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