They were search engines once… and relevant.

While rifling through boxes in our basement I found a user-traffic study from 1998 of “Eight Search and Navigational Guides.” They were:

AltaVista
Excite
Infoseek
WebCrawler
AOL NetFind
HoBot
Lycos
and Yahoo.

AOL and Yahoo are still around, the former thanks to its pre-Internet userbase and the latter thanks to winning the pre-Google traffic wars, both shadows of what they once were and neither with much of a future.

Most scandalous was the painful underperformance of AltaVista, the easily best search engine until Google came around (funny true quote by an M&A hound at one of the Old Eight, circa 2000: “It makes no sense for us to buy Google because next year there will be another new search engine.” Or not. Not that Google was for sale, anyway). AltaVista was a product of Digital’s amazing technical know-how and marketing ineptitude.

The remaining five were just a bunch of also rans, early pioneers who were unable to stand out in the crowd in the mid-1990′s, unable to secure traffic in the late 90′s, and unable to adapt to life under Google after the turn of the Millennium. They missed out on – or failed at – almost everything beyond basic search and directory services, but in particular social networking.

What’s funny is that while the industry consensus in the late 1990′s – pre Google – was that search was a saturated and mature product area, Internet search results remain rather imperfect.

Amusingly, the company that conducted the study is still around and doing rather well for itself.