When AltaVista debuted in 1995, it was the search engine of geeks' dreams. It indexed more pages than the competition, and it spat out good clean results faster. In those days, AltaVista's parent corporation, Digital, didn't cast covetous eyes on a "portal"-style future for its offspring; it didn't even own the "altavista.com" domain name. Instead, AltaVista was a technology demo -- a way for Digital to strut its super-fast processors' stuff.
So at first the headlines last week about AltaVista -- that it was going to sell search engine results to advertisers -- sounded dire. Shouldn't searches be neutral? Was AltaVista going on the take? Horrors!
As it turns out, the initial reports -- which made it sound like AltaVista wasn't going to come clean about the plan -- were wrong. If you look at the company's discussion of what it calls "relevant paid links," you'll see that the paid results will be set off by boxes and labeled "paid." The example, a search for "weddings," brings up a plug for the Wedding Channel at the head of the results list -- before you get to the 900,190 unpaid results.
Over on Yahoo, if you search for "weddings," you get a plug for the Wedding Channel, too -- only it's in the form of a banner ad. Search sites have been "selling keywords" in this fashion for ages now. On Lycos, a search on "weddings" gets you that Wedding Channel banner, too -- along with a "First and Fast" listing with links (to sites like Honeymoons.com and Marthastewart.com) that feel like paid links but aren't labeled as such.
What's new about AltaVista's move is that the ads are beginning to invade -- or at least bump up against -- the search results list. Even this isn't entirely novel; over at Goto.com, selling search results is the whole idea -- and the site will tell you exactly how much each advertiser paid for the placement. (I don't find Goto very useful as a search tool, but it does turn the machinery of Internet marketing into a fascinating spectator sport: Every time you click here, for instance, the Wedding Channel coughs up 35 cents to Goto.com.)
That AltaVista should be trying to squeeze more bucks from its site right now will come as no surprise to anyone who's been paying attention to the tech industry's corporate battlefield. AltaVista's parent, Digital, is now owned by Compaq -- and last week Compaq reported a disappointing quarter and fired its CEO, amid complaints that the company lacked a good "Internet strategy." AltaVista is Compaq's highest-profile Net holding. The pressure is on.
What's interesting about "relevant paid links" isn't their greed; it's their admission that people still aren't getting what they want from search engines. Aren't all the results of a search supposed to be "relevant"?
Of course, AltaVista's bumper crop of 900,190 results on a search for "weddings" exposes the flaws of the whole search-engine model. Search engines are good at pointing the way to specific tidbits of information on the Web -- particularly if you're skilled at picking keywords and using Boolean connectors ("and," "or," "not") and you know the specific quirks of the search engine you're using. Search engines have never been very good at up-to-the-minute information or at helping you find, say, the best overall sites on a particular general topic, and human-built directories like Yahoo are only a little better.
So the "relevant paid link" to Wedding Channel may well be more useful to the hapless AltaVista searcher looking up "weddings" than, say, most of the first 10 unpaid results that turn up. Those seem to offer a lot of geographically specific information that may not be of much value -- unless you happen to be in the Albany, San Diego, Hawaii, Pennsylvania or Aruba areas.
The companies buying AltaVista's links are aiming at the search-engine users who haven't yet figured this out, and who insist on using the search engines as tools to find their way to general information or top-level sites. If, for instance, you want to find the home page for the New York Times, don't expect much help from AltaVista: Search on the phrases "New York Times," "The New York Times" and "new york times" and you will get three entirely different sets of top 10 results -- none of which include links to the New York Times' own site (perhaps because it requires users to register, which blocks out the "spider" or automated program the search engine uses to index Web pages).
AltaVista does offer a link to the Times' actual site via a service called Realnames that pops up at the top of the search list. And guess what? If you want to be listed by Realnames, you have to pay them.
In other words, AltaVista needs to sell search results and employ work-arounds like Realnames -- because that's the only way it can shortcut its own overgrown index and get relevant answers to less skilled users. Like all the search engines from its generation that have grown up to become "portals" -- including Excite, Infoseek, Yahoo and Lycos -- AltaVista today has tons of Web traffic and vast hordes of users. Too much of the time, though, it doesn't have good answers.
For those, increasingly, you have to turn to a newer generation of search tools that use smarter schemes -- and that (so far) aren't selling off their results. My favorite new search site, Google (I wrote about it last December), ranks its results based on how many other sites link to each listing -- and how highly ranked those sites are. Its complex algorithm generates the best search results I've seen; one additional advantage is that the site, still technically in beta testing, hasn't yet ramped up commercially, so the pages are uncluttered with promotions.
Type "New York Times" into Google and it sends you right to the newspaper's site -- without any distractions and without that company having to pay to get there.
Even Google doesn't do that well with the "weddings" query, though; it's still a search engine indexing a vast number of pages, and it still doesn't provide great results from searches on general topics.
With AskJeeves, another highly touted Web information service, you phrase your search in common English -- like, "Where can I find information about weddings?" -- and the site sends you to a series of related questions that it "knows" the answers to: in this case, "How should I provide music at my wedding?" or "Where can I set up a personal Web site for my wedding?" or "What are some suggestions for wedding music?" That might be helpful, but it's also cumbersome and narrow. It doesn't simply provide me with what I'm looking for -- a list of the Web's best wedding-information resources.
For that, I found my best results with DirectHit. DirectHit isn't a search engine itself but a technology that's licensed to other companies -- you'll find it in action on HotBot. With DirectHit, search results are ranked based on the choices other users have previously made; if lots of previous searchers for wedding information actually clicked through to a particular site when it turned up in the results, and spent time on that site, it gets ranked higher. With DirectHit on HotBot, nearly all of the top 10 search results for "weddings" point to sites that are deep, relevant and useful.
If AltaVista were able to provide those kinds of results, I doubt its "relevant paid links" program would be much of an issue. As it is, AltaVista and its cohorts in the first generation of search engines are stuck: They've got a mass of users that other Web sites would kill for -- but they're not delivering what they promise. That means sooner or later, users will drift away to more effective services. And then who will want to buy AltaVista's links?