AltaVista Introduces Prisma Results

AltaVista has launched Prisma, a new search refinement and assistance tool designed to help users improve their results with just a few additional clicks.

Prisma results are links to search terms suggested by AltaVista to help refine or categorize your query. According to the company, Prisma results "represent a 360-degree spectrum of the words, phrases and concepts most strongly associated with the original search query."

"Users are expecting the search engine to do the heavy lifting for them," said Fred Bullock, Chief Marketing Officer for AltaVista's Internet division. "They want to the search engine to refine the query for them."

According to Bullock, Prisma results combine the best aspects of categorization and clustering of results, with the addition of "parallel" terms to help point users toward associated topics of interest or documents they may not have even anticipated finding or needing.

Prisma results are presented at the top of each result page. Clicking a term adds that term to your original query and re-runs the search. You can add Prisma terms to your query twice, and then Prisma results are replaced with a single "go back" link. According to AltaVista, user testing showed that adding more than two additional Prisma terms to the initial query wasn't helpful, and in some cases even degraded the quality of results.

Look closely at each Prisma result and you'll also see a chevron (">>") symbol to the right of each link. Clicking on this link replaces your current query with the Prisma terms, rather than adding to it.

For example, a search for "star wars" brings back the Prisma terms "Characters," "Force," and "Galaxy." While these terms are undoubtedly conceptually related to the movie series, and can be helpful for narrowing your search if you click on them to add them to your query, they really aren't very useful as replacement searches.

But look at the remaining set of Prisma terms. Here AltaVista has returned "George Lucas," "Leia," "Lucasarts," "Luke," "Movie," "Obi-wan," "Phantom Menace," "Return Of The Jedi," and "Star Wars Episode." Virtually all of these terms are conceptually related to the films, and are useful both as additional terms or replacement searches.

Even when suggested replacement queries aren't going to return relevant results in their own right, they offer useful clues if you're searching for something that you're not familiar with. When you're just getting to know a subject, you may not be familiar with some of the specialized vocabulary used by experts in the field.

Since Prisma is looking for the terms that have the strongest associations with the query terms, and presents only twelve terms selected from the top 50 web pages with the strongest associations, these words are generally going to be good terms to combine with other related query terms for a particular subject.

Bullock compared using Prisma results to a reference interview with a librarian, where the librarian would engage you in a series of questions to pinpoint your information need. "face to face, people are willing to engage in that kind of dialog, and enjoy it," said Bullock.

The problem is, search engines have been largely unsuccessful at replicating the reference interview process. "People are not willing to enter into that kind of dialog, and don't seem to be willing to use tools like query builder to help articulate their query," said Bullock.

However, beta testing showed that testers were four times more likely to click on Prisma terms rather than "related searches" from two other major (unnamed) search engines used for comparison.

AltaVista has been testing Prisma for several months now. We first wrote about the feature (initially called "Paraphrase") last April. In many ways, the feature strongly resembles an innovative feature AltaVista rolled out in 1997 called AltaVista Refine. Although that feature showed a lot of promise, its awkward Java-based interface worked so poorly that it was quietly killed after just a few months of operation.

Separately, AltaVista also announced additional enhancements to the search engine.

Over the past three weeks, the company has increased the size of its index to 1.1 billion items, including more than 140 million audio, video and image files. It has also launched a new freshness initiative, crawling "tens of thousands" of key non-commerce-based, editorial, educational, non-profit, governmental and military sites four times per day.

News search now gets updated content from 2,700 worldwide sources every 15 minutes, including adding about 800 new news images per day to its Multimedia index.

AltaVista is now processing all queries with a "hard" Boolean AND operator. Previously, AltaVista used a complicated and somewhat ambiguous formula where most queries used AND, but some defaulted to OR. Now all queries, regardless of how few results are found, are processed with the AND operator.

In conjunction with this change to default AND, AltaVista has also resumed phrase checking. Queries are parsed to determine if they form a natural phrase using a dictionary of about 10,000 phrases. The company is developing technology that does auto identification of phrases, so you can expect its phrase dictionary to expand rapidly over the course of the year.


Prisma Frequently Asked Questions
FAQ covering the technologies and user interface approaches used by Prisma.

AltaVista Testing "Paraphrase" Tool
SearchDay, Apr. 16, 2002
AltaVista's new query refinement tool offers suggestions for improving your search terms. Also, the search engine is adding new content on a more frequent basis.

AltaVista Offers "Shortcuts" to the Invisible Web
SearchDay, February 11, 2002
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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