The strange afterlife of AltaVista

When the Microsoft bid for Yahoo broke a week ago, I decided to brave the snowstorm that had blanketed Toronto to go talk about the implications on CBC Newsworld. They asked the standard questions: Why Microsoft was making this move, what would it mean for the search market, and so on. I knew in advance what the last question would be, but I surprised myself with the answer.

“So do you think this will be good or bad for customers?” the host asked.

“Well, if you think about it, 10 years ago the big names in search were Yahoo and AltaVista,” I began.

“Alta who?” the host said, chuckling.

“Exactly,” I went on, “but then out of nowhere Google popped up and changed the market completely. I’m actually really optimistic that some new entrant that we’ve never heard of before will come out to offer an alternative to the consolidating market.”

Then, today, I went on AltaVista.

You forget for a while that it still exists. It doesn’t look as I remembered it. In the old days, it more closely resembled Yahoo – a big portal with lots of content prominently displayed, where you could browse as much as you searched. Now it looks more like Google: just the search bar, the same options for video or images and the translation engine Babelfish. Its button says “FIND” (in all-caps emphasis) rather than search, but whatever.

Just for fun, I put in “Yahoo Microsoft.” I got 362 million results. Google provided me only 28 million, although they might be more focused. However AltaVista managed to provide a similar experience to Google’s “universal search,” that mixed in news stories and images along with links to other portals. There are also no annoying ads. In fact, I’m so used to looking past the “sponsored links” bar on Google that I was almost alarmed by its absence on AltaVista.

AltaVista was acquired by Overture in 2003, and that seemed to be the final death knell, but its continued existence demands a little more study. There’s almost no reason it shouldn’t still be a contender. Yes, Google is innovative, but AltaVista claims the most search-related patents of any firm, and was the first to launch image, audio and video searches. What it lacks is any sense of a community – a rapid user base, a team of active developers creating new advances behind the scenes, or even a whiff of attention from other media.

Perhaps AltaVista, along with InfoSeek or Lycos, were victims of poor timing. Maybe in the case of AltaVista, which sprang from the former Digital Equipment Corp., it lacked the energy of a startup venture that Google seemed to get from its genesis in a garage. We dismiss search firms like AltaVista because they seemed to miss the boat, never giving them a chance to catch up, and they seem to dismiss themselves. Yet they represent an existing platform upon which further development could happen, and stage a comeback story that would be novel in this industry. Finally, companies like AltaVista continue to give users another option in the face of a possible Microsoft Yahoo combination. That is, if users bother to search for other options at all.

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