Retro Tech

The Rise and Fall of AltaVista: A Look at a 90s Web Pioneer

At its peak, AltaVista, the web's first full-text searchable database, received 80 million hits a day. And then it was acquired.

Retro Alex

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In the mid-90s, we had plenty of search engines. WebCrawler. Yahoo! Lycos. Infoseek. Excite.

But most of them weren’t consistently good. When we couldn’t find what we were looking for on one search engine, we’d jump to another. That was until AltaVista invented a new way to crawl the web and surface results. The first time I used AltaVista, I knew I wasn’t back to the other search engines. It was that good.

AltaVista offered a full-text search engine of the entire web. It wasn’t until AltaVista started posting a count of the number of pages in its search index that we knew how large the web truly was. And when they shared how many pages its crawler found, it was significantly more pages than we previously thought existed. AltaVista changed our understanding of how large the web was. It showed us the web had reached mass adoption. Thanks to AltaVista, we knew the web had arrived. 

To support the 13 million search queries it received a day in 1998, AltaVista’s backend ran on 20 machines. Its indexed pages took up 500 GB of hard drive space. That’s a lot fewer machines and a lot less disk space than I imagined for a search engine of that size. By 2000, AltaVista was seeing 80 million web hits per day. 

A company of firsts

In addition to being the first full-text searchable database, AltaVista used the first CAPTCHA system for account registration. This was added to prevent bots from submitting their own webpage URLs over and over. Even back in the late 90s, SEOs were trying to manipulate search results, and search engines were attempting to stay one step ahead. 

AltaVista also launched Babel Fish, an early, free language service that worked pretty well.

New competition and acquisitions

AltaVista used relevance and keywords to rank its search results. But Google was working on a system called PageRank that weighed results based on authority. In 2000, only 7% of web users searched on Google, vs. 18% using AltaVista. While AltaVista diversified into new offerings like shopping, a web directory and free email, Google focused on building a better search engine in its early days. By 2004, Google attracted 35% of web searchers. 

In 2003, AltaVista sold itself to Overture Networks for $140 million. Overture owned smaller search engines at the time, like World Wide Web Worm and GoTo. Overture also offered advertisers the ability to bid on ads for specific results, which was a much more lucrative business model than AltaVista’s sponsorship-based revenue model. That same year it was acquired, Yahoo! acquired Overture. AltaVista’s backend was effectively shut down, and searches on AltaVista returned the same results as Yahoo!

Today, redirects to Yahoo!’s search page. I wonder how many people still visit the domain. 

AltaVista through the years: 2001

AltaVista through the years: 2002

AltaVista through the years: 2003

AltaVista through the years: 2004