Originally published in MediaPost . It might help to read this column aloud in the voice of Andy Rooney. I do a pretty good Andy Rooney – good enough that my wife hates it, and it’s why we don’t watch 60 Minutes much.
Google’s 2001 Time Warp
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
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
Starbucks detractors have been a constant. Back then, there was
Starbucked.com in the third result, and now it’s IHateStarbucks.com at
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
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
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
… one sure feels old when 2001 is already considered to be retro…