It’s difficult to imagine now, but once upon a time finding stuff on the web was *hard*. In the early 1990s, the number of web sites grew from 623 at the end of 1993 to a quarter of a million in mid-1996.. but there was no reliable way to search for information on all those thousands of websites all at once.
In early 1994, the web directory Yahoo! was founded which attempted to catalogue the web by category. If you wanted to research a topic, you would have to drill down through Yahoo!’s categories in much the same way as using a library.
In mid-1994 the world’s first “full text” search engine was launched, called WebCrawler. But it only indexed a small part of the rapidly growing web, and the results were extremely hit-and-miss.
But in December 1995 the first recognisably modern search engine was launched. Predating Google by several years, Digital’s AltaVista service made the first real attempt to index a large part of the ever-growing web, and made a good effort to sort search results in a way that was meaningful to users. Originally the site was hosted at altavista.digital.com, only moving to altavista.com in 1998.
The effect was dramatic. It no longer took hours to find a piece of information on the web, but instead AltaVista could give the answer in a few seconds (usually) and the result you were looking for was usually on the first page.. or first few pages. AltaVista had some pretty advanced search functions which allowed users to tailor their results further.
As is the case today, AltaVista made it easy to find obscure or precise bits of information, but was less good when it came to general topics. This meant that most users would use a combination of AltaVista and Yahoo! when researching topics.
Built in part to showcase Digital’s Alpha-based processors, AltaVista temporarily transformed the stuffy old Digital Equipment Corporation into a major player.. for a short time.
But AltaVista had a significant flaw. The search engine results were initially based almost entirely on “on-page” factors (such as the title, headings and word density of a page) which meant that the the search engine could be easily manipulated, leading to a rise in search engine spam. When rivals Google came to market they used a fundamentally different approach which leaned heavily on “off-page” factors such as PageRank.
AltaVista grew quickly and in 1999 the majority was sold to an investment firm which valued the site at over $2.7 billion. A combination of the collapse of the Dot-Com Boom and the rise of Google severely dented AltaVista and after being passed around various owners it shut down completely in 2011.
For a generation of early internet users, AltaVista transformed the way they used the web. Without doubt it helped to make the early web accessible and contributed to its phenomenal growth in the late 1990s. But sadly in the post-Google world, AltaVista has largely been forgotten as the great pioneer it once was,.