The Evolution of Search – An Offline and Online Journey


Think about the conversation you might one day have with future generations about the world before the Internet. What was life like before smartphones? How did people look up information? You might even struggle to throw yourself back in time to remember what it was like. It’ll be remembering a time when people wrote more letters rather than text messages, but does this mean that people didn’t search? Our ideas of search are, in our current time, consumed by online search. But a world of encyclopaedias, verbal storytelling and petroglyphs all existed before the Internet, just as the everlasting task of search outweighs them all. The evolution of search is fascinating, and where it could be headed in the future even more so.

To anticipate the future we need to understand the past. While online search is now the current method we use to search for information and answers, it has obviously not always been the case. To talk about the evolution of ‘search’, we need to start at the beginning, in order to try understanding where this ancient task may take us. Search began through the telling of stories. It started with the beginnings of the written language, to the creation of books, then computers, the Internet, and now, connected ‘smart’ devices which we carry around with us, 24 hours a day 7 days a week. The truth is that the act of searching comes in many forms, but today, online search dominates.

While the invention and use of the computer allowed users to store data and information in a way never before experienced, the Internet brought all of this data together so that it could be shared. After all, the Internet was created so that computers could communicate, thus creating a depository of information so that we could easily search for the answers we want and need. Search engines take this notion even further. In its simplest form, search engines are programs which search the Internet for files which match your keyword/s. The earliest search engine was ‘Archie’ (archive without the ‘v’) in 1990, then ‘Excite’ which was started by a group of undergraduates at Stanford University in 1993, to 1994 when ‘Yahoo!’ was originally known as ‘Yahoo! Directory’, and then of course came along Google in 1998.

Search has evolved in so many ways, and it’s not just ‘search’ itself, it’s search behaviour, search needs, and our expectations of search. We do not search to simply find information. We search for information because we ‘use’ it. We use the information to inform decisions and to help us make choices. Finding the information we want is the intermediate step in the process we take between finding out what we want and/or need, and then acting on it. Our expectations of what we feel search should be able to accomplish for us in turn shapes our behaviour and our search ‘needs’. With our constant connectivity, voice search, wearable technology and integrated products making up what is now known as the Internet of Things; the current search model has come to a fork in the road.

Universal access to all knowledge is now within our reach thanks to the Internet. Moving into the Internet the world’s largest online search engine, Google, currently holds the world’s biggest collection of data. But this fork in the road means that search engines now need to understand the information it stores rather than just indexing it. People are beginning to search for answers, not information. People are asking questions and expect to find answers to them. People want to use contextual search engines.

Contextual search takes into account several factors of the query, such as the location, the time, previous search queries and then the keyword/s. It’ll also look at the device being used. Contextual search has the ability to go so much further than this. Think about if it could also factor in your calendar of events and meetings, what apps you like to use, your interests and preferences. It could mean instead of searching for answers, we are using search platforms which predict what we want. It’s the idea of a post-search online world, where search engine platforms meet you where you are, not the other way around.

Could the act of searching soon become a mere thought, to then be delivered with answers we are looking for? Sergey Brin talked about his vision for search at a Ted Talk in 2013 and stated that, “My vision when we started Google 15 years ago was that eventually you wouldn’t have to use a search query at all. You’d just have information come to you as you need it”. Remember, what state of the art is today looks very old tomorrow.

Search, while still paramount for any business in our global economy, has moved beyond just being an advertising and marketing tool. The act of being able to search online acts as the link between isolation and connectedness. Connectivity matters so much to us now that we place similar value on it in the same level of vital necessities. At those moments in time when people and places are suffering from catastrophic natural disasters, connectivity to the Internet, to the wider community, aka the online world is up there in the demands with shelter, food, water, sanitation and emergency services. Why? Because it is the connection to the online world which allows us to search for information and answers. In high-risk, high-stress situations such as those that people face after a natural disaster, people want to have access to information in order to determine if they are safe.

We are a hyper-connected generation. With constant connectivity means greater moments and opportunities to be as useful and relevant as possible. During relief efforts after a natural disaster, it can mean greater access to information and communication methods. It can mean getting in touch with loved ones to find out if they are okay. The key part is that we now expect to be able to carry out these actions. Our expectations have changed, and so search technology must meet the demand.

The future of search is undoubtedly exciting. It’ll still be search, but not as we know it. Rather than inputting data into machines, the communication process will become much more of a two-way stream, which is why contextual understanding is so imperative if search is to move in this direction. As small to medium sized business owners watch and learn this process unfold, the key to online success will be how quickly they are to embrace new technologies. Search will turn from a reactive platform into a proactive one, and that fork in the road will soon become a distant memory; don’t allow your business to be left behind either.