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Fourth Time Lucky For AltaVista?

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AltaVista could give Madonna a run for her money in the changing your image game. Earlier this month, the service once again significantly changed its look and feel, the fourth such redesign in just over a year. Fortunately, AltaVista may have gotten it right, this time.

Gone are all the "tabs" encouraging people to try AltaVista's vertical search options, and other minor changes have been made to remove clutter and present a cleaner results page.

"We're moving to a streamlined search experience," said Ganon Giguiere, AltaVista's senior director of global product marketing. "We're going to present everything on this page in a uniform matter."

The downside to these changes is having to once again figure out where everything is on AltaVista. You almost want to scream at the company to just leave things alone for several months. Imagine owning a car where the steering wheel and other controls moved around every time you got in. No one would want to relearn how to drive it each time, yet that's effectively what AltaVista has done to its users with the continual redesigns.

In contrast, Yahoo has hardly changed in the over five years it has operated, and I think that consistency is reassuring to users. In another example, Google has continually added new features, but this has been done without greatly impacting how existing features operate.

The good news is that AltaVista promises any further major changes should be done by the end of this month, and those so far do seem mostly for the better.

"We really are planning on this being the last hurrah for us," Giguiere said. "I feel bad for some many loyal users that we keep changing the carpet, but I think this is going to be it."

OK, so once again, here's a recap as to what's changed -- with hopes that this is the last time for some time that you'll need this sort of rundown:

+ The former "Related Searches" links can still be found at the top of the page with the introductory text "Others searched for" coming before the links. Selecting a link remains a great way to narrow your search, if you began too broadly. AltaVista says making this simple change has greatly increased the use of these links.

"We've seen it go up to about 10 to 12 percent," Giguiere said "I think the learning lesson is that it needs to have better tone," explaining that the more explanatory text has encouraged users to explore the links, as they want to follow how others have searched.

+ Numbers next to results have been dropped in favor of bullets. This was done to provide a more consistent look to the page and also because the numbers seemed to add little value, user testing found. There was one key advantage to having them -- users did find it handy as a way to locate where they left off when exploring results, AltaVista said. For instance, if someone clicked on the number four result and didn't like it, they could then click back to the results page and easily remember where they started from.

To make up for this, AltaVista is exploring other ways to identify pages you've selected. "We're actually looking at doing some backshading, where a color backdrop might change on the entire result," Giguiere said. Also, it might be possible to customize results to have numbers in the future, if you prefer.

+ The old "Sponsored Links" area at the bottom of the page, with links from GoTo.com, is gone. Instead, up to two paid listings now appear at the top of the page, under the heading "Featured Sites."

I far preferred the old title, feeling that it more clearly labels these links as ads. As I've written many times before, I have no problem with paid listings, as long as they unmistakably labeled. However, AltaVista says its users testing found that "Features Sites" was viewed as commercial listings.

"We tested extensively, and everyone came back with, 'I understand that these are not web results, these are people that you are featuring, so these are links you are making money on.' "

I remain unconvinced, but at least AltaVista is adding code so that anyone clicking on the words "Featured Sites" will get a pop-up window explaining exactly what they are.

The change is somewhat bad news for advertisers on GoTo. Previously, it was possible for those ranked anywhere from one through five at GoTo to appear on the AltaVista results page. Now, only those ranked in the top two will appear -- and in some cases, no GoTo links at all may be shown.

This happens because AltaVista is continuing to sell its own paid listings. If AltaVista has its own advertisers, these get preference to appear in the Featured Sites area. After that, any remaining openings are filled by GoTo links. On the plus side, the links do have much higher prominence on the page than being tucked at the bottom.

+ Page Clustering has been altered so that you may see up to two pages from the same web site. Previously, AltaVista would ensure that only one top page from a particular site would be shown. Now, a second page may appear "indented" below the first page. Try a search for "dvd players," and you should see examples of this. It follows a style that Google has long used. Why make this change? AltaVista thinks it may give users a better chance of finding what they are looking for.

+ Vertical search links now appear at the bottom of the page, rather than in tabs at the top. These let you run your search against AltaVista image shopping, multimedia and LookSmart directory databases. AltaVista said that by abandoning the tabs, traffic to its vertical search areas via these new links has doubled.

+ Options to search within results and the Boolean query box on the Advanced Search page were dropped accidentally, rather than intentionally. Both have been restored.

+ AltaVista's Raging Search service has been discontinued. "When we were a pure portal play, then we felt we needed to have a pure search experience. Our attitude now is that we are a pure search experience [at AltaVista” and don't need to offer two search [sites”," Giguiere said.

Last issue, I wrote about features such as inline images and save search functionality that have been added to AltaVista's non-US editions. These are to come to the US site in the near future. "They are being developed right now," Giguiere said.

In addition, all of AltaVista's sites worldwide are being changed so they have the same functionality. "You will see all of the sties have the same look and feel. We will be converging to a common user interface. That is a major undertaking that work is being done on right now," Giguiere said.

This also means that the AltaVista submission puzzle found on the US site is coming to AltaVista's non-US editions. There's no set timeline, but is a change that will happen, Giguiere said.

Related to this, complaints have been coming in that submissions to AltaVista UK of valid pages are causing the submission program to response that the page couldn't be found -- also then prompting worries that since AltaVista couldn't locate the page, it might be removed. I suspect this is a temporary glitch, but I am following up on it.

I've also had reports that there have been occasional problems reaching the main AltaVista submission page, which sometimes results in a blank page. Again, I'll be checking on this. In the meantime, the best advice is to try reloading the page or to try reaching it via the second submit button on the joint LookSmart/AltaVista submission page (below).

Finally, AltaVista announced a deal to promote stories from the New York Times in its search results. If you do a news-related search, preference is given to ensuring that stories from the New York Times will appear in the "blended" news headlines that appear on the main results list. Stories from around the web, as provided by news search service Moreover, may also continue to appear.

"We have a financial relationship with the New York Times, of course, so we have the incentive to promote them, but it doesn't require us to promote them. We first look at the New York Times to find something that's relevant, and if it doesn't find something from then, then it goes to Moreover," Giguiere said.

Giguiere didn't put an exact figure to the New York Times deal but did say it was expected to earn AltaVista in the six figures of income. The New York Times will pay by the click for traffic it receives through the hybrid paid inclusion/paid placement deal.

The real irony here is that search engines have come under fire in some newspaper articles for mixing editorial and advertising content, yet here you have one of the world's leading newspapers not hesitating to to take advantage of the new paid participation deals that have emerged.

In this case, I doubt few would have any objections. The New York Times offers good content that is of value to AltaVista's users, and they can still access other media headlines via the service. Nevertheless, this is essentially the New York Times buying its way to the top.

AltaVista
http://www.altavista.com/

How AltaVista Works
http://searchenginewatch.com/subscribers/altavista.html

Just revised, I already have to make new updates to reflect the layout changes described above. However, you will find more information about issues such as submitting to AltaVista here, plus past articles about blended news search links at the bottom.

Password Finder
http://searchenginewatch.com/about/finder.html

AltaVista Text-Only Search
http://www.raging.com/

The old Raging Search URL now brings up a text-only version of AltaVista.

AltaVista Add URL Page
http://add-url.altavista.com/cgi-bin/newurl?

This link lets you submit directly to the crawler.

LookSmart/AltaVista Submit
http://www.altavista.com/sites/search/addurl

If the first link doesn't work, try this one, selecting the second submit button on the page.

Search Assistances Features
http://searchenginewatch.com/facts/assistance.html

Explains some features mentioned such as related searches and page clustering.


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