A Brief History of Web Crawlers

History of web crawlers and search engines

Introduction to crawlers

Web crawlers (also known as crawling agents, spiders or bots) are applications that visit web pages and gather wanted information. Crawlers collect data from web pages for purposes including indexing and creating web search engines, web archiving, and web page analysis (e.g. SEO analysis). When paired with regulated web scraping, we can use crawlers for services such as competitor price monitoring and data aggregation.

Read more: Web Crawling vs Web Scraping: What’s the difference?

The history of web crawlers

Web crawlers have a history dating back to the beginning of the internet. Here is a brief timeline of the web crawler journey:

1994: First crawlers

The concept of web crawling dates back to the early 1990s when the World Wide Web was still in its infancy. The first web crawler, named World Wide Web Wanderer, was developed by Matthew Gray in 1993. Its purpose was to measure the size of the web by counting the number of accessible web pages.

Shortly after, the first popular search engine, WebCrawler, was launched.  In 1994, Brian Pinkerton developed WebCrawler, the first full-text crawler-based Web search engine. WebCrawler was the first search engine that allowed users to search for any word on a web page, which changed the standard for all future search engines.

The “World Wide Web Worm” (WWWW), developed by Oliver McBryan in 1994, was another one of the first available crawler-based search engines. The Worm’s database has collected over 300,000 multimedia assets and indexed more than 100,000 web pages as of 1994.

In these early developments of crawlers, their creators aimed to build general-purpose systems on the small-scale technology that was available at the time.

Search Engines Take Flight

In 1994, two other significant search engines emerged: Lycos and AltaVista. These platforms implemented crawling techniques to index websites and provide users with a more refined search experience. Web crawlers became instrumental in helping users navigate the growing web landscape by enabling quick and accurate retrieval of relevant information.

Late 90s - Early 2000s: Rise of Google

The late 1990s saw the rise of Google, which revolutionized web search with its groundbreaking PageRank algorithm. Google’s crawler, Googlebot, not only collected information about web pages but also analyzed their relevance and popularity. PageRank revolutionized the way search results were ranked on Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs), making Google the dominant search engine. Web crawling became more sophisticated, with Googlebot frequently revisiting pages to update the index, ensuring search results remained relevant and up to date.

Beyond Search: Web Crawlers Expand Their Reach

While search engines were the primary users of web crawlers, their utility quickly expanded to other domains. E-commerce websites leveraged crawling techniques to build product catalogs, ensuring customers could easily find and compare items. News aggregators employed web crawlers to gather news articles from various sources and present them in a centralized location. Crawlers were also utilized by academic researchers to collect data for studies and analysis.

Present-day: Current crawlers

Notable crawling bots of the present day include Xenon, BingBot, Googlebot.

Additionally, specialists now offer Software as a  Service (SaaS) or Data as a Service (DaaS) web crawling services for companies and individuals. These services allow clients to have an automated collection of any publicly available data on the web on a frequent basis. The most notable use of web crawling and scraping in the eCommerce and manufacturing markets is Price Monitoring; this service allows clients to track their competitors’ pricing and market strategies quickly and easily.

Furthermore, we can use crawling and scraping to perform data aggregation, a process allowing data from multiple sources to be extracted, transformed, and visualised/analysed without needing API integration. Some examples of platforms that use data crawlers and aggregation are Google search engine, Facebook, and Skyscanner.

The web crawler industry is experiencing a bottleneck of demand with a supply shortage, as data is becoming one of the most valuable assets for many businesses.

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