How Google overtook AltaVista

Before Google rose to dominance, AltaVista was king of search.

Google's PageRank algorithm is usually credited as enabling Google to steal the crown from AltaVista, but it's not quite as simple as that.

AltaVista ranked web pages for relevance based on the content of the page – and did a reasonable job of it – but AltaVista did not analyse the structure of the web itself.

Google looked at the incoming and outgoing links for each page, and deduced a page rank from that data, on the assumption that people were more likely to link to a worthwhile page than to a useless one.

That simplistic assumption was true in those days. Link farms and other forms of link spam did not yet exist. Sure, there was plenty of keyword stuffing (particularly in the webpage meta-tags which AltaVista paid some attention to), but Google's PageRank did the trick and sorted out the quality pages from the chaff.

The real brilliance though was a marketing coup – the “I'm Feeling Lucky” button. Google was the only search engine with good enough results that you could get directly to, say, the Hewlett Packard home page by entering hewlett packard into a search box and clicking a button. Nowadays, the “I'm Feeling Lucky” button doesn't seem to work quite as well as it used to – probably due to spam – but there are still people who use it regularly.

Even so, I don't think that PageRank and “I'm Feeling Lucky” alone would have been enough for Google to take over, but Google made two other important innovations.

The first is so simple that it now seems obvious, yet other search engines had not done it. I'm talking about making search terms combine with “AND” by default. In other words, if you enter purple robin into the search box you will only see pages that include the word robin AND the word purple.

In contrast, earlier search engines usually combined search terms with “OR” by default (although they generally provided an “AND” operator for advanced queries).

Google's default choice of “AND” produced shorter and more relevant results, and also allowed a search to be easily refined by simply adding more search terms, making it easy to “home in” on the desired page. There was also no more need for a “search within results” option, although Google still provides this – I suppose for sentimental reasons.

Finally, Google advanced the state-of-the-art by providing decent snippets. AltaVista snippets consisted of the first few sentences of the web page, but this often included navigation words and menu choices. Google showed a relevant extract with the search terms highlighted, which made it much easier to see which results were worth clicking on.

In my opinion, those factors are what enabled Google to rise to dominance. Of course, there were also some things that AltaVista did better. I will make them the subject of a later post – but suffice to say that they weren't enough!

Comments are closed.