Happy Birthday, AltaVista!

Seven years ago, Internet pioneer Digital Equipment Corporation introduced what they called the Internet's first "super spider" software, promising unprecedented, "blazing fast" searches of the web.

The AltaVista search engine was the brainchild of Digital Equipment Corporation's (DEC) research labs. DEC was an early adopter of web technologies -- it was the first Fortune 500 company to establish a web site, and in 1994 the company launched the first official U.S. city site for Palo Alto, California.

In the spring of 1995 DEC had just introduced a new computer system, the Alpha 8400 TurboLaser, which was capable of running database software much faster than competing systems.

As a means of showcasing the TurboLaser, Louis Monier, a computer scientist with DEC's Western Research Lab conceived the then audacious idea of creating full text search of the entire web. What better way to demonstrate the TurboLaser's capabilities than to create a search engine -- a massive database containing a full copy of the world wide web.

Monier, who had no knowledge of networks, assembled a team of researchers who built the various components that we recognize today as the core parts of a search engine. They worked quickly, and by August of 1995 were ready to test the search engine with its first full scale crawl of the web.

This crawl brought back about ten million pages, and Monier theorized that the web at that time was made up of more than 80,000 servers with about 30 million indexable documents.

In the fall of 1995, DEC decided to move AltaVista beyond the labs and offer it as a public service on the web, to highlight DEC's internet businesses. The company tested the search engine internally for two months, allowing 10,000 employees to put the system through its paces.

On December 15th, 1995, less than six months after the start of the project, AltaVista opened its virtual doors to the public, with an index of 16 million documents. It was an immediate hit -- more than 300,000 searchers used the engine on its first day. Nine months later, AltaVista was handling 19 million requests per day.

AltaVista quickly became a favorite of both casual searchers and information professionals. Its success created a major headache for the company, however, because another company owned the altavista.com domain name.

The AltaVista search engine made its debut prior to the dot-com madness, during a time when domain names had none of the brand value they have today. Since it was originally a technology demonstration for DEC, the search engine was launched under the altavista.digital.com domain name.

For AltaVista Technologies, which owned the altavista.com domain, the success of the search engine proved to be a boon. So much so that the company took advantage of all the unexpected traffic from users assuming they were going to the search engine by making its site look similar to AltaVista and selling ads.

This resulted in DEC suing AltaVista Technologies, and a judge ruled in March 1997 that AltaVista Technologies had to place a disclaimer on its site. The company was allowed to keep the domain name, however. DEC responded by creating a crawler that looked for links to altavista.com, and then emailed a form letter to the webmaster of the linking site, asking whether the site owner really meant instead to link to altavista.digital.com, the search engine's "real" URL.

Jockeying over the AltaVista domain name came to an end in August 1998, when AltaVista's new owner, Compaq, purchased the domain name for $3.3 million.

Compaq had acquired DEC the previous January, for $9.6 billion. A year later, Compaq spun off the search engine as The AltaVista Company, and the new company announced that it intended cash in on the dot-com boom by going public.

That plan changed in June of 1999, when CMGI, an Internet investment company, agreed to acquire 83 percent of AltaVista in cash and stock swap valued at $2.3 billion. The acquisition was seen by many as a puzzling move, since CMGI owned 20% of Lycos at the time.

But in May 2000, right at the peak of the dotcom bubble, Terra Networks, S.A., a major provider of Internet access to the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking world agreed to purchase Lycos for $12.5 billion in stock. CMGI still maintains its majority ownership of AltaVista today.

And what of the Alpha TurboLaser processor, the computer system that AltaVista was created to showcase? AltaVista today runs in a mixed-hardware environment, consisting primarily of Intel-based and AlphaServer-based machinery.

But HP, which merged with Compaq last year, recently announced that it is retiring the processor, in favor of building systems using Intel's Itanium chip, which is based on an architecture HP helped develop.

For a much more comprehensive version of the AltaVista story, I recommend "The AltaVista Search Revolution," by Eric J. Ray, Deborah S. Ray, and Richard Seltzer (ISBN: 0-07-882435-4). Though the book is out of print, it is still available via one of the web's many used book sellers.


Digital Develops Internet's First 'Super Spider'
This announcement to the biz.digital.announce newsgroup invited internet users to "kick the tires" of the new AltaVista search engine.

An Early Version of AltaVista
A screen shot of AltaVista on May 11, 1996, courtesy of the Internet Archives.

HP Plans to Take Alpha to its Omega
Hewlett-Packard in January plans to release the last major update to its Alpha chip, paving the way for the retirement of the storied high-end processor.

How AltaVista Works
Details about AltaVista's operation, as well as a full archive of Search Engine Watch articles about the company, available to Search Engine Watch members.

Getting Listed In Google's "Froogle" Shopping Search Engine

Last week, Google unveiled its long anticipated shopping search engine. Called "Froogle," the service is available to searchers in experimental "beta" form. In this article especially for Search Engine Watch members, Danny Sullivan takes a closer look at how merchants get listed within Froogle.

Getting Listed In Google's "Froogle" Shopping Search Engine
The Search Engine Update, Dec. 17, 2002

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