For as long as I can remember, my home page has been about:blank. But for a good chunk of the 1990s, I would have done well to set it to altavista.digital.com. Here’s what happened to Altavista.
Most people remember Altavista as the thing people used before Google, if they remember it at all. But I remember it as the first great search engine, because I’ve done my best to forget what search was like before Altavista came along. So I was a little sad to see Yahoo shut down what was left of the first great search engine in the summer of 2013.
Why Altavista mattered
In 1994-95, a common question to ask was what search engine people used. The reason was because there was no search engine that was clearly better than the rest. I bounced between Webcrawler, Lycos, Excite, and Hotbot. I typically had to use more than one of them to find what I was looking for. And that was the thing: Sometimes I never did find it.
Altavista started out as a marketing gimmick, as far as I can tell. Digital Equipment Corporation had this fantastic CPU called the Alpha that was worlds better than anything else out there. But there were maybe 12 people who knew it. So DEC decided to promote it by throwing a pile of Alpha CPUs at the problem of indexing the entire World Wide Web. The mistake was that they didn’t make it clear enough that it was powered by the Alpha. They forgot to read that page in Intel’s marketing book. That’s why the PC you’re using today has an Intel processor in it instead of an Alpha.
Altavista was a colossal marketing failure. It was also a tremendous search engine for its day. It was faster than all the rest, and it produced more results than all the rest. Today we take 15 pages of search results for granted, but Altavista was the first engine to produce those kinds of results.
Altavista launched in late 1995. I honestly don’t think I tried any other search engine for a couple of years after that.
Why Google beat Altavista
And I’ll tell you this: When Google launched, I was skeptical. Could this upstart really be faster than Altavista?
Where Google won, though, was by applying intelligence to search in addition to brute force. With Altavista, the best search result could just as easily be on page 15 as on page 1. Google tried its best to make sure the search results on page 1 were more likely to be what you were looking for than on page 2. Or page 15. Ranking search results by the number of incoming links was one of those ideas that seems obvious now. But in 1997-98 it was revolutionary. Google didn’t have to be as fast as Altavista. I think it was a pretty close race. But it didn’t matter because most of the time it got you the result you wanted much faster.
From what I can tell, in its heyday Altavista’s cluster of servers had 130 GB of RAM, 500 GB of storage, and about 50 CPU cores, which likely ran at a speed of 433 MHz or less. A former coworker of mine decided to build a mind-blowing computer this summer, using a server-grade motherboard with a couple of Intel Core i7 CPUs. Chances are he has as much computing power sitting in an ATX case under his desk as Altavista had, if not more. It’ll easily be five years–at least–before I’m willing to spend the money on that kind of computing power, but if and when I do, I’ll probably name that machine altavista in honor of the late, great search engine.
But trust me: In the mid 1990s, that was a mind-blowing amount of computing power. If you weren’t a large computer company or a nation-state, you didn’t have it.
What happened to Altavista
Compaq bought DEC in 1998, mostly to get its services division. Compaq didn’t care much about the rest of DEC, although Altavista certainly seemed to interest Compaq more than the CPU technology that powered it. But Altavista interested Compaq more as a business to spin off to make its investors happy than anything else.
But that value didn’t last. I’m pretty sure that by the time the spinoff and IPO happened, I was using Google, and Altavista was already a memory to me. I wasn’t the first to switch to Google, but I certainly wasn’t the last.
Not much good happened after that spinoff. Altavista got passed around like a hot potato to companies who briefly thought it would be a good idea to try to compete with the nascent Google juggernaut. Now that the last of those has figured out that Altavista’s name recognition no longer has any dollar value attached to it. There’s no money to be made off people like me typing altavista.digital.com or altavista.com into a web browser to see if the domain is still live before we scurry off to something else. I still thought enough of it to ensure Altavista had this blog in its index in 2001, but it was pretty clear even then that competing with Google was a lost cause.
So, fare thee well and Godspeed, Altavista, as you go to the great big Internet in the sky. Say hello to Commodore for me. Hopefully they’ll show you around. And thanks for the memories.