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AltaVista Europe Debuts Helpful Search Features

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Normally, US-based search engines tend to try out cool new features on their flagship sites before exporting them months later to their various international editions. AltaVista Europe has reversed this truism, rolling out a helpful search management feature and new thumbnail images that appear next to some search results.

"MySearch" is a search management tool that will automatically record your most recent 25 searches via its "Search Tracker," plus allow you to easily save them into a "My Favorite Searches" area, so that they can easily be rerun in the future.

This is ideal for anyone who runs the same searches on a regular basis -- by using the Favorites list, you can easily get back to a particular search query that you ran before. Of course, it's also helpful to remember that this functionality is built into any browser.

For example, after performing a search at AltaVista, simply bookmark or add the results page to your favorites list. Your search query will be stored in the bookmark link, so that when you next load it, the search will be rerun. You should find this technique works with most any major search engine.

What you can't do within your browser is store individual results easily into a custom list. That's another feature that MySearch offers through its "My Search Results" area, and it's proving to be the most popular option.

"Of the three [MySearch features”, that's the one that is getting the most usage," said Seth Socolow, AltaVista Europe's European marketing manager.

For example, let's say you do a search for "foot and mouth." You'll see below each listing a "Save to MySearch" link. Just click on that link to save the search result into the MySearch center.

By doing this, you can filter out all the likely pages of interest, to visit when you are ready. To access your saved results, you simply need to visit the MySearch center. A link to this appears near the search box at the top of the results page and also on the home page of the various AltaVista Europe web sites.

The MySearch center also allows you to email any search results that are stored, and this is also something you can do by using the "Email to a friend" link that appears below each listing on the regular results page.

The best thing about MySearch is that no software is required. Everything is stored with AltaVista, so you can be up and running right away. AltaVista uses a cookie to identify you when you revisit the site, in order to recover your information. However, this is fairly anonymous -- the service only knows that you are coming from a browser on a particular machine, not your name, email address, etc.

Because cookies are involved, you have to also be careful. If you clear your cookie, you'll lose your MySearch information. AltaVista says there's no way to retrieve it. This will also be the case if you use a different browser on the same machine or if you use a different computer. The cookie will be tied to one browser and only one browser.

MySearch is supposed to be available on all of AltaVista Europe sites, including AltaVista UK. It's also at AltaVista Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and India. In fact, the only place is doesn't appear is AltaVista's main US-based service, AltaVista.com.

"We're really in the process of using Europe as a test market for things," said Socolow, explaining that AltaVista.com may get MySearch if the experience on its non-US editions proves successful.

AltaVista Europe has also begun including images as part of its regular search results. Known internally as Image Enhanced Results, or IER, this is where some listings in search results have images associated with them. Try a search for "london" at AltaVista UK or "eiffel tower" at AltaVista France to see examples of this.

The thought is that including images can help improve relevancy -- or at least the user's ability to judge results more relevant to their query than others.

"Now, the user has almost a human eye to actually determine if a result is relevant or not," said Karl Gregory, head of marketing for AltaVista UK.

In some cases, this works well. For instance, it's easy to spot that one of the results for "hadrian's wall" at AltaVista UK has nothing to do with the Roman fortification near the England-Scotland border, because unlike the other images showing the ancient wall, this one shows a logo for an indoor-climbing facility.

Unfortunately, the usefulness of the feature is reduced by the images sometimes being a bit too small to be clear, as well as the larger problem of them inconsistently appearing.

AltaVista is obviously keeping the images small in order to reduce download time. To further mitigate concerns about delays, the textual results are loaded first. There's also a "Hide images" option that appears just below the search box on the results page, which can be used to prevent images being loaded on future searches. AltaVista's Customize option also lets you disable images permanently.

As for the inconsistency, this comes from AltaVista automatically selecting images from the pages its lists. It essentially has to guess at which image that it thinks best describes the page, in relation to the search term, and it may not always get this right. Moreover, not every page may have a good image to display according to AltaVista's algorithms, which is why some pages have images, while others don't.

Specifically, here's what happens behind the scenes. AltaVista displays textual results, as usual. So, in a search for "buckingham palace," it will display pages it considers tops for those words, using all its usual criteria.

Next, AltaVista will see whether any of the top results have pictures that qualify as a match for the search terms. First of all, that means the page needs an image on it. No images, no chance of having an image displayed. Next, the image needs to be in .jpeg format. So, if your site only uses .gif images, you're out of luck.

Assuming you make it past those barriers, you then need an image on your page that's associated with the search terms. This could mean that the search terms are in the image's file name -- "buckingham-palace.jpg" would be an example of this. Next, it can also mean that the search terms appear in the HTML copy near the image. So, perhaps you have the words "buckingham palace" as part of a paragraph describing a picture on your page.

Finally, AltaVista says that images should be in full color and not too large in file size, though how large wasn't specified. I've seen images from 3K up to 40K, but staying near the lower end of that scale seems better.

Several months ago, AltaVista hinted strongly that there was another way images might be associated with listings -- through a paid participation program. This would allow webmasters to make their sites stand out more from others, in exchange for a fee. Such an option may still come to AltaVista Europe, the company says.

In the meantime, one new way to make a site stand above others at AltaVista Europe is through what are called "Intercepts." These are banner-like ads that appear just above the numbered search results. Try a search for "money" at AltaVista UK to see an example from Virgin Money. Unlike banners, these ads contain several HTML links are designed to increase clickthrough by being relevant to the search query. The ads are sold on a CPM basis through AltaVista Europe's ad department.

In other changes, those trying to reach AltaVista's US-based site from outside the United States may now find themselves redirected to a country-specific version. For instance, those in the United Kingdom are being automatically redirected to AltaVista UK, even if they specify AltaVista.com.

There are certainly advantages to using AltaVista's country-specific versions. However, there are also times when people may indeed want to visit the US-based site. To still get there, look for the "Go to US site" link at the top right-corner of the home page of the non-US AltaVista edition you are using. You can also use the "United States" link at the bottom of the home page. AltaVista says it may introduce a permanent URL that can also be used by those who specifically want to reach the US site without going through redirection.

AltaVista International
http://doc.altavista.com/international.shtml

Links to all AltaVista's various editions can be found here.

AltaVista UK Advertising Form
http://uk.altavista.com/s?spage=advertise/adpage8.htm

Use this page to follow up about Intercept ads.


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