By Harry McCracken | Thursday, December 16, 2010 at 3:30 pm
If you were going to compose a list of the ten greatest technology products ever, it would be a plausible contender. If you were compiling a list of the ten greatest Web services and didn’t include it, I’d tell you your list was wrong.
It’s AltaVista–the first great search engine. Probably still the second greatest one ever, after you know who. And as Liz Gannes of All Things Digital is reporting, it’s apparently going away due to downsizing at its current owner, Yahoo. (Other victims of Yahoo’s death panel include the once-great Delicious and AllTheWeb, the bland Digg clone Yahoo Buzz, the could-have-been-neat MyBlogLog, and stuff I can’t identify, such as Yahoo Picks.)
AltaVista’s glory years were brief: They started with its founding in 1995 and started to crumble when you know who launched in 1998. I remember being knocked out by how good it was for its time–and my not-technologically-unsophisticated dad asking me how it was even possible that it could instantly scour the entire contents of the World Wide Web for pages that included any keywords you threw at it.
The service probably would have run into trouble no matter what–it seemed to be doomed to suffer from mismanagement and/or benign neglect from the get-go, at first from its inventor, Digital Equipment Corporation, which treated it as a technology demo rather than a potentially massive business. It was then owned by Compaq (1998-1998) CMGI (1999-2003), Overture (2003), and Yahoo (2003 to present–it picked up AltaVista along with Overture, not because it wanted to own it). Yes, that’s five owners in five years.
At first, AltaVista’s post-Digital owners wrongheadedly tried to turn it into a Yahoo-like megaportal. Then it became an orphaned brand name affixed to generic search results. Today, it still claims to “to advance Internet search with new technologies and features designed to improve the search experience for consumers,” but don’t you believe it: AltaVista results are simply Yahoo results with a different logo and slightly fewer fripperies such as local results. (Which means that it’s really a variant of Microsoft’s Bing, the search index that powers Yahoo.) I’m unclear as to why anyone would make a conscious decision to use it.
The weird thing is that the original AltaVista involved two extraordinarily powerful ideas: advanced technology designed to deliver relevant search results from all over the Web really fast, and a simple home page that didn’t consist of much more than a search field. (Sound familiar?) If the engine’s business strategy had consisted of continuing to be AltaVista but in a better and better form, we might all be talking about AltaVistaing for information today. (Instead, I recently caught myself referring to having Googled for something back in 1996, having forgotten that there was such a thing as a pre-Google era.)
Here’s AltaVista circa 1996, by which point it had gotten downright cluttered by its original standards:
And here it is in 2000, after it had already been thoroughly screwed up:
I’m sorry that AltaVista fizzled rather than flourished, but I’m not sad to see Yahoo shut it down. Last year, I called it the eighth most tarnished brand name in tech and said that using it was like visiting an old friend who’d undergone a lobotomy. If you weren’t aware AltaVista still existed, I’m not surprised. And if loved it way back when and knew it was still with us, you probably took no joy in its continued existence. It’s far better that it live on in fond memories than that it actually live on.