Hanging around the info desk

How the evolution of search engines is changing the way we use the internet

There was a time when the internet was like a massive fun park where you could lose yourself for days, and the role of a search engine was similar to the info stall at the entrance – there to give you directions to the best rides and attractions. Back then, we told our parents we were “surfing” to try and explain to them what we were doing on the home computer. And man did we surf deep.

In 1990, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web as a method of publishing information in a hypertext format on the internet. Three years later, after a computer science student, Marc Andreessen created the first popular web browser, known as Mosaic, the internet as we remember it began to take off.

I use the word “remember” deliberately because the internet as we know it today is a vastly different user experience from when Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan started dating via email in the mid-1990s. Faster internet speeds, the rapid growth of e-commerce, the explosion of social media platforms and the growing shift to mobile and wearable devices are altering the way we interact with all things www. 

A great indicator of these developments is Google. What started as a powerful search engine to send you off on your merry way, is evolving into a platform designed to keep you interacting with Google as long as possible. The goal is not to send you “surfing deep” but to keep you connected and engaged with the platform itself. 

Think of the last time you googled a recipe. Standing in your kitchen, ready to do something with those old bananas, you googled “banana bread recipe” from your phone. Did you click through to the website, and, if you did, how long did you hang around? Chances are, you looked at Google’s top-of-page summary and rolled with that recipe.

How about the last time you searched for a movie review? From Rotten Tomatoes to IMDb, Google gives you a quick glance at movie ratings. Did you still click through to RT’s site to read the full review or was Google’s info sufficient to help you decide if you should watch it or not? I predict that this trend will become even bigger, to the point where Google acts as a massive one-stop website, presenting the best content in a fast and easily digestible format without the user clicking through to experience the real deal. 

Back to the fun park. We used to get a map at the entrance and off we went in search of the best ride or cotton candy. Now we hang around the info desk, browsing through the brochures.