The "New" AltaVista

With great fanfare, the "new" AltaVista was launched last week. Now owned by CMGI, the revamped service is being firmly targeted as a challenger against more established portals such as Yahoo, Excite and Lycos.

There's a lot to like at the refreshed service, but AltaVista's failure to live up to some of its marketing claims spoils the party. Those claims are examined in a separate article, below. In this article, we tour AltaVista's new look and features.

There's a lot happening on the AltaVista home page -- options, menu items and links to content all scream for attention. Fortunately, everything is already set for those who just want to do a normal search across the web. Simply enter your terms into the search box, and away you go. The results you receive may come from up to four different sources, as has been the case with AltaVista for over a year.

For many popular searches or those phrased as questions, the first source continues to be Ask Jeeves (though occasionally, it will be the third source displayed). Information from the answer service appears under the heading, "AltaVista knows the answer to this question." RealNames also continues as the second source, feeding the link which appears just above the numbered listings. A previous review of AltaVista below describes the pluses to both these data sources in more detail.

Those numbered listings, which dominate the results page, continue to come from AltaVista's web crawler. What's different is that the company has made a number of changes that it hopes will improve the quality of these listings.

In my opinion, the most important change has been the introduction of results clustering. This means that only one page per web site appears in the top results. It's a real plus for searchers, because it means that you get more variety in your results. A related article below explains results clustering in more depth.

AltaVista also says it has expanded its web index from 150 million to 250 million web pages, which should give it more comprehensive coverage. Indeed, some testing I did comparing it against size leaders Northern Light and FAST Search showed AltaVista holding its own or exceeding them.

That said, I've had an unprecedented number of complaints from webmasters who have seen many or all of their pages dropped from the AltaVista index. AltaVista admits that some sites have been lost in the transition to its new index, which occurred last week. The company says it is now moving forward to process submissions made via its Add URL page and to add new pages found by its crawler.

By the way, the new results clustering feature is causing some webmasters who are listed to think they've had pages dropped. To help you know if you're really missing pages, see the separate "Where Are My Pages At AltaVista" article in this newsletter.

AltaVista has also introduced a new page ranking system that makes more use of off-the-page criteria. AltaVista's staying closed-mouth about some of these criteria, but it is highlighting the fact that link data is being more heavily leveraged. Links are analyzed both to determine the overall "popularity" and content of web pages.

If you look below each numbered listing, and you may see up to three links. "Translate" lets you translate the page into another language. "More pages from this site" lets you uncluster results for that particular web site. "Company factsheet" takes you to detailed information about the company which owns the web site.

Those fact sheets are being produced by iAtlas, a company that AltaVista quietly acquired before its relaunch. You may also find factsheet links within AltaVista's version of the Open Directory, discussed below.

After the numbered crawler listings come any relevant categories of web sites as classified within the Open Directory. Select a category, and you'll be shown sites from the Open Directory on that topic.

Previously, LookSmart had been AltaVista's primary directory provider. Now the company is being retained as a "premium partner." Among other things, this means that LookSmart listings are to be incorporated within AltaVista's version of the Open Directory. When this happens, LookSmart-specific information is supposed to be clearly identified, LookSmart says.

That's basic web searching. Other types of searches are available, and let's explore them by returning to the home page. On it, you'll see three tabs above the search box: "Search" (which we've already covered), "Advanced Search," and "Images, Audio & Video."

Selecting "Advanced Search" takes you to AltaVista's advanced search page. Do you want to use this page? In most cases, no -- and I'm surprised that it's given such prominence over other search options.

Use the Advanced tab only if you absolutely insist on using Boolean commands, instead of the nearly equivalent Search Engine Math commands that can be used in the normal search box. Also use Advanced if you want to narrow your search to a particular date range, though many people who do date restricted searches will probably be better served by using the new News search feature.

By the way, those familiar with the Advanced page will also discover that the exact count option has been removed. And here's a last tip -- MSN Search offers you access to a much more useful "advanced" search page for AltaVista. See the URL, below.

The "Images, Audio & Video" tab is much more useful, giving you access to AltaVista's exceptional multimedia search. In particular, it displays thumbnail images from the Corbis and Getty picture collections, along with images and multimedia found by crawling the web.

AltaVista also offers three more specialty searches, but they are confusingly made available via options below the search box, rather than through additional tabs above it.

"News" is new -- it lets you tap into top stories from major news sources from between 6 hours to 14 days old. "Discussions" lets you scan newsgroups. Previously, AltaVista had crawled Usenet itself to offer this feature. Now the information is provided through a partnership with RemarQ.

Finally, "Shopping" lets you look for products from across the web, peruse reviews, and more. This is not the same as searching within only AltaVista's online store. Instead, an AltaVista shopping search is meant to provide matches from a wide range of web merchants. AltaVista promises the service is supposed to be unbiased, and in a search for "palm iiix," I was indeed presented with hits from multiple retailers. AltaVista's store was one of the merchants listed, but it was not the only one nor even at the top of the list.

Once you've performed any type of search, you can quickly perform another via tab-like images on the results page. For instance, assume you searched for "year 2000" as a web search, then decided you wanted to instead look for news stories. Just click on the "NEWS" tab at the top or bottom of your web results page -- that will rerun the search. Similarly, you could choose "DISCUSSION" to see what people are talking about on the topic in Usenet groups.

Back to the home page, there are yet other changes and features to mention. AltaVista Live replaces My AltaVista for those seeking to personalize the service with news headlines and other features. It's also possible to browse the directory, which is given much more prominence on the home page than in the past. Those seeking to eliminate porn sites and other possibly objectionable content from their search results will find the Family Filter link below and to the right of the search box.


MSN/AltaVista Advanced Search

AltaVista Debuts Search Features
The Search Engine Report, Nov. 4, 1998

This older article about AltaVista still provides useful background about using Ask Jeeves and RealNames information at the service.

Search Assistance Features

Explains how results clustering works, along with other features used by many major search engines.

Search Engine Math

You don't need to know Boolean syntax to perform better searches. Learn the three simple "math" commands that work on nearly all search engines and which can improve your results.

Showdown News AltaVista Special Issue
Search Engine Showdown, Oct. 31, 1999

Another look at the new AltaVista from the perspective of Search Engine Showdown webmaster Greg Notess.

Altavista spins chic image over geek
Red Herring, Oct. 26, 1999

A favorite comment from analysts is that its "too late" for AltaVista to compete with the likes of Yahoo, Excite, Lycos and other established portals, as this article details. Wrong. AltaVista enjoys widespread grassroots support -- it has consistently been a top ranked web site for years, despite the fact it has done virtually no advertising. With a $120 million ad spend now underway, there's every reason to suspect that AltaVista will increase its visitors and successfully make the jump to be counted among the most major of web portals.