Can AltaVista's Phoenix Help it Rise Again?

last week in the Search Engine Report (link below).

With these new changes and future planned initiatives, where is AltaVista headed?

"We believe that the real question going forward is whether people can get answers to their questions rather than what's in the index," said AltaVista's Chief Scientist, Jan Pedersen. "Rather than take the position that the search engine can always produce the best results possible, instead what we want to do is produce the tools that will help people find what they're looking for."

This means improving features such as Prisma, which essentially engages the user in a dialog with the search engine, an assisted query refinement process. It also means adding new tools that provide direct answers rather than search results, ala the Shortcuts feature.

Pedersen says AltaVista is working hard on the concept of "personal relevancy," or tailoring results to each individual user. "The same query shouldn't necessarily produce the same results for every person on the planet," he said.

The challenge is how to achieve personal relevancy without being intrusive. Pedersen calls this "making a better marriage between what we know about the user and what we present to them as results."

For many searchers who are looking for products and services, results from paid links and paid inclusion content might actually be more relevant than calculated results. AltaVista appears to be positioning itself in the middle ground between Google's widely touted "pure" search results, and Overture's 100% paid links approach.

"We see the dividing line between ads and content blurring as advertising becomes as relevant as the search results themselves," said Bullock.

This seems like a promising approach, particularly if the company allowed users to explicitly choose commercial vs. non-commercial results. Google's success with its AdWords program has demonstrated that users don't mind advertising as long as it's relevant and targeted. AltaVista could extend the concept to its paid inclusion content, perhaps even creating a separate catalog for this type of information.

Whatever direction AltaVista chooses, it seems (finally) to be on a path toward redeeming itself in the eyes of its formerly loyal community of users. Time will tell, though, whether this Phoenix will genuinely help AltaVista rise once again from the ashes.


Paid Inclusion Listings May Get Boosted At AltaVista
The Search Engine Report, Nov. 4, 2002

Last month, Danny Sullivan wrote about how an AltaVista sales representative had pitched the company's "Trusted Feed" paid inclusion program as a way to get a guaranteed top rankings. AltaVista quickly denied that this was the case, repeatedly emphasizing that content in the program is not given any ranking boost over content that AltaVista's crawler-technology finds and lists for free. Despite this, it turns out that Trusted Feed content may indeed get a bump into the top results, in the right circumstances.

AltaVista Offers "Shortcuts" to the Invisible Web
SearchDay, Feb. 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.

AltaVista Introduces Prisma Results
SearchDay, July 2, 2002
AltaVista has launched Prisma, a new search refinement and assistance tool designed to help users improve their results with just a few additional clicks.

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About the author

Chris Sherman is a frequent contributor to several information industry journals. He's written several books, including The McGraw-Hill CD ROM Handbook and The Invisible Web: Uncovering Information Sources Search Engines Can't See, co-authored with Gary Price. Chris has written about search and search engines since 1994, when he developed online searching tutorials for several clients. From 1998 to 2001, he was's Web Search Guide.