Here’s a random discussion in Slashdot that sort of caught my attention. Learning that Google is combating search spam (not that there’s anything new to it), one Slashdotters wondered aloud:

Does that mean we can expect google to get better, e.g. closer to what it used to be in the early days?

…and another replied, with some more cynicism…

where the front page was nothing but a banner and search entry field? Or where “do no evil” was more than an abandoned slogan of good faith? Google sold its soul a long time ago, there is no going backwards.

*sigh* kids these days.

Here’s what I replied:

Shiiiiit. Do you remember the bullshit that the competing search engines had on their web pages when Google launched? Useless portal shit as far as eye could see. And when you typed your query, it responded 10 seconds later, and you saw a giant page with dozens and dozens of blinking ads… and buried somewhere in the page was a tiny, tiny comment that said that there were no search results? And every few years, the gave out a press release where they said “yeah, we almost updated our search index this year, but we didn’t really feel like doing that?”

Considering that hell, Google is doing pretty damn well.

Here’s where it gets interesting. I did some rummaging on my hard drive, and surprise surprise, I actually found a genuine screenshot of that situation:

Old Hell

This is AltaVista. The file is datestamped 2001-01-21T15:04:08. Note the banner ad - this is the kind of material that wouldn’t fly in today’s Internet advertising, but we were barely out of 1990s and things were different then. Also note the sheer hell of Netscape 4 and its ugly Motif widgets, the epic glitteriness of the Enlightenment window manager, and my apparent willingness to put “Furry” folder in public screenshots. (Nowadays, I just prove my rampant downtroddability by showing that I have a Twitter link on my toolbar. Laugh at me, people.)

Anyway, this was the hell. This was chaos. The search engine we had trusted just didn’t do its job, and was more concerned at shoving ads down our throats.

I admit it. Around that time, I was kind of boneheaded about technology - I’d say I was very stubborn to change from technologies that had worked for me in the past. For example, I used XEmacs for years, and the switch to GNU Emacs lifted a lot of pain from my shoulders. I used Window Maker for years, and switch to Metacity and modern GNOME stuff also took a lot of pain from my shoulders. I think I’ve gone a little bit too far in this, though - these days, I’m a bit too eager to switch from app to app, because the apps aren’t 100% compatible and there’s probably lost information between the steps.

But the point is this: AltaVista was the trustworthy search engine. I lived in this sort of a hell: I knew I’d need to use these old, established search engines - many search engines - to get results. I actually thought that maybe the future was with meta-search engines like Dogpile. (On a related note, I’m actually quite shocked to notice that Dogpile still exists!)

Slowly, through the grapevine, I heard of a fast search engine that provided us with reliable and fresh search results. Google sold me slowly. I couldn’t live in that hell. Seriously. AltaVista tried to win my favour with a service called “RagingSearch”, which mimicked Google’s interface pretty well, but… well, interface isn’t everything.

But as you can see from the above screenie, the interface is definitely something.

I’m not saying Google is some kind of a messiah service. I’m not saying Google is entirely without problems these days. I’m just saying that you should use tools that work. And believe me, if you think Google is a service that doesn’t work, you haven’t seen the crap we’ve waded through in the bad old days.