History Software Engineering

AltaVista Web Search Engine – 1995 AD

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AltaVista Web Search Engine

Internet search engines existed before the World Wide Web—they searched other services, like File Transfer Protocol (FTP) repositories. And indeed, even after the launch of the World Wide Web, it would be many years before there was enough online content to warrant a search engine.

As the number of web pages exploded following the introduction of NCSA Mosaic, so did the need to improve the automated indexing of the web’s expanding virtual geography. Early search engines such as W3 Catalog were limited and results inconsistent. Enter AltaVista®, created by Digital Equipment Corporation, then known as Digital and later as DEC, as a marketing tool to prove the speed and accuracy of its AlphaServer 8400 TurboLaser supercomputer.

AltaVista is credited with a variety of pioneering capabilities, including queries with natural language; indexing the web using data it had found with its web crawler, “Scooter,” rather than forcing websites to provide aggregated data of keywords and terms; full text indexing of web pages; expansion of Boolean operators, including “near” and parentheses; search in languages other than English (Malay and Spanish); and searches that could find video, images, and audio.

AltaVista gained popularity rapidly, as it was significantly faster and more sophisticated than other search technologies. The website’s user base grew explosively, from 300,000 users a day in 1996 to 80 million a day by 1997. What was created as a byproduct for demonstrating supercomputing power had turned into a capability that pioneered information efficiency on the web, using 20 multiprocessors at one point to do so.

A confluence of business decisions, questionable user-interface design choices, and Google’s development of the PageRank® algorithm to address the rising prevalence of website spam caused AltaVista to lose relevance (and customers) within just a few years. AltaVista changed ownership through multiple acquisitions, starting with Compaq’s acquisition of Digital in 1998. In 2003, AltaVista was acquired by Overture® for $140 million and then finally sold to Yahoo!®, which shuttered AltaVista in 2013.

SEE ALSO World Wide Web (1989), First Mass-Market Web Browser (1992), Google (1998)

AltaVista’s pioneering capabilities included queries with natural language and searches that could find videos, images, and audio recordings.

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