AltaVista debuted a new "Related Searches" prompter in December that is designed to help users be more specific in their queries.
To see the feature in action, do a search, then on the results page, look just below the search box. You'll see text that says "Related Searches" followed by hyperlinked topics related to your original search.
For example, a search for "cars" brings up related queries such as "new cars," "rental car" and "cars for sale." A search for "travel" brings up terms including "travel agency" and "air travel."
Clicking on any of the related searches automatically reruns your search using those terms.
Ideally, listing related topics in this way will painlessly help users be more specific with their searches, which in turn should provide better quality results.
For instance, imagine a novice searcher who is looking for information about the famed "face" on Mars. They might start off too broadly, and simply search for "mars."
If so, AltaVista would suggest "face on mars" as a related search. Clicking on this suggestion reruns the search using those words. In response, AltaVista presents results that are specifically about the face -- and results far better than those that appear in response to the more generic "mars" search.
As you drill down, even more specific topics may appear. For example, "mars" suggests "face on mars," which in turn suggests "face on mars picture."
Another feature is that if a search includes words such as "picture" or "photo," the user is given results from the AltaVista Photo Finder service, rather than the web index. So clicking on "face on mars picture" brings up actual pictures of the Martian "face," which can be found via the web.
Using Related Searches doesn't always guarantee high quality results, of course. For example, going from "cars" to "new cars" does find pages that are about new cars, but the pages probably won't be useful to most people.
But overall, the search prompter is a great addition that will likely be appreciated by novice and advanced users alike.
To make the magic happen, AltaVista compares a search to all queries it has logged in recent months. Then, the most popular queries containing terms in the original search are displayed in order of popularity (read down, then across to the next column to see them in order).
That's a very basic explanation. AltaVista also does some other things to make the results more usable. For instance, it capitalizes some suggestions if those terms are commonly capitalized on web pages. Popularity thresholds are also used to remove nonsensical suggestions.
AltaVista says there is even a mechanism designed to filter out queries whose popularity has been artificially boosted. For example, a site owner might rank well for a particular phrase. Conceivably, by searching for that phrase repetitively, they might cause it to appear as related search topic and in turn receive a minor traffic boost.
AltaVista Debuts New Search Features
The Search Engine Update, Nov. 4, 1998
Related Searches is just one of many new features AltaVista has added to help searchers. This review covers other recent changes.