Reflecting on AltaVista

Today is Dec 1, and it seems like an appropriate day to reflect on DEC‘s one-time foray into web search: AltaVista. In fact, AltaVista was publicly launched as an internet search engine on December 15, 1995 as

I was an avid AltaVista user, and I was shocked by the rapidity of its demise. Why did AltaVista fail?

According to Don Dodge, former Director of Engineering at Altavista:

The AltaVista experience is sad to remember. We should have been the “Google” of today. We were pure search, no frills, no consumer portal crap.

DEC is guilty of neglect in its handling of AltaVista. Compaq put a bunch of PC guys in charge who relied on McKinsey consultants and copied AOL, Excite, Yahoo and Lycos into the consumer portal game. It should have been clear that being the 5th or 6th player in the consumer portal business wouldn’t work. AltaVista spent hundreds of millions on acquisitions that never worked, and spent $100M on a brand advertising campaign. They spent NOTHING to improve core search. That was the undoing of AltaVista. (via Greg).

Perhaps. I think that doesn’t give Google enough credit for its key innovation: using link analysis to compute a then unspammable measure of a site’s authority, and then using that authority as a prior for its relevance. Of course, spammers caught up and have engaged Google in an arms race ever since, but the head start was enough for Google to establish its supremacy.

Is there a moral? Surely Dodge is right in condemning DEC’s business strategy. But I am sad to see how web search technology has settled in its current local optimum. So, at the risk of being cliché, I’ll draw the lesson that no technologist can afford to be complacent.

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

2 replies on “Reflecting on AltaVista”

Daniel – As always I enjoy your blog. This is an interesting reflection. I’d like to submit that one of the other challenges for AltaVista was business model and timing.

AltaVista did not have a realistic, scaleable monetization strategy for their core search. As a results they started to look elsewhere for revenue and quickly become mis-aligned. Google had the benefit of a few generations of banners ad and the ad business being worked out at Overture, as well as the always on phenomenon of broadband. AltaVista was still pushing free dial-up internet at one point – Google didn’t even have to think about access.

With that as backdrop, Google was able to stay razor sharp focused initially and did an excellent job of staying focused on that strategy. Their ad model was also well aligned with their goals of improving their core search.

At Intelligenx, we’ve found that search based advertising businesses cannot afford to separate their story for their users from their story for their advertisers. They must be consistent AND both the usage and monetization stories must make sense.


Zubair, that’s a great point. It’s so easy today to take the pay-per-click model for granted, but it obviously created a lot more value for the search industry than the $300M or so that Google payed Yahoo to license the patent it has acquired from Overture. Of course, Google did a lot of other things right, not the least of which was separating sponsored links from organic results and only making the former be PPC.


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