Remembering how search engines reacted to the Columbia Shuttle disaster

Yesterday was 12 years since the Columbia Shuttle disaster, something that reminded me that 12 years is a very long time in internet and search engine history.

At the time I did two things.

One, I edited the BBC’s search engine results by hand. We used to have a taxonomy system behind the search engine to recommend “Best bets” at the top of the results.


I noticed that there had been a spike in searches for the country Colombia as well as for the correct name of the shuttle, so I set up “colombia” as a synonym of “columbia” and fixed it so people were getting the right news even if they had spelled the spaceship’s name wrong.

Secondly, I blogged about search engine reaction to the news. I think 9/11 was the first real test of how search engines handled massive breaking news in the world wide web era. They didn’t do very well – I remember Google being criticised for having links to a World Trade Center webcam high up in the results even as the twin towers were collapsing.

So I did a review of how all the different search engines handled the Columbia news. Yep. That’s another “long time in internet years” thing. In 2003 it was actually worth me looking at how several search engines had reacted – as well as Google I looked at Yahoo!, AltaVista, All The Web and MSN.

Here’s what MSN and AltaVista looked like at the time.



I wrote:

“Why do search engines not employ editorial teams to keep better on top of this kind of breaking news situation? Their results are only undermining their credibility – at a time when there is bound to be a surge in the use of the internet to search for news, and a potential to capture audience share if they are the one to better serve users clamouring for accurate news.”

It’s quite funny reading that now, which brings me to another point. Plenty of discussion over the last couple of days over whether “blogging is dead”. Again.

I must say I do rather enjoy being able to point to things I wrote about the media & the internet over a decade OK. I don’t suppose I’ll ever stop, even if the frequency of my blogging is greatly diminished.