How would the world be if there were was no digital search?

This does not only include Google, Bing and other online search engines. It also includes things such as the windows search, library catalogue searches and database searches.

Google, Apple and all still exist, and all other technology is current. You could also still get on a YouTube video or website by writing it up in the address bar.

My questions: Could there still be global websites? Or even local ones?

Would books be more prevalent?

Can phones be used? If not, any other forms of digital communication?

Any other quriks.

Thanks in advance.

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    $\begingroup$ What would the reasoning behind this be? Cataloging items of any kind is something we've been doing as a race since ancient times as a form of organization. From a purely developmental standpoint, I can't see what the reason behind this would be, assuming this method never existed to begin with, rather than being lost at some point. $\endgroup$
    – Pleiades
    Jun 21, 2016 at 5:52
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    $\begingroup$ If there weren't any search engines, I imagine someone would realize there should be a way to find things easier, and invent it. $\endgroup$ Jun 21, 2016 at 6:02
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    $\begingroup$ To be honest, if there were no search engines anywhere, people would make up one. Why? Because, searching lost things is natural (you look for your lost keys, etc.), the basic ideas of searches are used in many algorithm (search for the local minimum, local maximum), etc. And the extention of both are search engines. $\endgroup$ Jun 21, 2016 at 7:01
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    $\begingroup$ Have you ever heard of webrings? $\endgroup$
    – user
    Jun 21, 2016 at 8:24
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    $\begingroup$ Are you so young ("wet behind the ears") that you don't remember when that was reality? $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jun 21, 2016 at 9:09

4 Answers 4


It would be like it was before Altavista and Google took over: catalogue/portal sites, like Lycos and Yahoo in their youngen days.

But do note that your question is akin to asking: "What if the world was exactly like ours, but everyone was walking around with their left leg tied up with a string... what would that be like?". Answer: everyone would find this an utterly stupid thing and instantly realize the impracticality of it. The scissors/nippers-business would have a one-day spike in sales as everyone rush to remove these stupid things from their legs... and then things would be as it is now, leaving but a footnote in the annals of History as "The Great Leg-tieng Folly".

  • $\begingroup$ My thought exactly. Yahoo directory, manually curated, which was better than the nacent search bots. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jun 21, 2016 at 9:10
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    $\begingroup$ Without digital search, how would a router find the appropriate route toward a given destination network? $\endgroup$
    – user
    Jun 21, 2016 at 9:53
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling Does "lookup" really count as "search"? $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Jun 21, 2016 at 10:02
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, because there are two main ways of searching a list: sequentially across all elements, or by partitioning (binary search). In order to perform a lookup, you must, at some level, perform some kind of search. OP postulates a world without "digital search", not one without "web search". If we somehow determine that "lookup" (for some definition of the word) does not consitute a "search", then you can just reimplement all searches as lookups. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Jun 21, 2016 at 11:00
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling At this point I am not going to play "by the letter" games, and instead simply assume that OP meant "web search". Either alternative is aburd. But if he meant "digital serch" by the letter, then WWW, or any kind of network impossible to implement, which adds magnitudes of absurdity to the question whereas if he meant "web search" then it is not very absurd since we have actually had that situation. The absurdity would be to assume no one would implement web search. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Jun 21, 2016 at 11:03

Without the ability to search the data, the Internet would basically become a library without computers. You'd have to know what you're looking for in order to find it. This most likely means there'd be niche servers that provide data for an institution or organization (although I doubt the business value of a non-searchable database). Local sites would do well, much like BBS's of the 90's did quite well without search engines, but global sites would be far and few between. The only ones that could do well are those that could afford the advertising. Amazon would probably exist, but many companies simply would not bother, preferring that their customers come in to their stores. Microsoft would exist, but Google almost certainly would not.

Libraries are still relevant today, and there's a lot of data you won't find on the web (although Google is actively working for it). Most other forms of digital communication would be unaffected. Emails are still prevalent in business settings, phones are still used to communicate between people of any distance, and text messages are always used for communications short enough to not warrant a phone call or even an email. Search engines mostly only affect the size of the Internet and the revenue it brings in, and it also stifles the growth of human knowledge (e.g. sites like Wikipedia would be nearly useless without a way to find specific topics that you don't know the name for). It'd shunt the evolution of human knowledge by some extent, but certainly wouldn't eliminate it, as there's other forms of disseminating information, such as magazines, publications, etc.


The main quirk and problem with having no digital search is that all advances in computing past the 1950s/1960s wouldn't be possible.

This is roughly when computers stopped having their execution controlled by a physical setup, such as card with holes punched in it or a system of levers, and started being controlled by a set of instructions loaded into memory - the magnetic hard disk drives we use today are the modern extension of this.

Having no way to search for digital information stored on a drive essentially means you have to look at the entire contents in sequence, which takes longer and longer the larger the available memory, and thus puts a limit on the size and complexity of any computer.

This also makes writing an app difficult.

To see the real world effects of this we can simply look a few decades into the past:

  • Libraries still use physical index card systems to catalogue their books
  • Phones can still be used - early systems used switchboards manually controlled by an operator which connected you to the line you wanted to reach. Later, phonebooks contain lists of all phone numbers you can dial to reach some endpoint.
  • Encyclopedias would be relevant again, as they're essentially a collection of commonly needed information in book form. Books would definitely be more prevalent
  • Physical maps tell you where to go

If a way to develop and host a website were developed using the restricted computing technology available, we could end up with "websitebooks" too, a physical listing of all known web addresses.

However, in reality (as other people have mentioned) eventually someone would realise there's something missing and connect the dots.


Different technologies become important.

First up: Advertising

This becomes the be all and end all for your internet profile. No advertising, no profile, no visitors to your website. With no searches to game, getting your name out there becomes a matter of paying someone to do it. This increases the value of advertisements on high traffic sites massively along with the value of going viral.

Next up: The Index

You'll need to index everything on your site. If you want a page to be found you'd better have good menus and an index, otherwise nobody will see it. I'm sure menus and site navigation were better in the days before internal site searching.

Then there are the Yellow Pages type sites, that list every company that submits (and pays for) a listing. A website equivalent of the directory we used to get through the door, since Google took over their market the directory is a pale shadow of what it was (barely worth the effort of tearing in half).


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