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AltaVista searches for a new image

The struggling company is trying to recapture its former glory as a search engine heavyweight with a newly redesigned Web site that takes a cue from current search champ Google.

In the current world of search engines, less is more--and AltaVista is angling for both.

The struggling company is trying to recapture its former glory as a search engine heavyweight with a newly redesigned Web site, featuring a sleek, spare look that takes a cue from current search champ Google. The new site is scheduled to launch Tuesday.

Among other tweaks, AltaVista said, the new site will feature an ad-free home page; "fresher" search results, updated navigation for news publications and new tools for pinpointing relevant pages.

"Google has the concept of 'feeling lucky,' and we're introducing the concept of feeling confident," said AltaVista CEO Jim Barnett, referring to the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button on Google's home page, which automatically takes searchers to the first Web page turned up by their query and skips showing them the usual list of results.

AltaVista, Barnett said, is all about "reasserting our leadership position in global search." The company is fighting to win back tens of millions of visitors it's lost to other search providers, primarily Google, in the past two years. In October 2000, AltaVista had an audience of about 15.6 million monthly visitors, according to Nielsen-NetRatings, which measures Web traffic. On a steady slide since then, the site drew about 5.6 million unique visitors in September.

CMGI, which owns a majority stake in AltaVista, has been divesting itself of ailing businesses in order to improve its cash flow. Earlier this year, it stopped funding advertising-technology company Engage, among others. But in its recent quarterly earnings call, it said it is rapidly approaching profitability. AltaVista's Barnett said the search company is also headed in that direction, but would not specify when it would reach that goal.

As part of its new image, the company is shedding its mountain logo, its signature yellow coloring and its tag line: The Search Company. AltaVista introduced the motto about a year ago as it sought to return to its roots as a search pioneer, after failing to compete successfully as a portal against AOL and Yahoo. During the dot-com heyday, the company had introduced an array of portal-like features, including Internet access service, only to drop them when the bubble burst.

For search, the company is including navigation for millions more portable document format (PDF) documents and a new site Barnett dubbed News 2.0, which gives people the ability to search news publications by region, time period or topic. The news search feature indexes approximately 3,000 news sources every 15 minutes.

In addition, AltaVista will give Web surfers a button labeled "More Precision," which will search for pages based on natural-language questions. The company will also update its list of the most popular search terms every 24 hours and use the information to freshen its database. Barnett estimates that nearly 20 million documents in its 1 billion object database will be indexed more regularly, and he said the company already indexes five times the number of pages it did a year ago, yielding the "freshest results on the Web."

"We're focusing on the power of precision--the power to search the infinite Web and the precision to find the right results," Barnett said. The company is also expanding its international search service, by letting people customize how they navigate sites based in a given country.

Finally, advertising will play a quieter role. AltaVista will remove the showcased banner advertisement from the home page, but will include a small branded ad on the same page. In July, the company stopped selling pop-up and pop-under ads, choosing instead to base sales on automatically placing ads alongside search results that are related to the product being pitched.