Altavista Sorts Out its Customers Part 2 - Search Enthusiasts
By Andrew Goodman - September 15, 2000
There's no question that AltaVista has long been
seen as a serious search engine for the "power searcher." This is
true now more than ever. Above all, one is struck by the range of
options and customization available.
Chris Sherman, the About
Guide to Web Search, is fond of many aspects of AltaVista. "I
love the fact that you can specify your own results ranking order
in advanced search," says Sherman. "Sometimes one of the keywords
in a search phrase is just so much more important, or so unique,
that you want it to carry more weight than the other words."
Sherman adds that in the Advanced
Search area of AltaVista, you can "sort by" a specific
keyword in a query - "James and bond and budget" will return very
different results depending on whether you "sort by" James, bond,
or budget. There is a drawback to this, he adds: "you must
specify words to sort by... or the results appear in random
Advanced Search is Powerful, but Handle with
One might conclude that users seeking a relevance
ranking with less advanced Boolean search techniques might want
to avoid the Advanced Search area. Users who want this power should
bone up on how best to tap into it.
Sherman is also fond of AV's advanced image search,
which is good "for web designers searching for a specific kind of
graphic." Searches can focus on color or black and white images.
The list of options goes on and on.
Limit Your Search to Titles and Specific Domains
Tara Calishain, publisher of ResearchBuzz,
is also an AltaVista aficionado. Her repertoire of techniques for
tapping into the power of Advanced Search would humble the average
user, but for those who wish to get creative with the power of these
tools, there are a lot of ways to find that proverbial needle in
the haystack. She points out that one can limit searches to specific
domains - .edu, for example, - and limit keyword search to titles
only, which might bring to light a different set of results than
a search which included the body text and meta keywords which are
a part of the search engine's indexing process. Such tricks
can help to track down items like syllabi for specific courses at
universities across the country, for example.
Danny Sullivan, editor of Search
Engine Watch, also has a favorable view of the "array of text
power commands" such as :url and :link (useful for restricting a
search to a particular site, and for finding out who is linking
to a given site, respectively). Sullivan also notes the vast multimedia
search capability, and reminds us that AltaVista's index of the
web is still quite large and therefore offers comprehensive coverage
of the Internet.
Image Search is Powerful... and Fun
My own test drive gave me similar impressions.
The image search capability is more powerful than ever, and it's
highly customizable. If you hate Real format video clips, then just
exclude them from your search using the checkboxes. If you are willing
to wade through "partner" photos from professional services like
Corbis, you can accept "Corbis" or "all partners." If you want image
search for the web as a whole, set the partner setting to
"none." The more you use it, the more powerful it becomes. Like
Silly Putty or Lego, AltaVista has enough versatility to be used
by different users in ways that the designers might not even foresee.
To see just how powerful AV's multimedia search
was, I compared it briefly with a couple of metasearch engines promising
to offer, for example, MP3 metasearch. Sometimes, the metasearchers
come close to AV, and sometimes they'll give you more interesting
or simply different results. For the most part, though, AV alone
Is AltaVista #1?
This may sound like a curious question. How can
AltaVista be #1? Doesn't that distinction belong to Yahoo!, Google,
or AOL? Freeserve, even?
I'm really talking about marketing focus here.
Anytime you have a product, obviously, you want to ask yourself
"who is it for?" The premise here is that AltaVista, more than ever,
is tailor-made for serious researchers. It's not the only service
such people would use, of course, but amongst Internet tools, it's
one that is used often by librarians, research consultants, students,
teachers, and advanced Internet users.
It's vitally important for a company in AV's position
to attain #1 ranking in its chosen niche, for simple mindshare reasons.
As Seth Godin wrote recently, when you're asked to think of a major
painting, most people say the Mona Lisa. When asked to name a soft
drink, they think of Coke. Having that mindshare is vitally important
in staying on the map when people's minds are cluttered with so
many products. For one thing, it means you don't have to burn up
so much money on marketing.
First the Good News
AltaVista really is #1 in its field, depending
on how you define that. A serious researcher knows that it has the
most powerful set of search options available, for those who know
how to use them. Consumers interested in the relevancy
of results coming back from "lazily typed keywords" will also
see AltaVista as keeping pace where others have fallen off the pace. AV
has also wandered into areas where others may be more competent,
of course. The "handy search guides," while a good idea, might be
better accomplished by companies like About or Looksmart. Perhaps
companies such as these, which do have loose partnerships, need
to work on more serious joint ventures so that the serious research
company isn't wandering off its focus trying to figure out how to
offer Search for Dummies or a Guide to Gardening. I am adamant in
my belief that AltaVista, as always, succeeds or fails as
a search engine, not as a provider of packaged news and
information or how-to guides. This still entails a lot, as we've
How then is AV #1? As the #1 Internet search
engine for search professionals - what AltaVista execs call
"the search enthusiast market." As I've written in the past, I think
more could be done to consolidate that status to remove all doubt
- for example, an acquisition of Northern Light. Then again, there
is not much that prevents AV from simply augmenting its search capabilities
with stronger partnerships with companies which house things like
research documents. Don't all these partnerships and variegated
search options make today's AV almost a borderline metasearcher?
That's an interesting point to ponder as many web search giants
such as AOL and MSN cobble together resources from various places
and use product managers to integrate them.
AV is Not an Editorial Organization
We have further evidence that AV is not itself
an editorial organization in the fact that it has always contracted
out its directory search. (It has numerous other partnerships, of
course, including RealNames - part of the expertise in the company
is making smart use of these kinds of search adjuncts.) The
Open Directory has great promise, but has variable quality control
and didn't offer much revenue potential for AltaVista, so it went
instead with Looksmart. Looksmart, for its part, is a strong editorial
organization, but in tone and philosophy it has a "beginner's guide"
approach to listing content. Therefore, one wouldn't rule out AltaVista
finding yet another partner for directory search down the road -
one which might be more complementary to its "serious research"
AltaVista and Google Can Coexist
A lot of folks are firm in their belief that Google
is the #1 search engine today. Google certainly is #1 in my mind
for the "unassisted search" - the fastest, most relevant results
you can get with a minimum of fuss. Google is also at least as focused
as AltaVista in providing a constant stream of small improvements
and options that give power searchers the ability to do much more.
But for now, let's place Google in a different category. It works
and works well for the average user, and solves many problems quickly
even for advanced users, but it doesn't offer the same kind of customization
of queries offered by more powerful engines. Its algorithm, to some
extent, rules out certain forms of search customization. By dint
of their different approaches, both Google and AltaVista can be
"#1" in the minds of different users, or even the same users approaching
different tasks. And ya can't look for video on Google. Yet.
Googly-Eyed and Raging
Many observers - including quite a few in the
search enthusiast community - were pleased at AltaVista's rollout
of a "power search" site called Raging
Search. It's seen as a step forward, offering the "Google experience"
to aficionados of AltaVista's more robust customization.
Let me offer my view, and assume that many of
you will disagree. I feel that Raging Search is muddled thinking
at best, and a fiasco at worst, both from a branding perspective
going forward, and from an "evidence that we were confused and are
trying to dig our way out of it" perspective looking backward (and
isn't hindsight always 20/20).
Raging Search would never have been necessary
if AV hadn't transmogrified itself into a horizontal portal, full
of news and clutter options which aren't necessarily wanted by people
who are just there to use the search engine. (After all, Yahoo,
AOL, and MSN are the #1 portals, depending on where you live...
#8 isn't something most of us are going to bother to set up AGAIN
with our customized news and weather settings.)
The two advantages of Raging Search, broadly speaking,
are seen to be (1) the clean, advertising-free interface; and (2)
the fact that this now becomes the "home for the advanced searcher."
Indeed, beta options will be tested at Raging.com before being incorporated
into the AV search product which a wider public will use.
The first advantage is a bit of a red herring,
in my opinion. Google's clean interface might be part of the pleasantness
of the experience, but they aren't seen as today's hottest search
engine company because they thought up the bright idea of having
a clean interface. It's a good feature, but not good enough to make
me crave Raging Search.
Raging may be positioned as the advanced searcher's
paradise, but AltaVista itself already was that, so again, there
is not a huge reason to have rolled out Raging. Even if there are
new features that might be coming out on Raging, I'm of the mind
that they could have been somehow incorporated into Altavista.com.
The third and possibly least compelling aspect
of the rollout of Raging is that someone thought it would sound
appealing and hip, and of course would be some kind of tie-in with
AltaVista-owned stock message board site, Raging
Bull. Who knows, maybe a whole "Raging" line of topical sites
is in the works as we speak. Hope for the best, and prepare for
the worst: Raging Snowboarding Xtreme with Attitude. I suppose there
is something momentarily compelling about the image of a "Raging
Librarian," but maybe AV was never meant to be the company
that makes it on its Hip Quotient. On Raging, Ask Jeeves, and in
a few other places, I've noticed the use of the phrase "Unplugged"
to indicate a wireless version. Exactly. It's all a little bit like
going to an Eric Clapton concert, isn't it? You're 50, you drive
a not-too-used Volvo, you're working in a sedentary job with
a good pension, but you still "rock." No offense, but as one friend
put it, "it reminds me of the Raging Grannies." Tim Allen probably
likes Raging Search.
Forget about all that noise, and about the fact
that the plainish Raging logo can be customized for your favorite
colors. The hip technologies have names like Google, ICQ, and
Napster. The fact is, AltaVista Advanced Search is really good.
And nowadays, there are more resources right there in front of you
to help you learn how to use its features, including an Advanced
Cheat Sheet. Bravo to AV on this stuff.
The machinations and contortions at AV with regard
to the Raging brand and so on are probably part of its plan to "parse"
its customers - to direct their search enthusiasts to one thing,
and the "mass audience" to another. But it isn't clear that the
enthusiasts need or want this, since AV was home to them in the
first place. As for the "mass audience," I still don't see
how AV is going to resonate with them. The big billboard ad
touting AltaVista Canada as a place for people to go find "home
grown" news, weather, sports, etc. made no sense to me. What,
and not use Yahoo, Sympatico, Excite, AOL, or CANOE, or Canada.com?
AltaVista.ca is probably a good place to go looking for a search
engine. Who would go there for all that other stuff?
A better idea for local outreach would be for
AV reps travel around to thousands of universities, colleges, and
high schools, offering seminars in search engine usage for academic
purposes, and offering training upgrades for librarians. Imagine
how that might create mindshare and a sense of place and purpose.
While they're at it, they might think about endowing a few of those
fine institutions. Their libraries could probably use new computers.
You Can't Always Get What You Want
I hoped I could make it through this review without
mentioning this, but alas... If you click on one of today's
"top three celebrity searches" from the Altavista.com home
page, and then try an image search, you'll see on page one
of the results page that you get a little Jimmy Kimmel mixed
in with your Cindy Margolis. The painful quest for search relevance
Next Part: AltaVista's Portal Ambitions
It's not out of the question that AV is on its
way to plotting a return to its roots as a serious search engine
company, and downplaying or giving up on its portal preoccupations.
To its credit, the personal portal product, My
AltaVista, is being downplayed of late, and AltaVista.com is
becoming a terrific search-oriented site, much better for research
than it was in the old days. The plan by parent company CMGI might
be to shift its emphasis in the personal portal market
to another portal service it owns, MyWay,
which has quietly engineered a shocking increase in traffic of late.
I'll examine AV's portal, news, media and entertainment emphases
in the next part of this series.
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