AltaVista's Automatic Phrase Searching

AltaVista will automatically try to detect phrases, as explained on the Search Assistance Features page. This can cause problems for those trying to control their searches using Search Engine Math. Your efforts to override automatic phrase detection may not work. This page helps you understand when that happens.

AltaVista tells you exactly how it is processing your queries in the "word count" area at the bottom of each results page. For example, here's what you would see at the bottom of the results page, if you searched for New York Hotels.

word count: new york hotels: 5752

See how the search words are all together? That means AltaVista looked for them as a phrase, even though you didn't use quotation marks. The number shows how many pages AltaVista found that contained this exact phrase.

Compare that to what comes up for this search, Where is a good place to stay in New York?

word count:
good place: about 100000; stay: 3468373; Where: 4122184; New York: 8744585; is a: 34158833

Here's what happened. AltaVista looked for "good place" as a phrase and found about 100,000 matching web pages. It also looked for "New York" and "is a" as a phrase. Additionally, it searched for pages with "stay" and "where" on them as individual words. So even though you didn't specify phrases, this is what AltaVista performed:

Where "is a" "good place" to stay in "New York"

Now let's say you try to force AltaVista into using a phrase you want. You enter a search like this:

"good places to stay in New York"

Ideally, AltaVista should find any pages that contain that exact phrase, because you used quotation marks. Unfortunately, you'll get this in response:

Ignored: good places to stay in New York:0

AltaVista says "ignored" when it refuses to search for something. For example, you'll often be told it has ignored words like "in" or "to." That is because these words are so common that they add little meaning to a search, so AltaVista ignores them to save time. But in the case of our search above, AltaVista isn't ignoring the phrase to save time. It is simply refusing to process the search at all, probably because it conflicts with its automatic phrase detection system.

This doesn't always happen. For example, let's say we search for this:

mars landings +viking

AltaVista processes the search exactly as we've entered. In fact, it doesn't even try to automatically find "mars landing" as a phrase. That means we ourselves can be more specific and search this way:

"mars landings" +viking

In that case, AltaVista follows our instructions exactly and finds pages with both the exact phrase "mars landings" and the word "viking."

So to recap, you may not need to use Search Engine Math as much at AltaVista, but when you do, be aware that things may not work as you expect. You can always override automatic phrase detection completely by using the AltaVista advanced search page. Unfortunately, this page can be rather intimidating to beginners.