AltaVista builds its search directory in two ways. The service has developed its own technology to "crawl" the Web for links to add to its search results, and it also lets users submit URLs for inclusion in an index, increasing the likelihood that a specific Web site will show up in a keyword search.
"We're in the process of creating a new index," said Tracy Roberts, director of marketing for AltaVista Search. "And when the index is stable, we'll [update] the URLs."
Roberts said that withholding Web link submission is a common practice when the company decides to refresh its index. She said that AltaVista will begin adding the link submissions-in-waiting starting today, but she declined to comment on how long submissions have been sidelined.
The slowdown is a setback for fledgling Web sites, which frequently rely on search engines as their primary promotional platform. Since random searches are not always comprehensive, gaining an index listing increases the chances of drawing traffic through search referrals.
The indexing slowdown may not have a negative long-term effect on AltaVista. But it has caused frustration among Web site administrators.
One site operator told CNET News.com that the lag began September 10 and is ongoing.
"I started searching for problems and found that a lot of sites were just wiped out," said online publisher Jim Olssen. "It was clear that this was not just my problem."
A search of some popular terms such as MP3 revealed that only one new URL had been added to the site since that date. Before September 10, a typical search turned up several thousand new URLs.
Observers said that despite the confusion caused by the holdup, the situation is not unusual, nor is it isolated to AltaVista. Other search engines experience similar lags that occur during technology changes.
But the revelations about the lag in service come at an awkward time for AltaVista. Last week the company unveiled a redesign of its Web site in an attempt to take on Web portal leader Yahoo. The company also said it plans to spend $120 million over 12 months to brand its new image in television, radio, and print ads, as well as on outdoor billboards.
Users are more incensed over broken promises after the site's relaunch than they are about the inconvenience of having an incomplete search, according to Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineWatch.com, an online newsletter.
"They had a big relaunch last week and they were saying, 'We're going to have the freshest index on the Web,'" Sullivan said. "But their index is not the freshest one" after stagnating for close to two months, he added.
Selling AltaVista to mainstream consumers has been the plan of its parent company, Internet investment firm CMGI, since it acquired AltaVista from Compaq Computer in August for $2.3 billion. CMGI not only wants to transform AltaVista into a top Web player, but it also wants to use AltaVista's traffic to nurture the nearly 40 Web sites in its investment portfolio.
AltaVista has experimented with ways to make money on its search results pages without depending on advertising. In April the company introduced a program to auction off premier placement for search results, mirroring the business model of search site GoTo.com. But just two months later, AltaVista abruptly discontinued the program.