AltaVista serves up outdated search results

AltaVista Co.'s search engine is dishing up months-old results to queries. Its search index hasn't been updated since July, so changes made to indexed pages since then aren't recorded and new pages linked to indexed pages aren't reported.

"A full refresh has not been done since July," said AltaVista spokeswoman Kristi Kaspar. "We have crawled, but we have yet to publish the results. Pretty much everybody is working on it, it is our number one priority."

Crawling is the process by which a software agent follows links from one Web page to another to collect information on new and updated pages. This data is compiled into a searchable index.

"We don't have a set schedule, but refreshing every 45 to 60 days is a reasonable goal. Publishing a brand new index every 28 days has suddenly become imperative. Something that we've seen because people have become more savvy in their searches and because competition has been pushing the envelope," said Kaspar.

Rivals Google Inc., Lycos Inc. and Fast Search & Transfer ASA (AllTheWeb.com) all refresh their indexes regularly. Google said it publishes a new index about once a month, Lycos said its database is re-indexed every 11 days and Fast said it refreshes its Web search index every 9 to 12 days.

AltaVista's regional search sites have not been updated since mid-April. The company said in late August that it was merging the index behind its regional sites with the international index. The process was scheduled to be completed by late September, but the regional indexes have still not been updated.

"We hit a glitch adding the international databases," said Kaspar.

Users have been abandoning AltaVista in droves. In September last year AltaVista.com had 14.6 million U.S. home and at work users. That number shrunk to 7.5 million in September this year, according to audience research company Nielsen//NetRatings. Google, in the same period, saw its audience grow from 6.7 million to 18.4 million.

"We took a big hit when we discontinued our affiliate program in April," was the only explanation Kaspar offered. The program paid Web site administrators for every visitor directed to AltaVista.

Search engine watcher Theo Stielstra, author of a guide to searching on the Internet, also noticed AltaVista's demise.

"A search for Osama bin Laden should result in links to thousands of recent Web pages. On AltaVista, I get few recent pages and pages from 1997 and 1998. That's not a search engine, but an archeology tool. Users don't understand this and a clever user would switch to a competitor. AltaVista, once top of the bill, is almost history as a serious search engine," he said.

Last month AltaVista laid off 160 employees, reducing its headcount to 340 people. Despite the dormant search indexes, AltaVista and its parent CMGI Inc. are committed to the search service and aren't about to added to the list of dot-com failures, said Kaspar.

"We are still very confident in the service. A new index will be published in November and when we do, you will notice and feel it," she said, adding that CMGI recently put more funding into AltaVista.

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