AltaVista was one of the very first search engines that I ever used; it was a jaw dropping moment when it came along in late 1995. The idea that you could actually put in search terms and get web pages back - AND the level of sophistication that it offered made it the Google of its day. When I ran courses, and asked people what they used, AltaVista was right up there at the top - and if you ask any other trainer I'm sure that they'll say the same thing.
It was popular, it had excellent functionality - what went wrong with it? I believe that there was a lack of vision and understanding as to exactly what an internet search engine was capable of, how integral it would be to users of the internet and perhaps most importantly - how it could make money for its owners. The Google model - so obvious now - hadn't really been considered at all, and companies with their other fledgling engines were unable to see how money was to be made in large amounts - they did advertising of course, but the idea of tailoring adverts to searches was a bit beyond them. Consequently AltaVista went through a long period of being sold and resold.
It was owned by Digital Equipment which then got bought by Compaq in 1998. Next year it was sold to CMGI and turned into a portal, which was wholly inappropriate. Then it was bought by Overture in 2003, which was then bought by Yahoo! in the same year. And that was that. Once AltaVista was rolled into the Yahoo! family it was never going to end well. I think that for me the real killer was a long period when the index just didn't seem to be updated at all - for several months in fact. People got very unhappy with that and started to look around and they discovered another search engine with a funny name - Google. People moved across in their droves - partly because Google was very good, but partly because no-one wants to stay at a party when the coke has gone flat and the balloons are sagging onto the floor; that's really what it felt like over at AltaVista.
This is the earliest screenshot that I could find of AltaVista over on the Wayback Machine:
There are a few things worth observing - the bold advert at the top of the screen with 'reach millions every month' - that wasn't a typo, they did mean month, not second. As well as searching the Web, you could also search USENET - another almost entirely lost and forgotten element of the internet; if you don't want to follow the link, it was a distributed internet discussion system, and it was very exciting, because you could send a message to a newsgroup, and other people *on the other side of the world* could see it in a matter of moments, and then reply to you. Seriously - it was a very big deal.
Time moves on of course, and all things come to an end, but in common with Danny over at SearchEngineLand I think that Yahoo! closed it in a particularly brusque and cruel way. Sure, it was just a bunch of 1's and 0's, but it's an early part of all of history, and deserved a little - no, a LOT more respect than Yahoo! has given it.
Thanks AltaVista - you did good.