A hail and farewell to AltaVista

It once was the best of the bunch, in the era before Internet search meant Google and three guys named Moe. Ancient history by now.

"Once I was a contender." Wikipedia

This is what happens after a series of bumbling owners fail to keep a once terrific product relevant in a dynamic market: You get a cold PR send-off that doesn't even fill the screen.

"Please visit Yahoo! Search for all of your searching needs."

That's all Yahoo wrote Friday afternoon as it lumped in the news that it was killing off AltaVista on July 8 with word that it will also ax 11 other products that no longer matter to the company.

Jay Rossiter, the vice president in charge of platforms, said the moves will free Yahoo to streamline its efforts and thus "continue to focus on creating beautiful products that are essential to you every day."

Fair enough. Yahoo needs to husband its resources and devote them to projects that matter. Truth be told, AltaVista, once the best of the bunch in the era before Internet search meant Google and three guys named Moe, has unfortunately been irrelevant for quite some time. In fact, the biggest news about its date with the guillotine may be that it was still alive after all these years. On Twitter, most folks reacted the way Mitch Kapor did when he wrote "Yahoo shutting down AltaVista. I, for one, profoundly surprised it was still alive. Ave atque vale." (That's Latin for "hail and farewell." Hey, Mitch is a Yalie, after all.)

Danny Sullivan, the doyen of digital search, nicely chronicled the history of a search engine that most owners seemingly couldn't wait to unload after acquiring it. The list included the likes of Digital Equipment, Compaq, CMGI, Overture, and Yahoo. Hardly a harbinger of success when your corporate parent's name changes faster than the identity of the person sitting in the White House.

That always puzzled me. It was a damned good product for its time -- better than anything else in its field. Of course, AltaVista's heyday unfortunately coincided with the Internet bubble when search advertising was still in its infancy. Companies had bigger ambitions (hoo boy, I'm sure more than a few wish they could have a do-over). But the game of hot potato took a toll. Eventually, an unknown called Google began to siphon away loyal AltaVista users, me included. Sullivan rightly recalls that the refrain "I used to use AltaVista, but now I use Google" became increasingly common. We know how the rest of the story unfolded, leading to today's denouement.

Perhaps if someone had had the right vision back then? Maybe. But of course, hindsight is always 20-20. File this one away as yet more fodder for future barroom debates.

 

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