As surprising as it might seem, commercial search 'engines' for the World Wide Web were only launched in 1996 and initially they handled far less than the 60 million inquiries a day now logged by each of the companies coordinating Web searches.
Today, according to Walter Underwood, senior staff engineer at US-based Inktomi Corporation, there are "infinitely more web sites but less search engines to help web users reliably track down information".
Mr. Underwood, a keynote speaker at this week's AusWeb 01 - the Seventh Australian World Wide Web Conference - in Coffs Harbour, said search engines such as AOL, Lycos and MSN (one of several engines powered by Inktomi), faced the huge challenge of helping Web users access information without being sidetracked by billions of 'spam' pages. These were sent by commercial interests seeking to trick the compilers of genuine material for the search engines.
Although some of this material does find its way 'behind the firewall', as does some pornography, and becomes linked to genuine material that will turn up in searches, the majority is deflected by filtering mechanisms constantly being refined by the search engine companies.
Inktomi has 900 employees worldwide and lists organisations such as Boeing, Nokia, MIT, Sun and the Australian National Library amongst its clients.
Giving advice to the many Web users undertaking searches, Walter Underwood suggested using more words in a search, using word variants and following references to learn new terms.
AusWeb 01 was attended by 150-plus delegates from overseas and around Australia and ran at Coffs Harbour's Novotel Opal Cove Resort until yesterday. It will also travel to Sydney tomorrow as a Roadshow featuring overseas keynote speakers Walter Underwood, Walter Stewart from Silicon Graphics Inc and UCLA computing futures planner, Assoc. Prof. Phil Agre.
Sydney - Friday 27 April, Macquarie University, Flexible Learning Unit.