It started as a technological showcase for now-defunct Digital Equipment's Unix-based Internet technologies. Spare and simple to use, AltaVista was prized by high-end users for its speed.
Purchased by Compaq in 1998, AltaVista added shopping to its site. When CMGI acquired a majority share in 1999, it was relaunched as a full-service portal. Now AltaVista's new Raging Search is a return to bare-bones searching.
Does this sound like a site in search of an identity? Not at all, said Greg Memo, executive vice president of the AltaVista Network.
"Our core strategy of delivering relevant information to our users, we're not backing away from that," he said. It's just that the search engine market has matured, and AltaVista has seized the opportunity to create a new market segment.
Raging Search was created for a market segment AltaVista calls the "search enthusiast," purists who want results and want them fast. But the new search is widely interpreted by users as AltaVista's reaction to the growing popularity of Google.com.
"It shows you how short our memories are," said Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineWatch.com. "All the buzz going on about Google right now -- that was AltaVista in 1996. It was fast, it was clean, and it attracted users in droves."
"Our approach has been embraced by a growing number of users," said Cindy McCaffery, Google's director of communications. "It's not surprising to see other companies follow our lead."
Are AltaVista and Google the same?
Oddly enough, Google is heading toward the same road AltaVista's on with the recent addition of ads to its search pages.
McCaffery defended the move. "I think there's a big difference between what Google is doing and others are doing," she said. "We're not loading banner ads on our search results page. That's something we're not going to do."
Look under the hood at Raging Search and AltaVista, and you'll find the same search engine, Memo said.
"Think of Raging Search as a BMW motorcycle," he said. "It does one thing very fast, but it's limited in terms of its overall functionality. AltaVista is a BMW Series 7 luxury car."
Better still, take them for a test drive. Enter a search for "Jeep" on AltaVista and Raging Search, and the first 10 results are identical. However, the AltaVista results also return an animated banner ad at the top of the page, followed by an "AltaVista recommends" link for shoppers and a RealNames link to the Jeep Web site.
At the bottom of the page, AltaVista links direct users to Jeep Yellow Pages, Brittanica.com, comparison shopping and auction sites. The same links appear at the bottom of the Raging Search results. AltaVista gets paid for every click-through, Memo said.
Someday there may be additional, keyword-related advertising on Raging Search, Memo said. At this point, however, "our intention is not to use graphic ads."
There's no flashing banner on Google. But there is a shaded blue bar at the top of the page -- the targeted link to Autoweb.com asks, "Looking for a Jeep?" -- and, once again, a RealNames link to the Jeep site.
Enhancing the search experience
"We're trying to actually enhance the search experience," McCaffery said of the ads. "We don't want anything that's going to take a long time to load or anything unrelated to your search. We're trying to do it in such a way that will still continue to provide search results in a very fast, efficient manner."
Google hasn't set a limit to the number of sponsored links. It hasn't had to.
"Our advertising program just launched in January," McCaffery said. "It's probably something we're considering, but I don't think it's going to be an issue."
Search engines really have no choice but to sell ads, said Sullivan of SearchEngineWatch.
"Google said that they weren't going to be a portal. They weren't going to do free email, free home pages or anything that had nothing to do with helping you find things," he said. "But Google never said it wasn't going to be commercial."