Alta Vista Revamps Search Engine

AltaVista was once a clear leader in search technology, but lost its edge somewhat when parent company Digital Equipment merged with Compaq in 1998, Enderle said. Compaq has since sold its majority stake in the search portal, and AltaVista is now hoping to regain some of its former glory, he said.

"It certainly looks like they've improved the site rather dramatically, and with it, the user experience," the analyst said.

The revised home page retains the search bar as its central feature, but adds four prominent links to other pages where users can find content specific to four areas -- shopping, entertainment, news and technology.

Searching in those areas produces results that are context-specific. Searching for "stones" in the entertainment section, for example, produces results about rock group The Rolling Stones, but none about pebbles. Searching for Concorde in the news section, meanwhile, produces links to recent news stories about the supersonic jet.

The entertainment area also sorts results by media type, providing links to MP3 music files, MPEG video files and archived radio broadcasts, for example. That multimedia capability, as well as other context-specific services, will be added to the other three areas over time, said Andre Herring, senior manager for entertainment at AltaVista.

Another new feature is Power Search, which is linked from the home page and aims to help less Web-savvy users perform complex searches. For example, a user can search for pages that contain a specific phrase, that have been updated within the past month, and that all appear within a particular URL, such as www.foxsports.com, said Vaughn Rhodes, AltaVista's director of product marketing.

Such complex searches could be performed before, but typically required a user to be familiar with concepts such as Boolean logic and the intricacies of search syntax. The new tool uses drop-down menus to refine the search.

"Our goal is to be the shortest distance between needing information and finding it," Rhodes said.

AltaVista has also added a Search Trends feature, which makes use of information it gathers about its users' searches. This week, for example, the site lists the week's top 25 search terms (Yahoo was No. 1 on Tuesday), the top five women's names (actress Gillian Anderson), and the top five vacation spots (the Mediterranean island of Ibiza).

One challenge facing the company will be to educate habitual surfers about how to use the new features, Herring acknowledged. The company had to make a trade-off between adding new features and content, and keeping the site simple enough to navigate easily, he said.

Analyst Enderle noted that as the search engine market matures, it will become harder for companies to attract new users.

"It's important that they get it right now," he said.

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