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Do your page descriptions seem funny at AltaVista? That'sbecause the search engine has changed how it creates its page summaries.

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Do your page descriptions seem funny at AltaVista? That's because the search engine has changed how it creates its page summaries.

Previously, AltaVista either used the text from a meta description tag or the first 200 or so characters that appeared on your web page as a description, if no meta description tag was provided.

The meta description tag is still being supported, but in certain instances, the description may be shortened so that a "dynamic abstract" pulled from the body copy of the page can be added.

For example, in a search for "robert heinlein," here's how one page was described:

This page provides various forms of information about Robert Heinlein and his writings, ... Dedicated to Heinlein's works Search Books Stranger in a Strange Land, Friday, Starship Troopers, Revolt in ...

Compare this description to the meta description tag on the page itself:

This page provides various forms of information about Robert Heinlein and his writings, essays, book reviews, sound files, classifieds, FAQ, Heinlein book covers and much more.

You can see that only the first 13 words of the meta description tag were used. The remaining portion, following the ellipse (...), comes from copy in the body area of the web page.

In the example above, the text that's used also corresponds to the first text that appears on the page. However, this isn't always the case. Here's another example from the top listings for "robert heinlein," that illustrates this:

... page is lovingly devoted to the memory of Robert Anson Heinlein Sometimes between the pages of a book ... in loving strokes in the fiction of Robert Anson Heinlein, master of his craft. Over the last ...

In that description, the first portion between ellipses comes from the first text on the page, then the second portion comes from just a bit further down on the page.

The key to why both portions were selected is that the terms "robert" and "heinlein" appear within them. The method is similar to what Google has long done to form its "snippets," which are descriptions drawn by looking for the first text on a web page that contains someone's search terms.

AltaVista has made the change in hopes that it will make descriptions more relevant to users.

"What you find in many cases is that a search result may be very relevant to a query but that query may not be in the title or description of the page," said Chris Kermoian, AltaVista's director of product marketing.

For site owners, this change at AltaVista takes some control away from you -- but you still have more control than with Google. That's because unlike Google, AltaVista honors the meta description tag. AltaVista may now shorten the text is uses from the tag, but you still have the ability to say some of what you want.

Just be sure to focus on the 70 to 80 characters (including spaces) of the description tag, because that may be all AltaVista uses, in some cases. Technically, up to 90 characters may be used, but I think the 70 to 80 character range is safer to depend on.

When will abstracts occur? AltaVista is using an algorithm to decide if it should be done but won't say more about how it works. I suspect that you may be able to prevent them if you repeat a key term spaced out in your description.

In other words, if you wanted a full description to appear when you came up in a search for "movies," you might have a meta description tag that said:

Our site provides the latest information about movies, such as current films in theaters. Fans of movies can also read about awards, DVD releases and more!

In that example, the second occurrence of movies happens just after the 70 to 80 characters AltaVista might use for a "short" version of your description tag. This might help AltaVista to go "long" and use the entire thing, since it appears to continue being relevant to the search term.

The problems with trying to exert control like this is that people may search and find your pages for a variety of terms, so you can't anticipate them all. I can't even say for certain if this technique will work, because not all of the pages at AltaVista are currently being processed with dynamic abstracts. It's being phased in over the coming weeks, and it is currently being applied to "millions of pages" that AltaVista says appear frequently in their results.

When all pages have been processed, then it will be easier to understand exactly what circumstances make a meta description tag get shorted. However, even then, it makes more sense just to focus on ensuring the part of your meta keywords tag that you know will be displayed says what you want.

Of course, you may get lucky and find that AltaVista uses all of your tag. If so, you'll typically see that about 180 characters displayed. Technically, AltaVista may display up to 200 characters, but the 180 range is more commonly found. This is because AltaVista says it may stop a description at a logical breaking point, such as at the end of a sentence or between words, rather than in the middle of a word.

Don't worry if your description is longer than this in the description tag itself. AltaVista will index up to 200 characters of the tag, and if you go over this amount, the excess characters are simply ignored, without penalty.

If you don't use a description tag at all, then AltaVista will dynamically create a description for you, based on where the search terms appear in your page. You'll know when this happens because the description will begin and end with ellipses. In contrast, if you use a meta description tag, then the text from the tag will come first, followed by an ellipse that indicates when the dynamic portion is coming.

In other news, AltaVista recently increased the price of its paid inclusion program, for non-porn URLs (those are priced at $79 each). Here's a rundown:

  • The price for the first URL remains the same, $39 for six months.
  • The price for URLs 2 through 10 was raised 21 percent, from $24 to $29.
  • The price for URLs 11 through 100 stayed the same at $19.
  • The price of $12 for URLs 101 through 500 was eliminated. Instead, there is now a new URLs 11 through 500 category, with pricing at $19. This amounts to an increase of 58 percent, on the price of URLs 101-500.

The prices all went up in December, and the hikes easily make AltaVista the most expensive paid inclusion crawler. This may not be immediately apparent, because AltaVista quotes fees based on six months, while Inktomi and Ask Jeeves quote fees on a yearly basis. However, once things are leveled out by using yearly pricing, it's easy to see that AltaVista is charging well above its competitors.

For example, inclusion of 100 URLs with AltaVista for one year is about $4,000, while Inktomi charges $2,500 and Ask Jeeves, $1,800. This is despite the fact that Ask Jeeves has almost three times the search traffic reach of AltaVista, according to Jupiter Media Metrix. As for Inktomi, it has almost four times AltaVista's reach, based on AOL search traffic alone. Despite this, AltaVista said high demand made it push up its prices.

"The program has been extremely successful in providing value to customers. Original pricing was kept low to encourage early customers. Strong current demand is a great indicator that customers are receiving a valuable service," said Kermoian.

Obviously, you'll need to monitor the traffic you receive to determine if paid inclusion with AltaVista is worth it. However, if you are going to spend thousands of dollars with any of these programs, you should also consider two other options. Both AltaVista and Inktomi have "bulk" inclusion programs where you pay by the click. Those might be more cost effective alternatives. Alternatively, the money might be better spent with Overture, where you can be assured of placement, for the terms you are interested in.

There's good news for those of you who were in the program before the price increases. AltaVista says you should be able to renew at your original rates.

AltaVista
http://www.altavista.com

How Google Works
http://searchenginewatch.com/subscribers/google.html

See the "Content Indexed & Page Descriptions" section for more details on how Google forms snippets.

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

Scroll to the "Trusted Feed" section for more about AltaVista's bulk paid inclusion program.

Do Not Waste Money On AltaVista
Search Engine Forums, Jan. 25, 2002
http://searchengineforums.com/Forum1/HTML/003353.html

As you might guess from the title, most posting to this forum thread didn't feel AltaVista's paid inclusion was worth it. However, at least one person found it was a benefit.

Inktomi Expands Inclusion Partners
The Search Engine Update, Sept. 4, 2001
http://searchenginewatch.com/subscribers/articles/0109-inktomi.html

My last article on Inktomi's bulk paid inclusion program.

AltaVista Offers "Shortcuts" to the Invisible Web
SearchDay, February 11, 2002
http://searchenginewatch.com/searchday/02/sd0211-avshortcuts.html

AltaVista is making it easier for searchers to delve into reaches of the invisible web, providing "shortcuts" that point to high-quality deep web resources that other search engines typically can't see.


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