AltaVista irrelevant? Not to other search engines

The long-forgotten search engine AltaVista somehow ranks high in search results of major engines

A long time ago, in the mid-to-late 1990s, AltaVista was a major search engine, but with the rise of Google its popularity slid, eventually becoming irrelevant to most users.

Back then, I never missed "Seinfeld" or "Friends" and was a faithful AltaVista user, but had long ago forgotten about it, assuming at some point it had completely faded into the background and disappeared. Then, the other day, curious about how major search engines resolve queries related to Internet search, I was surprised to see AltaVista showing up prominently in results.

Sure enough, AltaVista lives on at its old www.altavista.com URL. It turns out that Yahoo owns it. I don't know why anyone would use it. The user interface is horrid. The features are limited. It looks like a forgotten, abandoned site.

Wondering what type of traffic it draws, I checked with Hitwise, which tracks search engine usage, and was told that AltaVista commands a minuscule 0.09 percent of U.S. searches, according to the latest Hitwise's latest figures for the week ending Dec. 12.

(I should note that AltaVista ranks ninth among the 58 search engines Hitwise tracks. This might seem at first glance to be a respectable position -- top 10 after all. But in the search market, with Google grabbing, according to Hitwise, almost 73 percent of searches, only the top five search engines -- Google, Yahoo, Bing, Ask.com and Aol -- are viewed as having a position worthy of mention.)

Still, curiously, AltaVista ranks stupendously high in the results of the major search engines for queries related to Web search, edging out search engines that are orders of magnitude more popular.

For example, for the query term "search engine," AltaVista ranks first in both Google's and Ask.com's results, third in Bing results and fifth in Yahoo results.

For the term "search," AltaVista places second in Google and Ask.com results and sixth in Yahoo results. If one runs a query for "Internet search," AltaVista shows up third in Google results, second in Yahoo results and sixth in Ask.com results.

(To Bing's credit, AltaVista doesn't show up in its 10 first results for "search" nor "Internet search.")

It should be pointed out that AltaVista isn't the only minor search engine ranking well in search results. However, at least the others, like meta-crawlers Dogpile.com and Search.com look well-kept and are much more feature rich, and ostensibly offer a better experience and quite likely more value to end users.

So why is AltaVista ranking so high when it is clearly a marginal, unpopular, generally irrelevant search engine? One would think that if there's a topic in which search engines would display the most relevant results it would be, well, Internet search.

Of course, one might argue the relevancy of results about Internet search is not that important after all, since most people already use Google, and to a lesser extent the other four search engines.

However, when Google and Ask.com spit out AltaVista as the first result, and Bing as the third result, for the term "search engine," and Yahoo ranks AltaVista second for the term "Internet search," it's enough to make one wonder about search result quality in general.

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