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Search: then and now - with particular reference to the web

Nowadays, we take web search engines for granted. For many people, not only is Google their primary or even sole entry-point to the web, it also (in some sense) is the web -- what you find by googling is indistinguishable (or at least undistinguished) from Google itself. In this talk, I will attempt to chart how we have reached this point. To start with, I will go back before search engines or the web even existed -- indeed, before computers existed. Card catalogues in libraries, printed indexes, punched cards (some mechanically sorted, some used purely manually) have all played a role in how we see the search task. In the computer era, but before the internet or the web, we started exploring the idea of computer searching, particularly in relation to abstracts of scientific papers.

When the web came along, web search engines began to emerge, but they took a little longer to become mainstream, and then to discover a viable business model. But as both these things happened, a rather extraordinary series of feedback loops began to shape and mould the search experience. The most obvious loop is that between the search engine and the population of searchers. The way search engines work, as seen by us the users, has had a profound effect on our notion of what search is and how we might use it; and on the other hand, the search engines have responded to and learnt from their users, to an extraordinary extent. Other feedback loops can be indentified, one involving website designers and another advertisers, each interacting with (influencing and being influenced by) the search engines.

The consequence is that the modern search engine feels a thousand miles or years removed from its library science forebears. I will end with a novel way to think about what web search engines do.

A YouTube recording of  the whole afternoon event can be watched at this link. Length: 02 hours 18 minutes. 

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