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AltaVista: A brief history of the AltaVista search engine

AltaVista search engine

AltaVista, which means "a view from above", was one of the first major search tools to appear on the web. Unfortunately it lost significant market share from its peak years at the end of the 90's, so that now AltaVista remains a minor search engine and uses the search index results from Yahoo.

In the spring of 1995, scientists at Digital Equipment Corporation's Research lab in Palo Alto, CA, introduced a new computer system - the Alpha 8400 TurboLaser - which was capable of running database software much faster than competing systems. Using this powerful tool, they devised a way to store every word of every page on the entire Internet in a fast, searchable index.

In order to showcase this technology, a team led by Louis Monier, who was a computer scientist with DEC's Western Research Lab, conceived a full text search engine of the entire web. By August 1995 the new search engine conducted its first full scale crawl of the web, which bought back about ten million pages. In the autumn, DEC decided to move AltaVista beyond the labs and offer it as a public service on the web, to highlight DEC's internet businesses. The company tested the search engine internally for two months, allowing 10,000 employees to put the system through its paces.

On December 15th, 1995, less than six months after the start of the project, AltaVista opened to the public, with an index of 16 million documents. It was an immediate success, with more than 300,000 searchers using the engine on its first day. By the end of 1996 AltaVista was handling 19 million requests per day. AltaVista quickly became a favorite of both casual searchers and information professionals.

It became one of the leading search tools on the web, but started to go into decline with the advent of Google and also changes in the business direction of its owning company. Compaq acquired DEC at the start of 1998 for $9.6 billion and a year later, spun off the search engine as The AltaVista Company, when it was intended to go public during the dot com boom. However, in June 1999, CMGI - an Internet investment company who at the time owned 20% of Lycos - agreed to acquire 83 percent of AltaVista.

AltaVista underwent a relaunch at the end of 2002 and offered a range of search functionality, including image and multimedia search options, plus Babel Fish, the web's first Internet machine translation service that can translate words, phrases or entire Web sites to and from English, Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Italian and Russian.

In a surprise move, Overture purchased AltaVista in February 2003 for a knockdown price of $140m, compared to its valuation of $2.3bn three years previously. Consequently, when Yahoo purchased Overture at the end of 2003, AltaVista was part of the package and, sadly, is now just a clone of Yahoo, using the same search index and very basic, large font, interface.

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