce the list of returned documents. Articles were sorted by date, allowing the reader to search for the most relevant articles.
FT PROFILE made valuable information quickly accessible to people outside the business circle, but at a high cost. Access was £1.60 per minute in the 1990s – today it is £4.65 (or A$9.00).
The Rise of Google
After the launch of the World Wide Web in 1993, the number of websites grew exponentially.
Libraries provided public web access, and services such as the State Library of Victoria’s Vicnet provided low-cost access for organizations. Librarians taught users to find information online and create websites. However, the complex search systems had to contend with exploding amounts of content and a large number of new users.
In 1994, the book Managing Gigabytes, written by three New Zealand computer scientists, presented solutions to this problem. Since the 1950s, researchers had dreamed up a search engine that was fast and accessible to all, sorting documents by relevance.
In the 1990s, a Silicon Valley startup began applying this knowledge – Larry Page and Sergey Brin used the principles of Managing Gigabytes to design Google’s iconic architecture.
After launching on September 4, 1998, the Google revolution was in full swing. Users loved the simplicity of the search box, as well as the novel way the results were presented, summarizing how the pages retrieved matched the search query.
As far as functionality goes, Google Search has been effective for a number of reasons. It used the innovative approach of returning results by counting web links on a page (a process called PageRank). But more importantly, the algorithm was very sophisticated. In doing so, search queries were not only matched against the text within a page, but also against other text that linked to that page (this was known as anchor text).
Google’s popularity quickly surpassed competitors like AltaVista and Yahoo Search. With a market share of over 85% today, it remains the most popular search engine.
However, as the Internet expanded, access costs were contested.
Although consumers can now search Google for free, downloading certain articles and books requires payment. Many consumers still rely on libraries – while libraries themselves struggle with the rising costs of purchasing material to make it available to the public free of charge.
What will the next 25 years bring?
Google has grown far beyond search. Gmail, Google Drive, Google Calendar, Pixel devices and other services show that Google’s reach is enormous.
With the introduction of AI tools, including Google’s Bard and the recently announced Gemini (a direct competitor to ChatGPT), Google is poised to revolutionize search again.
As Google continues to incorporate generative AI capabilities into search, it’s becoming common to read a brief summary of information at the top of the results page instead of searching for information yourself. A key challenge will be ensuring that people do not become so complacent that they blindly trust the results generated.
Fact-checking with original sources remains as important as ever. Finally, generative AI tools like ChatGPT have made headlines due to “hallucinations” and misinformation.
If inaccurate or incomplete search summaries are not revised or further paraphrased and presented without source material, the misinformation problem only gets worse.
Even if AI tools revolutionize search, they may not succeed in revolutionizing access. As the AI industry grows, we are seeing a shift towards content being only accessible for a fee or through paid subscriptions.
The rise of AI provides an opportunity to reconsider the tensions between public access and increasingly powerful commercial entities.
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Written by Mark Sanderson, Julian Thomas, Kieran Hegarty and Lisa M. Given, The conversation.