AltaVista – The Google of its time

AltaVista, the literal meaning of which is “high view” or “upper view” in Spanish (Alta Vista) was one of the most successful Internet search engine of its time. It was publicly launched on December 15, 1995 at altavista.digital.com, years before Google was launched.

AltaVista was created by researchers Paul Flaherty, Louis Monier and Michael Burrows, who worked for Digital Equipment Corporation’s Network Systems Laboratory (DEC) and Western Research Laboratory.

Technology & Software that powered AltaVista

While Louis Monier and Michael Burrows created the Web crawler (Scooter) and the Indexer, it was Paul Flaherty who came up with the original idea for his company, that wanted to provide services to make finding files on the public network much easier.

The web crawler used by AltaVista was very fast and multi-threaded, and had the capability to cover many more pages than what had existed at that time.

AltaVista was also the first searchable, full-text database on the World Wide Web with a very simple interface (the type of which Google uses today). Google popularity in terms of the number of searches overtook AltaVista only in the year 2001, but till then AltaVista was a more preferred search engine.

The point of AltaVista was that it was way futuristic than its competitors such as Lycos, Excite & InfoSeek. Loaded with advanced search engine features such as allowing users to limit search results from a domain (thereby reducing the likelihood of multiple results from the same website), it also boasted about indexing around 20 million web pages, at a time when indexing 2 million web pages was considered to be big.

AltaVista used a very efficient back-end search which ran on advanced hardware. As of 1998 it was receiving over 13 million queries a day and the hardware configurations that powered AltaVista included 20 multi-processor machines using DEC’s 64-bit Alpha processor, 130 GB of RAM and 500 GB of hard disk drive space.

Other services provided by AltaVista

Other services provided by AltaVista included Babel Fish, a Web-based machine translation application that translated text or web pages from one of several languages into another, and a free email service. Their free email service was shut down on March 31, 2002 at 12:00 PM PST. At the time shut down it had 400,000 registered email accounts of which 200,000 were active accounts. While Babel Fish was replaced by Yahoo! Babel Fish in May 2008 and later redirected to Bing translation service.

Popularity and its early demise

No wonder its popularity grew by leaps and bounds, turning from a mere 300,000 hits on the first day to consistently increasing to more than 80 million hits per day in a period of just 2 years.

According to the “Internet Search-Off” study held in February 1998, AltaVista was the most favored search engine used by professional researchers with HotBot holding the second position. It became the 11th most visited website in 1998 a position it held for the next 2 years.

In 1997 AltaVista earned US$50 million in sponsorship revenue. According to Media Metrix, in the year 2000, AltaVista was used by 17.7% of internet users while Google was only used by 7% of internet users.

AltaVista also powered Yahoo!, which ultimately purchased it in 2003 and also shut it down almost 10 years later on July 8, 2013. Since then the domain has redirected to Yahoo!’s own search site.

Chronological history of AltaVista

As an SEO company we wanted to track the growth and fall of one of the most successful search engines of its time. Had things gone well for AltaVista who knows where it would have been today.

December 15, 1995 – AltaVista publicly launched as an Internet search engine on at altavista.digital.com

1996 – AltaVista becomes the exclusive provider of search results for Yahoo!

1998 – Digital Equipment Corporation (the company that created AltaVista) is sold to Compaq.

June 1998 – Compaq pays AltaVista Technology Incorporated $3.3 million for the domain name altavista.com

1999 – Compaq redesigns AltaVista as a Web portal. AltaVista abandons its streamlined search page, and focuses on adding features such as shopping and free e-mail.

June 1999 –Compaq sold a majority stake in AltaVista to CMGI, an Internet investment company.

April 2000 – CMGI files for an initial public offering (IPO) for AltaVista, but when the Internet bubble collapsed, the IPO was cancelled.

2002 – AltaVista improves the quality and freshness of its results and redesigns its user interface.

February 2003 – AltaVista is bought by Overture Services, Inc. for $140 million.

July 2003 – Overture gets taken over by Yahoo!. After Yahoo! purchased Overture, AltaVista used the same search index as Yahoo! Search.

December 2010 – a Yahoo! employee leaks PowerPoint slides indicating that the AltaVista search engine would shut down as part of a consolidation at Yahoo!.

July 8, 2013 – AltaVista, one of the most-used early search engines of its time was shut down by Yahoo!

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