Search Engines: The Altavista Relaunch, Personalised Search Engines
I don't know how many of you were aware that AltaVista was going to relaunch, so it may have come as something of a surprise if you visited after October 25th only to find the general appearance had changed. It was even a surprise for those of us who use it regularly! The re-launch has led to lots of confusion, many unhappy people and lots of comments, so before continuing with the rest of the column this month I'll do my best to set the record straight about what is happening with the engine.
I think that it's a move that AltaVista had to make - their interface was looking increasingly out of date and old fashioned, and they were (and still are) facing a lot of competition from the likes of Yahoo!  with it's portal services, Northern Light  and FAST , both of which have boasted indexes larger than that provided by AltaVista. As well as making changes to the engine, we're going to be faced with an advertising campaign over the next year, costing them a reported $120 million. I suppose it will at least make a change from the adverts I've seen on television for Lycos, which to my mind are rather less effective and rather more annoying than their advertising company thought.
However, while it was a good idea to re-launch, I've seen very little other than criticism for the new system. It's certainly a much busier page than it used to be; I had to hunt for ages in order to find the 'Add URL' link for example. Though I think it's a valid criticism, it doesn't particularly bother me, since I just look for the search box and ignore the rest! However, if you're introducing new users to it, they may find it rather more daunting now than they did previously.
The next criticism that has been levelled at the service is much more serious - people are apparently finding many less references to their pages or sites than they found with the old version. Of course, the first thing that I did was to do a search for me, and I was astonished to find one reference to my site instead of the 70 or 80 that I used to get when doing a host:philb.com search. However, the reason for this quickly becomes clear - AltaVista is now 'clustering' similar pages or sites together. A link under the returned reference offers 'more pages from this site', which if you click on that will return all the pages that the engine is aware of from that particular site. When I tried this I was given a listing of the 70 or so pages that I was used to seeing. This approach has both advantages and disadvantages. It can make it much more difficult to find the exact page that you want, and it has certainly upset web authors who previously spent much time ensuring that all of their pages got a high rating. However, the advantage is that it is now possible to see an increased number of pages, with less clutter, and users don't need to wade through 10 or 20 returned hits in order to see references from more than one site. However, the 'more pages from this site' link isn't as clear as it could perhaps have been, and I suspect that a lot of users are simply going to miss this small, but crucial link.
Another criticism levelled at the service relates to the number of pages which are indexed. AltaVista say that they now index 250,000,000 pages, which would once again put them right at the top of the tree, but at the same time I've never seen so many web authors complaining that their site(s) has disappeared. The newsgroup alt.internet.search-engines has been full of such complaints. Some sites certainly have disappeared, and this has been blamed on the company using an older version of its index. However, they have promised to update the index and are processing requests for sites to be spidered. Being charitable, I think it can be put down to a glitch in the system, but it has caused some embarrassment, which has overshadowed the re-launch. My experience has been that a lot more pages are now available - another of my standard searches is (deliberately poorly constructed, so please don't send me mail about it!) 'car cars automobile jaguar'. Pre re-launch I'd commonly get about 2,000,000 hits, while post re-launch this has gone up to over 14,000,000 hits.
Other points briefly worth mentioning are that AltaVista has beefed up its category approach; they've obviously decided that Yahoo! knows a thing or two, and are doing their best to match them. 'News' (under the search box) gives you the latest news headlines, but once again, this seems to be a poor imitation of what Yahoo! does; if I want new headlines I would still go there rather than to AltaVista (though if I'm to be honest, I'd probably use the BBC or Capital Radio websites for that information). The 'My AltaVista' has now changed into AltaVista Live! but still looks pretty much the same as it always did. 'Discussions' provides a better way of searching newsgroups (though I'll still use Deja.com for that), but the 'Images, Audio & Video' tab does lead you into a first rate way of finding information in other than a text only format. There is still an Advanced Search function, though it still seems pretty meaningless to me; other than searching by date it doesn't offer any more than some of the advanced search features you can use on the normal search page.
Overall I'd say that I think AltaVista has improved and is still a good engine to use, but the manner of that improvement may well cost them dear; I've not read of anyone using it because of the upgrade, but I've heard of lots who have gone elsewhere. If you're interested in following up on the changes, you might be interested in the following news stories: "AltaVista loses search results" by Jim Hu, staff writer, CNET News.com and "AltaVista De-Indexes Web Search" by Chris Oakes .
Personalised search engines
Unusually for me, I'd actually written my piece for Ariadne well in advance for once, and had decided to write about the ability to personalise search engines. However, the Altavista story knocked that off the top spot, but rather than consign the article to the cyber waste paper basket thought I'd still include it. So this month you get two items for the price of one!
In order to be successful, search engines need to be a lot of different things to a lot of different people. They have to be comprehensive, current, and provide searchers with the right results to their queries. However, this is simply the start; they need to draw people back to them time and time again in order to promote the services and products that bring in revenue for them. In Internet jargon, they need to become 'sticky sites' which people will keep returning to - ideally as their home page of choice.
Simply being a good search engine (and by 'good' I mean finding relevant material quickly) is no longer enough - they need to provide added value and services to increase their attractiveness to the people who use them. Consequently, over the last couple of years we've seen search engines trying to outdo each other by providing more and more facilities (and unfortunately it has to be said, sometimes at the expense of ensuring better interfaces and increased search techniques). One area in which the major players are battling head to head is over the personalisation of the engines, by allowing their users to create a custom built web page that covers the subject areas that they are interested in.
It is this personalisation that I'd like to spend some time exploring in this article. I've looked at a number of search engines; Lycos , AltaVista , Excite  and Yahoo!  and concentrated on the options that they have available, how easy they are to use, any special personalisation techniques and the extent to which they have become (for me at least), 'sticky'.
When I started looking at these sites my original idea was to look at each of the search engines previously mentioned and to compare and contrast their offerings. However, it quickly became apparent that this was not going to be possible, for one simple reason - they are almost all exactly the same! If I ignored identifying features such as names and logos it was almost impossible to tell them apart. Consequently I'll look at all the features available, and point out when one search engine differs from the others, before drawing my conclusions.
Let's first start with the names of the personalised services - My Lycos, My AltaVista (I don't know if someone at AltaVista got hold of my article before I published it, because they have since renamed the service to AltaVista Live, overcoming some of my later criticisms!), My Excite and My Yahoo! My point is immediately proved; surely one of them could have come up with something a little more original? Each service requires that you register, which is no surprise at all, and they want to know the details that you would expect; name, age, address, location, user name/password and areas of interest. Yahoo! was the only one of the four which didn't assume users are going to be American, since it provided a 'Non-US' registration form (though it still expected some sort of Zip code and didn't like it when I couldn't provide something in the format it was expecting). Various enticements were offered to me to keep me informed about happenings on the Internet, various deals and so on. Since I get enough unwanted email I very carefully unticked all the appropriate boxes, and I would suggest that you do the same.
I was then taken to 'My (insert search engine of choice) Home Page' and was able to start configuring the system to provide me with news and current events of interest. The subject coverage was almost identical in every case; I could chose to have up to 10 headlines in areas such as American News, World News, Business Information, Sports, Health, Science, Technology, Entertainment, Local Interest (by which they all mean American local interest), Weather, Stocks and Shares and… well, you get the picture, I'm sure! It was possible to further identify subject areas within some of the categories. In the 'News' section of My AltaVista I was able to specify National, International, Financial, Entertainment, Technology, Sports, Health, Science, Opinion and Politics for example.
It will also come as little surprise that the bias was heavily towards the United States, although My Yahoo! did allow me to choose up to 13 different categories of UK news in their section 'News from Europe'. Interestingly, My Yahoo! also allowed me to chose up to 200 UK locations for the weather, compared to 6 UK cities in My Lycos, none in My AltaVista and 26 UK locations with My Excite. It was however disappointing that some features, such as Sports scores, Television listings, Lottery numbers and so on were all limited to the United States.
The information sources used for new and breaking stories was however a little more cosmopolitan in nature. They all seemed to draw quite heavily on Reuters as a major source, although My Yahoo! did appear to have something of an edge here, with a much wider coverage - it was possible to choose such sources as The Scotsman, the Independent and the Daily record for example.
The actual process of choosing subjects was again identical, with an 'Edit' box for each section. Simply by clicking on this I was then taken to another page where I could configure the system to include or exclude various fields or types of information, and once happy with my choice I could submit this and then return to my newly created page. Further personalisation was also possible by choosing additional subject areas; with My Yahoo! I found an extra 62 categories hidden away, with such things as ski reports, maps and vitamins and herbs that I could add to the page; it's worthwhile really checking out what is available, since many of these options are rather hidden away. Quite what I'd do with information on vitamins and herbs I'm not entirely sure however, but I'm certain that many people out there are desperate for such information.
All the services allowed me to chose how to present information on the screen, where to place the different news sections, and what colours to use. In case you're wondering, I chose the colour option 'Wet Sand' with My Lycos, and had a picture of Tower Bridge adorning my 'My Excite' page.
Once you've spent time customising the page itself you can then go onto explore other features of the systems. I now have so many email addresses I don't know what to do with them, and I am sure I could wallpaper my walls with the variations of 'My Calendar' that I have got. Chat rooms, bulletin boards, free webspace for home pages, member directories and horoscopes were all beckoning to me. (As an aside, it was interesting to read the horoscopes - they did a splendid job of contradicting each other!). It's obvious to see why the search engine producers are providing all these free utilities and extra data, since wherever I went, subtle adverts were being pushed at me from various parts of the screen. Since the services offered were all free it seems churlish to complain about it, and after a while my eyes just glazed over them, which obviously wasn't the intention!
However, after a while, all the clicking and changing colours and positions of material on the screen begins to pall, and you start looking at the content of the headlines that you are being provided with. And surely this is the whole point of the exercise as far as the end users are concerned; is all this choosing and clicking resulting in the useful provision of information? At this point I'm going to have to sit slightly on the fence. It has to be said that yes, I did find some useful and interesting material in subject areas that I concentrate on. I was quickly able to see lead stories regarding the Internet for example that I would have found difficult to have obtained easily from elsewhere. However, when it came to World or European news stories I was kept up to date much better by the two minute news bulletins that Capital Radio puts out every half an hour. The trouble is you see, that you can only really customise these services so far. If someone wants to know what is happening in the world of Business and Finance they're going to have many other information resources available, or if they want stocks and shares information they'll have access to real time quotes, rather than the 20 minute delayed versions available with the 'My XYZ' services. At best they are a blunt tool for information gathering, although to be fair they could be valuable in keeping you up to date in subject areas that you have a passing, rather than crucial interest in.
There were certainly some features that I could find useful in the future; My Lycos allowed me to choose up to 20 categories on new book releases, together with brief reviews, and the same service used a 'Personal Notifier' which ensured that news and stocks information could be emailed directly to me. The Daily Briefings provided by Real Networks via 'My Yahoo!' could also prove to be valuable, and I was quite interested in the News Tracker Clipping Service courtesy of 'My Excite'.
Finally, the question needs to be asked and answered 'Would I use any of these on a daily basis?' I can say with no doubt at all that I wouldn't use all of them, unless I was a real news junkie; if you're the type of person who reads four newspapers before breakfast that comprehensive coverage might appeal, but since I'm not that sort of person it doesn't appeal in the slightest. Unfortunately for the search engine providers I have to go on to say that I don't think I'd use any of them myself on a regular basis. They may come in useful if I had a sudden need of current information in an area that I don't know particularly well, but in the main I can keep up to date quite nicely by newsgroups and specifically mailing lists. None of the 'My XYZ's provided me with really precise and closely tailored information, and although they might give me some pointers they could do no more than that for me.
Having said that, and in attempt to redress the balance slightly, I don't think the services are particularly aimed at information professionals. Given the scope of the subject headings, and the emphasis on sports and other leisure/entertainment offerings they seem to be trying to attract the casual Internet user who wants a 'one stop shop' which they can use as an default home page to keep roughly up to date with what is happening, to check the weather and to read their horoscope. If you have clients or users who fit that image it would certainly be worth pointing them towards any of these personalised services, and I think they could get quite a lot out of them. As for me? I'll stick to my mailing lists, focused searches using the traditional search engines, intelligent agents and last but not least, the two minute news reports from Capital Radio.
1. Altavista http://www.altavista.com
2Yahoo! http://www .yahoo.com
3Northern Light h ttp://www.nlight.com
4FAST http://w ww.alltheweb.com
5 AltaVista loses search results http://news.cnet.com/news/0-1005-200-1426414.html
6 AltaVista De-Indexes Web Search http://www.wired.com/news/verity_index/story/0,1419,32246,00.h tml
8Altavista htt p://www.altavista.com
9Excite http://ww w.excite.com
10Yahoo! http://my .yahoo.com
5 Walton Gardens, Feltham, Middlesex TW13 4QY