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Life without Search Engines

The following activity will help us to gain a better understanding of the difficulty of navigating through the World Wide Web without any search engines to guide us.

Activity: Life without Search Engines

Without adequate search engines, we would be truly lost. In this WhyDoMath node, we explain some of the mathematical ideas used by today's search engines, specifically those used by

Google is the most famous and popular search engine today. But what makes Google so special? Why is it more successful than other search engines? Aren't most search engines pretty much the same? See for yourself. Type the search phrase "British Museum Exhibit" into these three search engines:

  • Yahoo!
  • Google

In fact, Google started with the simple mathematical idea of link analysis.

Sergey Brin and Larry Page were both students at Stanford University when they hit upon their brilliant idea. They turned a math and computer science research project into a multi-million dollar international business that has become a household name (and, not to mention, a new verb). I bet they're glad they paid attention in Math class. And who knows? Study hard, and the knowledge you gain from your Algebra or Calculus book could help you get a job here:


Refer again to your search results for "British Museum Exhibit" in Yahoo!, Google, and, and compare the first few links. Are they the same? When you compare the results from queries to various search engines you probably see roughly the same set of retrieved pages repeated in the results list from the different search engines. Yet the order of the pages in each list usually varies. If the search engines find roughly the same webpages, does this presentation order matter? Who cares what order the results pages are sorted in? In the "British Museum" query exercise, how many pages in the results list did you examine? The first 5 webpages? Or maybe the first whole page of retrieved results? How often do you ever look beyond the first page of results retrieved by a search engine?

Source: Wall Street Journal April 13, 2007

According to one study published in the Wall Street Journal, 23% of search engine users only look at the first few results, 39% at the first page, 19% look at the first 2 pages, and only 19% look at three or more pages. Still think order doesn't matter? So how does Google order their search results? The answer, again, is mathematics and the story starts in 1998 at Stanford University.