AltaVista has a lot going on these days. Some
would suggest that this might lead to a loss of focus. But this
old-guard search engine company has a lot to offer. It's now in
the process of figuring out what to offer, and to whom. In this
four-part series I suggest that Altavista really has four sets
of customers. It now seeks to improve its standing in the eyes of
all of these disparate groups. Has it bitten off more than it can
chew? In this part, I examine (1) AltaVista's major push into
the business infrastructure market and its general efforts to court
business-oriented search engine users. Three other groups of customers
will be examined in the next three weeks: (2) serious search enthusiasts;
(3) the fun bunch; and (4) dialup for dollars, or ISP customers.
Powering site search: AV the infrastructure
Most Internet pros will still tell you AltaVista
offers a great search product. Its index is well filtered and frequently
updated, its spider looks at your metadata, and the search process
itself is highly customizable.
Site search - the ability for users to search
for material on a company web site - has become vital to e-commerce.
As a result, literally hundreds of infrastructure companies have
appeared, offering to build search tools into corporate and e-commerce
web sites. AltaVista makes a strong case that an established company
would be wise to stick with an established search engine company
when choosing a partner to power its site search.
Altavista Search Engine 3.0 helps businesses deliver
the most relevant documents to their users and customers. A recent
Week lab test found that the AV engine returns more relevant
results in the top 5 than its major competitors such as Thunderstone.
The product, while not overly expensive, has steep hardware requirements.
Therefore it seems most suitable for larger enterprises.
Find it fast on your cell phone
The web site for AltaVista's new wireless search
product offers a cool visual representation of how AltaVista Raging
Search is being integrated into Nokia wireless phones. Part of the
excitement about newly-released Raging
Search Unplugged has to do with the fact that AltaVista has
compiled the world's largest index of sites written for WML (Wireless
Markup Language). Because cell phone users are going to have practical
needs, like finding movie times, local businesses, and other usable
information, a lot is resting on Raging
Search , since the top two or three results are all that can
be reasonably displayed on a wireless phone. No one is likely to
do a lot of endless scrolling on such devices. The steady product
development efforts that can only be accomplished by a serious search
engine company like AltaVista make it a good candidate to move with
the changing times in this new wireless arena. Some companies
may keep relevant, fresh, and spam-free for a short period, but
AltaVista's search, in my experience, continues to improve, especially
on the score of the first three results being the most relevant.
It has taken a combination of the Looksmart directory, ongoing
development of AV's proprietary ranking algorithm (which places
some weight on the link popularity analysis which is Google's claim
to fame), the use of RealNames (Internet Keywords), and other tweaks
and refinements, to keep AV results useful and relevant. Few other
engines - and certainly none of the spider infrastructure companies
such as Inktomi and AllTheWeb, can claim such a comprehensive approach
to ensuring the relevance of the first page of results. (We must,
of course, tip our collective hat to Google.)
In other words, because AV works hard to develop
its product, it is likely to be able to handle the information needs
of serious business users more than flash-in-the pan companies who
may be unable to face the challenge of a fast-changing, increasingly
complex Internet environment.
At the same time, they face competition from AOL,
MSN, and Yahoo!, all of whom want to "own your phone" and follow
you everywhere, even into the washroom.
The college-aged founders of Raging Bull
had a great idea. Create a stock message board like the ones at Silicon
Investor, Yahoo! and Motley Fool, and to encourage a massive number
of page views, target the zealous investors in and promoters of
penny stocks. From those humble origins grew a sizeable mass
market financial site, which was acquired outright by AltaVista
So how does Raging
Bull fit in with AltaVista's focus on the business market? Actually,
it doesn't. It is symptomatic of AltaVista's portal
pretensions and entertainment-oriented flights of fancy in the recent
past. Raging Bull generates massive page views, but one cannot
imagine how AltaVista can continue to scatter its energies so far
and so wide while true portals Yahoo!, AOL, and MSN (and almost
Lycos and Excite) have them beat hands down.
I'll get back to this topic in part three of this
Show us the money
We started with a brief glimpse at business applications
because that's likely where a company like AltaVista stands to make
its money long-term. Given its size, accumulated intellectual capital,
and strong brand, it is well-positioned to build search products
for business based on a "build once, sell many times" philosophy.
money is something that has always been forgotten in the AltaVista
equation. Many in the constituency of AltaVista loyalists became
accustomed to AV always being there, and held the company to
a high standard in keeping with its serious image and high profile.
Various well-heeled AltaVista owners - it's now owned by holding
company CMGI, who bought it from Compaq - were nice enough to keep
this big, powerful search index afloat, for the simple reason that
they thought it would be pretty cool to own a search engine, and
that it might lead to something. That something they hoped for,
one often suspects, is pumping a search engine up into a "portal," an
initial public offering, inflated market valuations, and the ability
to acquire other businesses for inflated stock. That probably
won't happen now, unless AV finds a way to reposition itself not
as a B2C behemoth, but as something more like an infrastructure
player (and tossing phrases around Europe like "cutting edge wireless
technology" probably won't hurt).
While it's tempting for the company to raise gobs
of cash on the strength of page views or buzzwords, today's market
sceptic is going to look askance at the use of the big AltaVista
name as an excuse for lavish initial public offerings
in Europe and North America; as a means of getting the public investor
to keep the sober, serious search company in business for another
few years. That's just delaying the inevitable. Better if AV becomes
more like Yahoo! -- able to fund its operation with the cash
flow created by its own profitable operations. To do that,
of course, it will have to stop wasting its energies competing with
Yahoo! in the horizontal portal arena.
Or maybe taxpayers would like to keep AltaVista
in business. Hmm, thought not.
Fascinating or not, AltaVista's infrastructure
role and forward-looking business search applications are what
are going to pay for all the neat stuff they come up with in the
Next time: Part Two
- Serious Search Enthusiasts