The Sun Finally Sets On AltaVista

By Jason Slater.

Google undoubtedly rules the world of search and has become so ingrained in our minds that the word Google actually has actually become a verb to describe the act of searching for information on the Internet. However, there was a time when the name Yahoo! rolled off the lips easier than Google. There was an even briefer time when AltaVista rolled off the lips easier than Yahoo!

AltaVista To Be Retired

Times change and they change very quickly when the Internet is involved. Ten years after Yahoo! acquired AltaVista, as part of a bigger acquisition of Overture, the once world leading search engine and directory has announced AltaVista is to be retired.

AltaVista Is Born

When it was first being considered, at DEC Research Labs in 1995, AltaVista was conceptually a directory of web-sites, but the availability of a superfast server (for it’s time) and a bleeding edge database system allowed AltaVista to do two things. The first was to store the entire contents of the World Wide Web (around ten million web pages) in one place and the second was to allow free-text searching of that information.

AltaVista was the go-to search engine when it was first released in 1995.
AltaVista became the go-to search engine when it was first released in 1995.

The server back then was the very latest Unix based DEC Alpha 8400 TurboLaser which typically had 1 GB of memory, a 333 MHz processor, and a peak speed of around 4 GFlops. The server was being proof tested with a high performing database which could search its data at, what was then, blistering speeds. As a result, AltaVista was born and was released to the public just six months later at which point the entire World Wide Web had grown to around sixteen million pages.

Interestingly, the original web address for AltaVista was and it was very much part of DEC.

AltaVista was made free to access, as “AltaVista Search Public Service”, primarily as a mechanism for demonstrating the power of the AltaVista Software which DEC intended to sell into telecommunications, media, and Internet content companies. To make AltaVista Search Public Service viable DEC partnered with DoubleClick to place advertising on selected search pages.

By 1996 AltaVista was indexing 30 million pages, from over 275,000 servers, and was being accessed over 23 million times per day.

The Rise Of Yahoo!

Around the same time as AltaVista another approach to storing web data was being conceived by students at Stanford University. This project was to become known as Yahoo! The rise and fall and subsequent rise again of Yahoo! has been well documented. Yahoo! was to play an important part in the story of AltaVista but it is one with a few twists and turns.

In it’s first year of service AltaVista served over 4 billion hits to users of its search service. In the same year, 1996, AltaVista was approached by Yahoo! to provide search services to enhance Yahoo!’’s Internet guide. The guide contained over 260,000 hand-picked web sites by Yahoo!’’s team of reviewers and cataloguers. A partnership was about to be born.

Through ‘Babel Fish’, AltaVista allowed for text-translation for up to 150 words.

In 1997 DEC and translation company SYSTRAN would join forces to produce a web page translation mechanism that could translate up to 150 words. This service would be known as Babel Fish as a reference to the famous novel “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” where a small yellow fish, once stuck in your ear, could perform universal translations of any language. Babel Fish became very popular and, following acquisition by Yahoo!, the service would be rebranded Yahoo! Babel Fish.

AltaVista gained access to in 1998 after paying over 3 million dollars to purchase it from a technology company of a similar name. Three other things happened in 1998 which would have a serious impact for the future of AltaVista. Firstly, a small search engine project known as Google was starting to make waves. Secondly, a paid search engine company was launched which would later rebrand itself as Overture. Thirdly, DEC was acquired by Compaq and, as a result, the AltaVista search engine was left to go it alone and without financial backing the service struggled.

Overture rescues AltaVista

Paid search engine service launched in 1997 and partnered with Inktomi in 1998 to provide both paid and unpaid search services. In 1999 the company switched to a self-service style advertising mechanism which triggered massive growth for the company. In 2001, rebranded to Overture and switched from back-filling with free search results to partnering with search providers – the first being Yahoo! This was a major turning point for Overture and would see it rise to success.

In 2003 Overture was performing well and aggressively looking for growth opportunities. The first was an acquisition of AllTheWeb which stored around 3 billion web pages. Following the acquisition of AllTheWeb Overture went on to rescue the now struggling AltaVista for just $106m. Seeing advantages in the Overture business model Yahoo! watched closely and quickly saw an opportunity to snap up Overture. Just 2 years later Overture became Yahoo! Search Marketing.

The future was bright for Overture as Yahoo! was fighting the burst of the dot-com bubble and looked set for world domination. It nearly succeeded.

In 2008 Microsoft made a bid to pick up Yahoo! but, much to the surprise of many industry onlookers, this was rejected which ultimately led to a massive shake up within Yahoo!

AltaVista Retires

Fast forward to 2013 and just ten years after Yahoo! acquires AltaVista the date for retirement is set as 8th July 2013. If you need to make any last minute AltaVista searches you better do it fast.


Jason Slater is a technology journalist, full-time blogger, and editor of Technology With Jason Slater. Follow Jason for tech talk on @jasonslater.

images credit: WayBackMachine


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