Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Search Engines: The Year 2003 in Perspective

Phil Bradley takes us through the major trends and highlights in the world of search engines over the course of the past year.

Since 2003 is now drawing to a close, (or at least it is while I'm writing this - I suspect that when you get to read it 2004 will have dawned bright and early), I thought that it might be interesting to take a look back at a few of the things that happened in the search engine industry over the past year. This isn't designed to be an inclusive month by month, blow by blow account, but is just a few of the trends and interesting things that I've noticed.


I suppose the place that I should really start is with Google, which has continued its meteoric rise to power and command of all that it surveys. There are now over 200 million searches a day run on the search engine which represent about 75% of all search engine-generated traffic to Web sites [1]. In 18 months it has quadruped in size, annual revenues have sextupled and pre-tax profits have grown by a factor of 23. 'Google' has now become a verb, though 'To google' should be put in the same category as 'to surf' in my opinion! In fact, the Google monopoly has grown to such an extent that Fortune magazine recently said "Google's search service has changed the way everyone from CEOs to their teenagers look for and think about information." [2]

This is not to say that everything has been going Google's way. Competition is still strong, and AOL, eBay and Amazon are all drawing up their own battle plans to take on Google, or at the very least protect their own revenues. The Google weakspot at the moment appears to be a lack of customer lock-in. People use Google because they perceive (rightly or wrongly) that it's the 'best' search engine there is. Consequently, if at some point in the future they see a different search engine appear to take that epithet they will start to use that instead. It happened to AltaVista, so there is every reason to believe that it can happen again. Compare how much Google knows about you, (other than the fact that you're currently searching for a specific piece of information), with the amount that Amazon can tell about you - what you're interested in and what it is likely that you'll be interested in. Of course, Google is aware of this, and have been making acquisitions that will add to its ability to focus more closely on the individual - it bought Blogger.com and the Kaltix Corporation, so I expect to see a greater emphasis on this area in the coming year.

Google is also facing competition from Yahoo, which has bought Inktomi and Overture and as a result now owns AltaVista and AlltheWeb for example. Then there is the big question mark peeking over the horizon: Microsoft. The company is making no secret of the fact that they want a search engine and they're spending millions of dollars to ensure that they get one. Once they have, it can be incorporated into MSN and their new operating system due out in 2006. Consequently what we're beginning to see is a reduction in the number of different 'voices' to a smaller number of louder voices, although there are still some new ones piping up now and then, which we'll look at in a few moments.

Google has been adding new search features as well as increasing the size of its database to over 3.3 billion pages. Some of these are quite frankly of little interest, (well, at least to me), but others are much more exciting. One of the major problems with search engines has always been their literal nature - if you ask for a search using the word 'beginner' that's exactly what you'll get. Google has added a synonym function, using the tilde symbol (the curly horizontal line or '~' to be exact). If this is added directly before a word, as in '~beginner', Google will look for and return results that may not include that word, but which will include terms such as 'beginner's', 'novice', 'tutorial', 'tutorials', 'primer', 'learn' and so on. As can be seen, not only does it serve up results using similar words, it can also deal with related terms dealing with similar concepts. It's also possible to define words, if you're not entirely sure what they mean. Simply use the syntax 'define: <word>' and you'll get a series of results from different Web pages. Consequently some of these definitions will be very useful, while others will be way off course. It's also possible to do a glossary search using a new beta service [3], though I'm not entirely sure what the difference is! Another function that I've found interesting is the Google Webquotes service [4]; by typing in a word, words or phrase, Google will hunt around for Web sites that mention the search term(s) and will provide you with quotes. A search on 'ariadne' for example returned quotes that said "Ariadne reports on information service developments, information networking issues worldwide and current digital library initiatives. Ariadne is published every three months." And "Ariadne magazine is aimed at both librarians and information science professionals in academic libraries. Its principal geographic focus is the UK. It describes and evaluates sources and services available on - " [5] Google has also added a calculator function and news alerts as well.

Other search engine developments

Meanwhile the other search engines haven't been resting on what laurels they have either. Gigablast [6] has been particularly inventive during 2003 and although it dropped the option of sorting by date it has added support for Boolean and nested logic searching [7]. However, in my personal opinion, I still think that AltaVista [8] continues to do a better job.

Ask Jeeves and consequently Teoma have added advanced search functionality to their interfaces [9] [10], although I don't find them particularly advanced -- they certainly don't add anything that the other major players haven't been doing for some time.

If you're interested in searching for different file types you will have enjoyed the past year. Google has had the option of searching for Adobe Acrobat, Adobe Postscript, Microsoft Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and Rich Text Format for some time, but Gigablast (it really has been a busy year for their developers) now allows users to search on PDF, Postscript, Powerpoint, and Excel, while AlltheWeb has added Rich Text Format, Powerpoint, Excel, Postscript, Word Perfect and Star Office.

2003 has also been the year of the toolbar. For those of you who are uncertain as to exactly what a toolbar is, it's - well, let's allow Google's 'define: function' to tell us. Apparently it's "a row, column, or block of onscreen buttons or icons that, when clicked, activate certain functions of the program. For example, the standard toolbar in Word includes buttons for changing text to italic, bold, or other styles." [11] Google has had one for quite some time now, and I've used it a lot, and do like it. However, certain other search engines have also added them, including HotBot, AltaVista, Ask Jeeves and Infospace. (I wrote more about version 2 of the Google offering in July and you can read my article from my site if you're interested [12]). In fairness, HotBot says that it is a Deskbar, and not a toolbar [13]. Google has now developed its own Deskbar [14], but since I have to confess that I've not yet played with it, that's all the comment I can give.

New search engines

The year has not entirely been limited to purchases, take-overs or buy outs, because several new search engines have been launched, or if they were around in 2002, they really came to the fore in 2003. In no particular order we have Mooter [15] (a graphical search engine) Zapmeta [16] and Fazzle [17] (two multi or meta search engines), Wotbox (still very much in development) [18], Netnose [19] (which allows users to rank Web pages for value and usefulness), Babieca [20] (a new pay per click engine) and Turbo10 [21] (designed to search the deep net).


All in all it's been a busy year, and although it seems that the scene has been dominated by a small number of players involved in games of Monopoly it's still been busy and, I think, quite healthy. Indeed, I've not even mentioned weblogs and the developments of search engines to deal with them in this article! I'm fully expecting that 2004 will be equally as interesting, if not more so.


  1. ClariNews 24 October 2003 :" Web superstar Google eyes public offering" http://quickstart.clari.net/qs_se/webnews/wed/ak/Qus-internet-google.RmvW_DOO.html
  2. Fortune : "Can Google Grow Up?"
  3. Google glossary http://labs.google.com/glossary
  4. Google Webquotes http://labs.google.com/cgi-bin/webquotes
  5. Google Webquotes on Ariadne
  6. Gigablast http://www.gigablast.com/
  7. Gigablast Help Page http://www.gigablast.com/help.html
  8. Altavista http://www.altavista.com
  9. Ask Jeeves Advanced Options http://web.ask.com/webadvanced?&o=0
  10. Teoma Advanced Search http://s.teoma.com/advancedsearch?q=&p=0
  11. Google define : <toolbar>: Definitions of 'toolbar' on the Web http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&safe=off&c2coff=1&q=define%3A+toolbar
  12. Phil Bradley's Web site: "The new Google Toolbar version beta 2.0" http://www.philb.com/gtoolbar.htm
  13. HotBot tools page http://www.hotbot.com/tools/
  14. Google: Search using Google without opening your browser http://toolbar.google.com/deskbar/index.html
  15. Mooter http://www.mooter.com
  16. zapmeta http://www.zapmeta.com
  17. fazzle http://www.fazzle.com
  18. wotbox http://www.wotbot.com/
  19. NetNose http://www.netnose.com
  20. Babieca http://www.babieca.com
  21. Turbo10 http://turbo10.com

Author Details

Phil Bradley
5 Walton Gardens

Email: philb@philb.com
Web site: http://www.philb.com

Phil Bradley is an Independent Internet Consultant.

Return to top