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How AltaVista lost its mojo and Google found its groove

AltaVista’s creators were the first to realise that simple and effective search was the key to the Internet
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First Published: Thu, Jul 04 2013. 11 35 AM IST
AltaVista might not have seen in 1995 that in the not too distant future, a search engine would eventually be as important to the world as the steam engine or the internal combustion engine had been.
AltaVista might not have seen in 1995 that in the not too distant future, a search engine would eventually be as important to the world as the steam engine or the internal combustion engine had been.
Updated: Fri, Jul 05 2013. 12 00 AM IST
Eighteen years after it was launched, the AltaVista search engine that first revolutionized search, is finally being put out of its misery. Author Steven Levy tweeted: “Yahoo shutting down Alta Vista like getting invitation to funeral of someone who you thought died 10 years ago.” So why should we bother about it?
For those too young to remember, and that’s the vast majority of the Internet user base, AltaVista was Google when Larry Page and Sergey Brin were still brainstorming about their famous search engine. Not that it was the first. There were others like Lycos, OpenText, Magellan, Excite, InfoSeek but their search base was way too narrow. By indexing around 20 million web pages, when a 10th of that was considered an achievement, it was the forerunner to the billions of pages that Google now indexes. But with search not yet seen as a revenue generator and the fact that it came out of the labs at Digital Equipment Corp., meant that AltaVista came to grief early. Indeed, it wasn’t till 1998 that it got its own URL. Till then it had to be accessed through www.altavista.digital.com, owing allegiance to the company that had developed it but didn’t know what to do with it. In 1998, Digital was sold to Compaq and in 1999, Compaq redesigned AltaVista as a web portal, hoping to compete with Yahoo and with that AltaVista lost its mojo.
Early users though swore by its magical properties. You had to learn its advanced syntax to search in page titles, URLs and link texts, but once you did that, what unfolded was like a magic kingdom. A friend, who was one of its early users, puts it succinctly: “With AltaVista, if something was there on the Net and you couldn’t find it, it was your problem and not the Internet’s.” It looked like the sky was the limit until of course Google came along and spoilt the party by showing us what AltaVista had missed. The older search engine’s text-analysis approach just couldn’t cope with the kind of growth and the kind of deliberate spamming in the name of optimization that came later. If Google hadn’t been invented and then evolved the backrub approach (the heart of the new search system as explained by Brin and Page in this academic paper http://stanford.io/KWiv), the Net would have been unusable today.
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Even so, AltaVista could have competed with Google had it been a smaller company. Digital was this vast mini-computing giant, wholly unsuited to spotting the possibilities that search presented. For Digital, the main utility of its little development was as a bragging point for its Alpha CPU. And post acquisition, the suits at Compaq thought that a search engine was some bit feature and that a portal was the thing to be. Perhaps because the search box took up just a small space on the page they thought it couldn’t be a whole business by itself and needed the rest of the bells and whistles around it. In the hands of the bosses at Compaq, it was the very antithesis of what Paul Graham, in a November 2012 piece, said was the key to an idea: “The very best startup ideas tend to have three things in common: they’re something the founders themselves want, that they themselves can build, and that few others realize are worth doing.”
But the fact is, AltaVista’s original creators, Paul Flaherty, who was responsible for the original idea, Louis Monier, who wrote the crawler, and Michael Burrows, who wrote the indexer, were the first to realise that simple and effective search was the core around which the Internet would exist. They knew that search was not a mere programming feature but a fundamental and major science problem that needed to be solved. It needed serious work in math and information theory and not just engineering man hours. But it was Google that actually did it.
Indeed the history of technology is riddled with examples of prematurely developed products that became the forerunners to eventual leaders. Such cutting-edge products eventually become commonplace but for that early inventor who failed to find a market, this can be little consolation.
AltaVista might not have seen in 1995 that in the not too distant future, a search engine would eventually be as important to the world as the steam engine or the internal combustion engine had been. But for setting us on the path to that dramatic discovery we owe the web’s first “super spider”.
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First Published: Thu, Jul 04 2013. 11 35 AM IST
More Topics: AltaVista | Search Engine | Google | Yahoo | Technology |
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