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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 order."

Advanced Search is Powerful, but Handle with Care

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 was preferable.

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 seen.

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" role.

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 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

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 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 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 continues.

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 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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