AltaVista returns from the Wilderness

Did anyone notice?

AltaVista Co wants to get back to the good old days when it was the most respected web search engine on the internet, and this week outlined how it hopes to learn from the lessons taught by Google Inc, the usurper that came from nowhere to own the market Kevin Murphy writes.

The firm, which is currently a subsidiary of CMGI Inc, has increased the size and relevancy of its search engine and has eliminated much of the fat accumulated on its pages during its wilderness years, to better appeal to the web search OEM channel.

"AltaVista has repositioned itself as an internet search company," said AltaVista chief scientist Jan Pederson. "There was a period when AltaVista was in the position Google is now. Then there was a drift in the company, a lack of focus - the portal strategy."

As a highly respected search engine trying to become a portal, AltaVista waged an un-winnable war against the likes of Yahoo!, AOL and MSN, only to find Google emerge from nowhere to steal its crown when nobody was looking.

The challenge of being a search engine provider is to balance revenue earned from your destination site against the wishes of portal partners, which will pay you to use your search engine provided you don't steal customers from them.

Pederson admitted AltaVista lost contracts - notably with MSN, which went to Inktomi Corp - due to its ambitions as a destination site. But Google has demonstrated that having a destination is not only acceptable but also desirable when courting OEM portals, he added.

Under new management, the company is dropping as far as possible graphical advertising, including pop-ups and so-called "skyscrapers", which add clutter. There will be a renewed emphasis on relevant ads and text-only ads provided by the likes of Overture Services Inc, Pederson said.

AltaVista is also currently test-marketing a service called Tracer, which attempts to provide a relevant advertisement on the estimated 70% of keywords in the query stream that do not have advertising sold against them.

Tracer remembers previous queries a user has made. If a user searches for "cars", she sees a text ad for cars. If she subsequently searches for "hammocks", and Overture cannot provide an ad from a hammock company, AltaVista will serve an ad from a car company.

In terms of search index quality, Pederson said the company has made a number of incremental tweaks and refinements to increase the relevancy (up to 40% more relevant versus nine months ago, according to internal panel tests) and has increased the freshness and size.

There are now "just shy of one billion" pages in the AltaVista index (about a third the size of Google's index). AltaVista re-crawls URLs that its users have visited every 24 hours, and refreshes the entire index every 30 to 60 days.

© ComputerWire

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