A Eulogy For AltaVista, The Google Of Its Time

Goodbye AltaVista. You deserved better than this. Better than the one-sentence send-off Yahoo gave you today, when announcing your July 8 closure date. But then again, you always were the bright child neglected by your parents.

The Amazing AltaVista

You appeared on the search engine scene in December 1995. You made us go “woah” when you arrived. You did that by indexing around 20 million web pages, at a time when indexing 2 million web pages was considered to be big.

Today, of course, pages get indexed in the billions, the tens of billions or more. But in 1995, 20 million was huge. Existing search engines like Lycos, Excite & InfoSeek (to name only a few) didn’t quite know what hit them. With so many pages, you seemed to find stuff they and others didn’t.

As a result, you were a darling of reviews and word-of-mouth praise. You grew in popularity. In fact, I’d say you were the Google of your time, but it would be more accurate to say Google was the AltaVista of its time. That’s because Google didn’t even exist when you were ascendant. That’s also because you help paved some of the way for Google.

It was a brief ascendency, however. You were headed upward, but your parent, Digital Equipment, didn’t quite know what to do with you. You started out as an experiment, and then got used as a poster child for Digital to prove why companies should buy super-computers.

Never Nurtured

Then Digital got bought by Compaq in January 1998. You finally got a parent that at least, later that year, would buy you the domain name of altavista.com, saving us from typing in www.altavista.digital.com (yes, kids, really) to reach you.

But the next year, you were sold off to CMGI, which put you down the portal path that so many other search engines had morphed into, since search was seen as a loss leader. There would be an IPO! You’d finally have the success you deserved!

Alas, next came the dotcom crash. The IPO was cancelled in January 2001. Layoffs. I remember visiting your offices around the time and finding them empty, so empty that some employee had put a skeleton in a chair, at one of the many darkened workstations.

You hung in there, long enough for Overture to buy you in 2003. Then Yahoo bought Overture later that year, and really, you were done. You became part of Yahoo, and your search technology became part of the in-house search technology that Yahoo built. But as a brand, your glory days were finally over.

The Google-AltaVista X

You were loved. You really were. People did not want to leave you. But despite adding new features, some of which Google copied, you couldn’t keep up with the pace and innovation of that company, which decided against becoming a portal like your corporate masters ordered for you.

People who wanted search, who came to you for it, eventually went over to Google. It’s what I termed at the time to be the “Google-AltaVista X,” which looked like this:

google altavista x

The ratings we had at the time were fairly rudimentary, but these ones from comScore showed the percentage of people in the US reported to be going to a particular search engine at least once in a given month. You were climbing, then Google came along and the serious searchers started flocking toward it.

“I Used To Use AltaVista, But Now I Use Google.”

As I said, they didn’t want to go. When I would ask people at the time what search engine they used, it was extremely common that they’d preface the answer to reference having used you in the past. “I used to use AltaVista, but now I use Google.” I heard that over and over. It was like talking to someone who had broken up with a partner they loved but ultimately had to leave. “I used to be with this person, but now I’m with to someone else.” There was real regret.

Google didn’t stop in its ascendency, of course. Having bypassed you, it went on to bypass the portals that you never beat. Indeed, it grew so successful that an entire new generation of searchers seemed to have no idea there was anything other than Google to search with. They used Google’s very name as a synonym for searching. They “googled” for things.

Given the right parent, perhaps you might hired Larry Page and Sergey Brin, when the Google cofounders came calling. Perhaps if Yahoo or Microsoft had understood the desire for better search that the demand for Google was showing, either of them would have purchased you early on and allowed you to thrive.

You Deserved A Better Send-Off

You deserved better — and better than this eulogy, too. I should go on and on explaining how innovative and groundbreaking you were, for your time. I’m sorry for that, AltaVista. I’ll beg a little forgiveness that I’m on a plane, and it’s not the best place to be writing.

For those reading, and wanting more, I highly recommend John Battelle’s “The Search.” It’s an outstanding history of the early days of search, and how Google rose during that time, but it covers the other players as well. Get it. If you want to continue what I consider to be the “Search Trilogy,” get Ken Auletta’s “Googled” and Steven Levy’s “In The Plex.” Both pick up where John leaves off; all three are excellent.

As for Yahoo’s send off, in announcing your death today — “Please visit Yahoo! Search for all of your searching needs” — that’s just shameful. It really is. Yes, it was time for you to be retired. But you deserved your own post, not having your closure mixed in among the other many products being axed.

You deserved from Yahoo, itself one of the old-time brands of the web, to have more attention paid to your role.

Rest in peace, AltaVista.

AltaVista, May 1997

AltaVista, born December 1996, pictured as of May 1997

AltaVista 2013

AltaVista from June 2013, shortly before its death.

Postscript: And now AltaVista is officially gone. See our follow-up story, AltaVista Officially Closes — What Will Pawnee Do!

Related Topics: Channel: Consumer | Stats: History | Top News | Yahoo: Search


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • http://www.oaultimate.com/ oa ultimate

    So sad, i used to play with AltaVista long before Google’s invasion on our internet explorer. RIP, AltaVista.

  • apfwebs

    AltaVista was my first home page. Then came the Wicked Witch from the West.

  • sternhead

    Poor AltaVista can’t even get a proofread internet eulogy.

  • Art Thompson, Jr.

    I used to use AltaVista, but now I use Google. Amen.

  • http://www.stopstressandanxiety.com/ Mulyadi Kurnia

    I have never really used Altavista as search tool but I have read story about the search engine from a book by John A Vise “The Google Story”. To me, the demise of Altavista is part of the game where the best wins (in this current time, Google is the best). Kind of sad, but need to let go.

  • Brian Klais

    Danny thanks, nice to see this. My 10 yr old asked me recently – Dad, what was Alta Vista? I felt sad (and old) to have to explain it to her. What do you say? They were our Google, before there was a Google. Snow capped mountains: RIP. You opened our minds to what a search engine should be!

  • joebeans

    It’s really classy that you’d point that out in a eulogy. Granted, it’s not a eulogy for a person, but still you just had to twist the knife. That fact that you ‘never really used it’ is just stupid icing on the moron cake.

  • Zachary Ziegler

    Anyone remember the old Northern Light search engine?

  • disqusashto

    I remember.

  • Ronnie’s Mustache

    Hot Bot?

  • http://kercommunications.com/ Nick Ker

    I remember when Alta Vista was new… and AOL starter CDs were drink coasters. I feel old.

  • http://www.phoenixnap.com/ SEOchirp

    I worked for a small start up in the bay area which managed the Overture/AltaVista pay per inclusion program. I remember auditing 500+ pages a day! Catching crooks, frauds, pervs, and evil doers was actually done by a human being a long time ago…before they were replaced by a script. The glory days!

    You deserved better than this AltaVista.

    RIP :-(

  • http://www.phoenixnap.com/ SEOchirp

    I remember them.

  • http://www.phoenixnap.com/ SEOchirp

    I remember as well. I always like their logo. How about SearchWheel or Jade?

  • Durant Imboden

    Yep. But my favorite of the old search engines was InfoSeek: Nice interface, and–more important–it loved my pages. :-)

  • Pat Grady

    Hasta la vista, Alta Vista!

  • http://grandadmiralgainz.blogspot.com/ Grand Admiral Gainz

    I remember the good old days of AltaVista. This post brings back so many memories. I would love to go back to 1998, when I sat in front of a computer with a 28.8k modem, just once, to search for Souryu Asuka Langley thumbnails on AltaVista.

  • Rakesh Kamandal

    Rest in peace, AltaVista I Like that line – Rest in peace, AltaVista

  • MarkinArl

    AOL starter CDs? That was after the starter floppies which could, at least, have a use.

  • César Ángel Colín Vázquez

    I’m one of those that used to use Altavista and now Google; Altavista was THE search engine until Google was born, was the only one I used to search the web, so this is my tribute to Altavista: I just made my last search with Altavista for the word “goodbye”.

  • novemh

    Was one of the people who used to use Alta Vista and now Google. It was during my high school days when I started using Alta Vista and I can say it really contributed much on my studies especially on my research, it made life more easier compared to going to school library and flipping out pages.

  • Miramon

    Alta Vista was bad from the very beginning, but there was admittedly a period in which it was the best, despite that badness. It did at least point the way toward Google. And of course, every one of its purchasers failed to understand what to do with search, or even how to do search over the entire history of its existence.

  • ScrittiPolitti

    Didn’t mention AltaVista going to a private, paid model.

  • ScrittiPolitti

    And we love your spam.

  • Earl Grey

    The first search engine i used was SplatSearch
    and then i bought it 7 years later

  • fallacycomp

    AltaVista was in my internet toolkit along with Web Wombat, Ask Jeezes and Yahoo!

    Like most other high-school kids, the two main reasons why I started using Google was because it was easier to type in the URL bar and loaded incredibly fast.

  • http://www.webranking.com/ James Svoboda

    Good bye old friend. You will be missed. R.I.P.

  • Andrew Heenan

    RIP, AV – best in your time, destroyed by idiot owners – and helped down by the dot.com bust (timing is everything; go tell Apple).
    Technologically, you were outgunned by innovative Google; culturally, you just fossilized.
    And I have to admit, I thought you went years ago.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    When the story first went up, it was proofread only within the draft area (where it’s hard to read). After it was published, within the first half-hour, I proofread it live. Twice. I’ve just done so again now, and I’m not seeing any issues. If you still see something, I’d love to know.

  • Chris Roberts

    Thank you Danny. How about one for Veronica?

  • xmeister

    I wonder how many other Xs are out there. Firefox-Chrome would probably be one.

  • http://www.twitter.com/stevenkane Steven Kane

    Thank you for this post. Needed to be said!

  • martyhalpern

    Count me in as another “I used to use AltaVista, but now I use Google” user….

  • http://www.kennedypittman.com/ Kennedy Pittman

    It’s almost impossible to proofread my own writing, I just read what my brain intended regardless of the actual text.

  • Elizabeth A. Evans

    I am very, very sad. I used to use AltaVista. I *still* use AltaVista. Many people ask me why. Because when I periodically compare results of the searches I do using both AltaVista and Google, I get pretty much the same results. I’m sure this isn’t true for everybody, but basically, I find what I need, so I resist switching. I *almost* switched months ago when for a brief time, AltaVista removed the ability to do phrase searching by enclosing it in quotes. I exchanged email with the support folks multiple times saying, “I’ve resisted Google, but if this function doesn’t come back, I’m going to have to switch.” Finally, it came back, and I settled back into being a blissful non-Googler. What do I remember most about the early days of AltaVista? The ability to differentiate between upper and lower case. It was powerful in limiting searches even in the days of *only* 20 millions indexed pages.

    Although I *do* use gmail and other Google options, I will continue to use the general “search” instead of making Google into a verb. Well, maybe on July 8, I’ll use AltaVista as a verb in tribute… “Go AltaVista it.” ” I AltaVistaed it.”


  • Melinda Colos

    just as Andrew said I am startled that anyone able to earn $4956 in four weeks on the computer. did you read this site w­w­w.K­E­P­2.c­o­m

  • tommariner

    Many of the gigantic tech companies forget they come from innovation and hire “managers” to make sure those techies don’t spend too much of the revenue that they KNOW was obtained through clever marketing and good finance. Oh, and “Human Resources” who make sure nobody like those geniuses that dreamed up the original products get hired or promoted. Xerox PARC, DEC anything, Kodak, Apple after Steve Jobs I, and countless others get high paid veeps defending their turfs.

    Google was a couple of certified crazies, hopefully still is (although hopefully a lot more “of course we can do that” technical egos). Yeah, AltaVista was the first really useful search that made me think, “hey this Internet thing is bloody useful!”. Danny’s right — If it was bought by Google, there would be an “AltaVista” page offered as the normal Google page today!

  • Emma Freeman

    I defected from WebCrawler to Alta Vista because it was so much better. *Sigh* Bye bye, Alta Vista. You will be remembered, I promise.

  • http://www.acsius.com/ Arun Singh

    Thanks for this post Danny. I did not use AltaVista for years but I do recall it was my favorite one long long ago.

  • http://www.archology.com/ Jenny Halasz

    Alta Vista and Tedster, in one week. It’s the end of an era. RIP.

  • Br. Bill

    AltaVista used to have some great features none of the other engines currently has: the “near” keyword and the search on wildcards. “William near Perry” would get you pages where the two words were both there but only if they were within a few words of each other. Wildcards? Super useful, but none of these other so-called “search engines” seems to have the stones to implement it. RIP, AltaVista. And soon we will say goodbye to Yahoo as well, I wager.

  • http://www.molehill.com.au/ Max Lynam

    I loved altavista search … it beat google and everyone else hands down. Had always wondered why it died a slow retiring death, so thanks for shedding light – seems the corporates killed something beautiful and useful.

  • ChadF

    For a while you could use the AOL starters to test that your postal mail was being delivered reliably.. if you didn’t receive at least one (or two) of them each month, you would know something was wrong. ;)

  • http://www.elite-strategies.com/blog Patrick Coombe

    web crawler was my original, followed by Lycos and Excite

  • http://www.elite-strategies.com/blog Patrick Coombe

    uh oh grammar police in the house

  • http://aalbc.com Troy Johnson

    Nice article but I’d image the majority of users online today, sadly, have no idea what you are talking about. I too remember thinking “whoa” when Altavista launched.

  • pj

    i think the only, repeat only, thing truly, legitimately interesting
    about this article, with all of its cliche snark, attempt at ironic
    humor etc. is that it flawlessly displays the internet “community’s”
    utter and complete vacuous fascination with how the internet and web
    evolve, develop, grow, progress, etc. etc.
    except, instead of simply recognizing that this evolution is a natural progression, and in reality is no big deal, they (you) hyperventilate with ooohs and ahhhs
    about ‘what used to be’ and ‘then this happened’ and ‘then this came
    along’ and how quaint it all was ‘back then’ blah blah blah.
    in reality we’re talking about relatively a very very short period of
    time, and these things which are referenced with such dramatic
    pseudo-awe (a search engine before google!, an ipo!) are exactly,
    precisely what exists… today. yes, it’s better now. no shit, that’s
    called advancement, and that happens particularly fast and makes great
    leaps when we’re talking hi-tech, such as the internet, computers, etc.
    but aside from the efficiencies and advancements, exactly the same stuff is
    happening now as did ‘back then’. you type a search the same way now as
    you did when you used alta vista. there are ipos now (some just as
    dubious) as there were ‘back then’.
    it’s. all. the. same. and none of this recognition requires the hyper-dramatic expressions of ‘wow!’ that articles like this represent and inspire.
    if google came along and did it better, with a better algorithm and figured
    out a better way to monetize it, then, yeah, that’s what happens,
    whether it’s a better car or train, or steel making process, or internet
    product. it. happens. all. the. time.
    no ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ filled with endless quasi-humor is required. and certainly no
    fascination with what existed not all that long ago and still is extant
    today in much the same form.

  • thatguyknows

    You kept a naive public safe…kudos to you sir (or madam).

  • http://www.phoenixnap.com/ SEOchirp

    Oh how I remember. It was $99 ($49 for one URL with a $50 deposit for the clicks) pay per inclusion. URLs 2-10 were $29 each all sharing the same $50 deposit.

    URLs 11-999 was $10 each.

    Click charge was either $0.15 or $0.30 cents-depending on the category your company was placed in. Adult was $0.15 and Apparel was $0.30

  • http://www.phoenixnap.com/ SEOchirp

    Just reminiscing and appreciating what was…and enjoying what is coming next; Technology speaking.

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