Reflecting on AltaVista

December 1, 2008
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Today is Dec 1, and it seems like an appropriate day to reflect on DEC’s one-time foray into web search: AltaVista. In fact, AltaVista was publicly launched as an internet search engine on December 15, 1995 as altavista.digital.com.

I was an avid AltaVista user, and I was shocked by the rapidity of its demise. Why did AltaVista fail?

According to Don Dodge, former Director of Engineering at Altavista:

The AltaVista experience is sad to remember. We

Today is Dec 1, and it seems like an appropriate day to reflect on DEC’s one-time foray into web search: AltaVista. In fact, AltaVista was publicly launched as an internet search engine on December 15, 1995 as altavista.digital.com.

I was an avid AltaVista user, and I was shocked by the rapidity of its demise. Why did AltaVista fail?

According to Don Dodge, former Director of Engineering at Altavista:

The AltaVista experience is sad to remember. We should have been the “Google” of today. We were pure search, no frills, no consumer portal crap.

DEC is guilty of neglect in its handling of AltaVista. Compaq put a bunch of PC guys in charge who relied on McKinsey consultants and copied AOL, Excite, Yahoo and Lycos into the consumer portal game. It should have been clear that being the 5th or 6th player in the consumer portal business wouldn’t work. AltaVista spent hundreds of millions on acquisitions that never worked, and spent $100M on a brand advertising campaign. They spent NOTHING to improve core search. That was the undoing of AltaVista. (via Greg).

Perhaps. I think that doesn’t give Google enough credit for its key innovation: using link analysis to compute a then unspammable measure of a site’s authority, and then using that authority as a prior for its relevance. Of course, spammers caught up and have engaged Google in an arms race ever since, but the head start was enough for Google to establish its supremacy.

Is there a moral? Surely Dodge is right in condemning DEC’s business strategy. But I am sad to see how web search technology has settled in its current local optimum. So, at the risk of being cliché, I’ll draw the lesson that no technologist can afford to be complacent.

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