Conjunction Juncture

“The advent of Google marks off two very distinct periods in Internet history. The optimists remember the age before Google as chaotic, inefficient, and disorganized. Most search engines at the time had poor ethics (some made money by misrepresenting ads as search results) and terrible algorithms (some could not even find their parent companies online). All of that changed when two Stanford graduate students invented an ingenious way to rank Web pages based on how many other pages link to them.” — Don’t Be Evil, The New Republic

If you are under 30, you may not recall a time when Yahoo! was as central to the online experience as Google is now. In 1998, when the search provider was nearing its zenith, I had a realization: I no longer thought of Yahoo! as a “website”, but rather as the Internet itself. I felt as if you could peel back any page available on the net and find Yahoo! beneath it, as though it were the canvas on which the entire web were painted.

Now, of course, I feel that way about Google. And I distinctly remember the day when my allegiance shifted. It was 1999, I was a programmer at Amazon.com, and one of my colleagues, a young guy fresh out of school with a degree in CS, was showing me this new search engine that everyone in his class swore by. He punched in a few words and clicked [Google Search] to illustrate. The moment the results came back I knew I would never use Yahoo! again.

Why? Was it because of Google’s “ingenious way to rank Web pages based on how many other pages link to them”? No, of course not–I was nowhere near savvy enough to pick up on something like that. It was for a much simpler and fundamental reason: Google took your search terms and only returned pages that had all of them, whereas Yahoo!, by default, returned pages that contained any of them. Put another way, Google joined all your words with “and”s where Yahoo! used “or”s. Tired of punching “board games” into Yahoo! and getting lumber companies, I set Google as my home page that same day.

Google’s rapid adoption in the late 90s owes a lot to its web page ranking system, no doubt. But the founders should also get credit for recognizing the fundamental shift in what searchers wanted: fewer results, not more. Where Yahoo! continued to boast about the sheer volume of websites that they would hurl at you, Google, simply by using a different conjunction, was delivering more specific and relevant information at a time when that was desperately sought.

It’s small and simple ideas like this that can make you the most powerful company in the world.

Here are three more recent articles about Google:

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12 comments.

  1. Wow, the memories. I don’t remember exactly when I switched from Yahoo! to Google. It was early on, though, and for the exact same reason. The way the news spread on it was like nothing else I saw in the days before social media.

  2. For me, my love affair with Yahoo! ended when they switched from being a directory (with a search of that directory) to being a search engine of the Internet, and a ‘portal page’.

    They didn’t do either of that well. What they did well was categorizing websites into a nice hierarchy that made it nice and easy to find websites that covered similar topics.

    There are still days when I wish that there was still a ‘Yahoo!’ like the old one. So I wouldn’t have to google ‘Tempe TV Stations’ and dig through 860k links hoping I found them all.

    But hell, I still haven’t thrown away my copy of the Internet Yellow Pages. First edition, natch.

  3. I’m not too proud to tell you I used askjeeves as my default browser for a good amount of time. Imagine how good Google looked after that! I, too, remember the first time using it: Sophomore year of college, googling names of people we knew. Also trying to hunt down the original 10 minute short Bottle Rocket was based on.

  4. Dude, I think I went from Alta Vista to Dogpile to Google. It was a sad, dark period in m life. Also, this whole Google+ thing has me waxing nostalgic about silly things — remember when Gmail still needed invites and people were super hilariously snobby about giving them out? And remember, like, orkut? Takes me back.

  5. Must protest the “if you are under 30″ bit there, sir. I’m 26, and my yahoo-to-google shift happened when I was almost in college. Most of my peers were internetting in high school, because it was this weird new thing where you could get into interesting trouble but nobody really knew how much yet. I suggest “under 25″ or even 22; five years off is a whole internet-generation.

  6. Anyone remember Yahoo! Internet Life? Anyone remember when the concept of a paper magazine about the internet wasn’t the most backwards freaking concept the world?

    (And a ditto to Helen. I’m also 26 and while I remember the switch being early when I was in high school I certainly remember it)

  7. Very interesting Matt.
    Your information streaming-versus-quantity stance is also summed up nicely in this article about online news presentation. (via Metafilter)

    http://andyrutledge.com/news-redux.php

  8. I used AltaVista almost exclusively in college. I don’t remember the onset of their terrible advertising exactly, but it definitely pushed my shift to Google. It took moving to Japan and losing Web access for nearly four months — when I got back on, AV totally sucked. So I tried Google, and in six searches the page I wanted was the first link every time. Never looked back.

    It makes me laugh that my wife’s default home page is Yahoo but she goes to Google when she wants to find something.

  9. [...] defective yeti has me thinking about Google… [...]

  10. Hmmmm…. I’m 21 while I can’t say I remember a time before Google (my first family computer arrived 3 years after Google), I certainly remember a time when Yahoo/Overture were the thing to use.

    Also, the computer scientist in me wishes to correct your terminology; you describe Google’s default ANDing of terms as a “different conjunction” to Yahoo’s ORing. In logical terms, ‘AND’ and ‘conjunction’ are synonymous, while the OR operator is described as ‘disjunction’. So Google uses conjunction instead of disjunction, so the term ‘different conjunction’ bothers me.

    Sorry for the nitpicking; love the post, love the blog!

  11. The thing I first loved about google was that it was so clear. You basically had your search and the results on a nice white page. Alta vista had been my search engine of choice up till then.

  12. I was just thinking that it’s about time for google to die. I am ready for the “next google” to come along. this one has run it’s course.

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