Goodbye Alta Vista, Search Engine Pioneer

If you are still in mourning over the death of Google Reader or rebelling against Yahoo’s acquisition of Tumblr, this news may be too painful to bear: Yahoo is shutting down Alta Vista on July 8.

altavistaOkay, so maybe it’s not the national tragedy that I’m playing it out to be, but Alta Vista was a pioneer of its time. It may be retired now, but its mark on search engine history shouldn’t be forgotten.

Some of Alta Vista’s firsts:

  • It was the first search engine to have multi-lingual search – including Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.
  • It was the first to let users search for images, video, and audio.
  • It was the first to translate entire websites through Babel Fish – which was adopted by Yahoo.

Alta Vista also became notable for understanding colloquial language. A search of “What is rain?” wouldn’t push popular results for the words “what” and “is” to the top but instead focus on rain.

Yes, Google does all of these things now – any many more – but back in the 90s this was hot stuff.

Alta Vista launched in 1995 and saw more than 300,000 search queries on its first day. According to Royal Pingdom, there were 100,000 websites at the time (compared to 160 million in 2008) and the browser of choice was Netscape Navigator. Internet Explorer was just a baby and most people used dial-up. These were dark times

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Throughout this week we are reflecting and remembering the history of America, but it’s also interesting to look back over the past 15 years and appreciate where Internet users and marketers have evolved in the age of the Internet. Just 10 years ago, CNET reported on ways companies were trying to get to the top of search rankings. These ranged from paying search engines to index their sites more often to fledgling PPC ads:

Seen as a cousin of pay-for-placement listings, which are clearly marked as for sale, paid-inclusion results are murkily defined because marketers are often unsure of the effects of more regular indexing of their Web pages.

In 2001 Google searches overtook Alta Vista searches, and its downfall began. Overture bought Alta Vista for $140 million in 2003, and then was purchased by Yahoo shortly after. Since then Google and other search engines have risen; Alta Vista has fallen and now will be completely replaced by Yahoo Search next week.

Yahoo’s announcement of the closure was unceremonious. Like the death of Google Reader, it was included in a long list of programs that Yahoo was closing. It barely merited one sentence:

AltaVista (July 8, 2013) Please visit Yahoo! Search for all of your searching needs.

While Alta Vista has been out of the running for top search engine for quite some time – more than a decade out of its 15 years of life– it will still hold a special place in the history of the Internet, and the history of Internet marketing.

About the author

Amanda Dodge