People are always talking about how the growth of Google and its automated search index has killed off all the other search engines and directories. It is mostly considered a problem of reduced choice and less competition. However, Google has actually changed the way we used the Internet.
In the days before search engines people used to surf the web. Also the phrase is still used today its meaning has changed. To surf the web used to mean finding an interesting new website, usually by first visiting your favorite web directory, and then following the links on those pages to other interesting websites on a similar subject.
This method of navigating the web may seem extremely inefficient today but 15 years ago it was the only way to get around the web.
The Invention of Google PageRank
Because in the good old days of the Internet webmasters used to link freely to other websites that they liked and trusts, Larry Page decided to use this rule as a fundamental part of his PageRank mechanism which allowed him to start building a automatically indexed search engine.
The idea being that each link would be followed by Googlebot much in the same way that a human surfs the web. If some sites or pages get linked to more, i.e. if Googlebot lands on the same page more than once, then it is assumed that this must be a good page, so it gets ranked higher.
Even after Google search started to become popular people would still surf the web as the search results really only provided a clue as to which pages were best to look at. More often than not you would have to crawl through the first few pages of results in Google before finding anything really useful, so when you found a good site you stayed there and let that webmaster then guide you further.
The Rise of Spamming and Selling Links
A major spin off of the rapid development of the PageRank mechanism for ranking pages was that people soon realised that to get their sites to rank well they needed to get links on related websites that are already popular. So this gave rise to more and more requests to webmasters for a link on a “blogroll” (although blogs came a little afterwards), or in the footer or on the home page of the site.
To start with this did not affect the results too much but as more webmasters realised that they could game the system link asquisition turned into an arms race. Suddenly every webmaster and then SEO (who was the first SEO I wonder?) was trying to get links faster than their competitors. This lead to all manner of spamming for links, although in the pre-Web 2.0 days spamming was less common as many of the good sites were still static html pages.
However, as some webmasters realised that their pages were in high demand they started charging people to place links. Google made an effort to stop this practice by introducing the nofollow tag, but no all webmasters wish to adopt this practice. Some feel that it is just a method introduced by Google to workaround the flaws in its algo, and so prefer not to pander to Google’s suggestions.
The End of Web Surfing
Google continues to improve its search engine algorithm which means that more often than ever people are finding good pages direct from Google search. Although many bloggers still share lists of similar sites on their blogrolls and many people in the web community link to their websites when discussing articles on blogs, the bulk of new referrals for most sites is still coming from Google.
So, you may remember the day you used to surf the web, just as I do. For kids growing up with the Internet the concept of surfing is alien to them. Now it is all about sharing and tweeting. Maybe one day search will be driven by social media interaction and not html links. If this happens then maybe the idea of surfing will survive.