The search engine AltaVista was switched off today – the site now redirects to Yahoo, its owner since 2003. For those of us who began to use the internet in the late 1990s, this marks a sad moment, tinged with irony. The attempt to mimic Yahoo by converting a dependable search interface into a portal for shopping and free email is what started AltaVista on its protracted journey to the internet graveyard.
AltaVista’s program for locating and categorizing websites found more webpages than were were believed to exist at its founding in 1995. But the search box also relied on an efficient index accessed on extensive hardware. AltaVista was the first searchable full-text database of a significant part of the Web.
It abandoned streamlined search in 1999. A year previously two PhD students at Stanford had the idea that reliable, dedicated search could, on its own, provide a Trojan Horse to monetizable web services. So the established AltaVista lost out to the upstart Google because it gave up doing what it was good at to enter a market it had no expertise in. I think there’s a lesson for librarians there.