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Google's Weakness, AltaVista's Strength 326

Posted by timothy
from the not-all-contrarianism dept.
Cory Doctorow has a article on oreillynet called "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Panopticon," which begins "How much ass does Google kick? All of it." (We linked to it a few days ago.) Reader Richard Seltzer writes with a reaction to Doctorow's article, below. Your results may vary, but this kind of skepticism can only make the competing search engines better.

Some people love the results they get at Google, others are often disappointed. To a large extent, both the pluses and the minuses derive from Google's ranking system, which (as the folks at Google explain www.google.com/technology) depends largely on the number links to a particular page and the relevance of the content on those linking pages to the content on the target page, and the quality of the pages doing the linking.

Thanks to that complex and brilliant system, over time, the best pages often rise to the top of search lists. But that takes time -- a lot of time.

It works great for old, established sites to which many other old, established sites have linked. (It works great for my site :-) www.samizdat.com ). But new sites, regardless of the quality of their content, get short shrift. It takes 2-3 months for the new pages to get into the Google index. Then it takes time -- perhaps years -- for other "important" sites to discover the new site and link to it; and then months more for the new versions of those pages with those new links to get into the Google index.

So if I'm looking for content that is likely to have been on the Internet for a year or more, Google is great. But if I'm looking for fresh content, I'll go elsewhere.

For me, for years "elsewhere" meant AltaVista -- for two reasons. AltaVista used to add new pages to its index, for free, within two days of submission, while other search engines typically took weeks or even months. That meant they had the freshest content. In addition, AltaVista provided you with a set of very precise commands that couldn't be matched anywhere else.

Over the last year, as AltaVista has struggled to become profitable, they have destroyed their beautiful free submission process, trying to force Web sites to pay for submission. Free submissions (which typically come from the kinds of content-rich sites that I'm interested in) now seem to take three months or more -- no better than the other search engines and often worse.

Fortunately, the powerful commands remain -- for instance, the ability to exclude as well as include terms in your query. AltaVista lets you use minus signs and plus signs to indicate what you really don't want and what you do want. And for some specialized searches the exclusion is essential.

For instance, say you want to know what Web pages outside of your own site have links to your pages. At Google, I can do a search for link:samizdat.com or get the same results by going to their "Advanced" search and using their "page specific search" to find pages that link to a particular page. But my results are then littered with pages from my own site -- information I don't need and don't want. At AltaVista, I can search for +link:samizdat.com -host:samizdat.com and get exactly what I want -- finding out who thinks enough of my pages to have linked to me without my having contacted them: a valuable list of well-wishers and potential partners.

Similarly, Google lets me restrict a search to a particular Web site. For instance, if I include in my query the term site:samizdat.com or in Advanced search under Domains I choose to restrict the search to that domain, Yes, I get results only from that site. But to use that command, I need to have additional query terms: site:samizdat.com alone generates no results.

At AltaVista, however, I can search for host:samizdat.com and get a complete list of all the pages at my site that are in the AltaVista index. Or I can search for url:samizdat.com/isyn and get a list of all the pages in that directory at my site are in the AltaVista index. Or I can search for url:samizdat.com/consult.html to see if that particular page is in the index.

In other words, AltaVista provides a higher level of precision and the ability to get information that is particularly valuable to people in charge of Web sites and Web-based marketing projects. And if they'd just fix their free submission process and provide the service they used to, they'd kick Google's ass for searches for current information.

P.S. -- The folks at Google are very proud that their system defies human tampering. In fact, what they've done is encouraged the development of bizarre business models structured to take advantage of their link-based ranking system. For instance, Webseed Publishing now has over 1000 sites, all with different domain names. These content-rich sites are each run by different dedicated individuals. (I'm one of them :-) In many cases, the content deserves high rankings for its quality. You might wonder why the umbrella business for all these sites bothers to maintain over a thousand different domain names, when it would be far simpler and cheaper to have them as directories under a single domain. But because the domains are different, the many thousands of links these sites have to one another all count toward the automated calculation of their popularity and quality at Google, giving them all a boost in the rankings and hence bringing Webseed more traffic and hence more revenue.

P.P.S. -- AltaVista appears to be making a comeback. Six years ago, when I was in the Internet Business Group at Digital and Digital owned AltaVista, about a third of the traffic to my Web site came by way of AltaVista. Whenever AltaVista had a glitch, I saw it immediately in my traffic stats. In fact, I sometimes was able to alert the engineers at AltaVista about problems before they had noticed them themselves. Over the years, due to increased competition from other search engines and also due to the business folks at AltaVista making bad decisions and jettisoning great capabilities/services (like 2-day free submissions, their affiliate program, LiveTopics, and newsgroup search), the number of people finding my pages by way of AltaVista plummeted. By January 2002, only 1% of my traffic was coming by way of AltaVista, despite the fact that as a long-standing fan and also as co-author of the book The AltaVista Search Revolution, I had lots of information about AltaVista at my site. I was actually getting twice as much traffic from the International Atomic Energy Agency (part of the UN), when I had no information at all related to atomic energy. But in recent weeks the traffic from AltaVista has climbed sharply. It now amounts to 6% of my total. I wish I knew why that was happening. In any case, I hope that trend continues.

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Google's Weakness, AltaVista's Strength

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