By 1998, the dot-com gold rush was in full swing. Web search engines had been around since 1995, and had been immediately touted by high-tech pundits (and Forbes magazine) as one more element in the magical mix that would make us all rich. Such innovations meant nothing less than the end of the business cycle.
But the truth of the matter, as these same pundits conceded after the crash, was that the false promise of easy riches put bottom-line pressures on companies that should have known better. One of the most successful of the earliest search engines was AltaVista, then owned by Digital Equipment Corporation. By 1998 it began to lose its way. All the pundits were talking "portals," so AltaVista tried to become a portal, and forgot to work on improving their search ranking algorithms.
Even by 1998, it was clear that too many results were being returned by the average search engine for the one or two keywords that were entered by the searcher. AltaVista offered numerous ways to zero in on specific combinations of keywords, but paid much less attention to the "ranking" problem. Ranking, or the ordering of returned results according to some criteria, was where the action should have been. Users don't want to figure out Boolean logic, and they will not be looking at more than the first twenty matches out of the thousands that might be produced by a search engine. What really matters is how useful the first page of results appears on search engine A, as opposed to the results produced by the same terms entered into engine B. AltaVista was too busy trying to be a portal to notice that this was important.
Origin of Google
By early 1998, Stanford University grad students Larry Page and Sergey Brin had been playing around with a particular ranking algorithm. They presented a paper titled The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine at a World Wide Web conference. With Stanford as the assignee and Larry Page as the inventor, a patent was filed on January 9, 1998. By the time it was finally granted on September 4, 2001 (Patent No. 6,285,999), the algorithm was known as "PageRank," and Google was handling 150 million search queries per day. AltaVista continued to fade; even two changes of ownership didn't make a difference.
Google hyped PageRank, because it was a convenient buzzword that satisfied those who wondered why Google's engine did, in fact, provide better results. Even today, Google is proud of their advantage. The hype approaches the point where bloggers sometimes have to specify what they mean by "PR" -- do they mean PageRank, the algorithm, or do they mean the Public Relations that Google does so well:
PageRank relies on the uniquely democratic nature of the web by using its vast link structure as an indicator of an individual page's value. In essence, Google interprets a link from page A to page B as a vote, by page A, for page B. But, Google looks at more than the sheer volume of votes, or links a page receives; it also analyzes the page that casts the vote. Votes cast by pages that are themselves "important" weigh more heavily and help to make other pages "important."
Google goes on to admit that other variables are also used, in addition to PageRank, in determining the relevance of a page. While the broad outlines of these additional variables are easily discerned by webmasters who study how to improve the ranking of their websites, the actual details of all algorithms are considered trade secrets by Google, Inc. It's in Google's interest to make it as difficult as possible for webmasters to cheat on their rankings.