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The Internet

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

Comments Filter:
  • by decipher_saint (72686) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @03:44PM (#3158928) Homepage
    What I don't find on one, I look for on the other, if I can't find what I want on either I change my critera. And so on until I either find what I want, something close to what I want or fall asleep trying.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @03:45PM (#3158936)
    Whenever Google results have been disappointing, I hop over to AltaVista and search there.

    For me, Google doesn't have to be the perfect search engine - it's already enough. I type in google.com and it loads damn near instantly. There's no annoying advertisements, and I can search in h4x0r or Sveedish Chef, bork bork bork.

    If I can't find what I want on Google, fine, I'll use another engine. And what's wrong with that? We honestly can't have too many search engines (Well, business problems aside), because each one ends up with different ranking systems, different data pulled up from queries, etc.
  • So waitaminute ... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by SirSlud (67381) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @03:45PM (#3158938) Homepage
    .. are you suggesting that different goals require different tools, possibly made by different companies? Don't let the OS market know this, or we will kill the thriving flamebait OS war scene. :(

    Actually, there is lots of good information you provide on the capabilities of search engines. I, for one, would love to see more "A is good for this, B is good for this", instead of simply grouping and competing A & B, suggesting that one can only use one.

    IMHO, this is where (free) web services really rule - I can't buy 5 different cars for 5 different reasons I use cars, but in the case of these types of services, the cost of using and switching between these services is very next-to-nil. Hopefully, web services will start encouraging companies to share again, as Google and Altavista may very well demonstrate that sharing market segments with other players makes everyone happier in the long run.
  • by Steveftoth (78419) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @03:47PM (#3158960) Homepage
    I like google better because the name is better and the pages it gives to me are very clean looking. All the other search engines seem too complex to me.
  • by baptiste (256004) <<su.etsitpab> <ta> <ekim>> on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @03:48PM (#3158961) Homepage Journal
    Seems a bit extreme to me. My sites have shown up in Google fairly quickly AND I've found the Google tends to index the most - grabbing new stuff faster than the others.

    Now it took months to get into DMOZ, but we did. Yahoo - still hasn't accepted us into our proepr catagory even after 2 or 3 tries over a year and a half.

    I think Google could benefit by adding some more advanced filtering command slike Altavista has - I agree they are nice. But the bottom line is, for obscure sites, once you get in Google, look out. Months later we finally got into the other mainstream search indexes (we submitted to them all at the same time) and in teh end Google is THE place for referrals. By orders of magnitude. YMMV, but it seems the other search indexes blew it when tehy killed free submits since folks knwo that they will only return paid sites (plus rank skewring, for $$$, etc)

    Only time will tell, but I use Google daily and am happy with the results and performance - no other search engine comes close IMHO

  • by kb3edk (463011) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @03:49PM (#3158975)
    Altavista used to be my search engine of choice, but I gradually abandoned it around 3-4 years ago - shortly after it was spun off from DEC I noticed a general decline in quality.

    The one thing I've noticed about these "flaws" in Google "exposed" on ./ today is that they are being done in an organized fashion by intelligent (and somewhat witty) people. I agree that there is significant potential for Google-bombing to be exploited for commercial gain in the coming years. But I don't think it can nearly as bad as some of the awful stuff that's done with meta tags. I'm sticking with Google (for now) because it is still lightning fast and doesn't put a bunch of crap up on my screen.
  • Faster and Faster (Score:5, Insightful)

    by erasmus_ (119185) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @03:50PM (#3158989)
    Perhaps AltaVista is indeed better (or used to be, as the author points out) at indexing new content, but I'd never know, as I have been using Google exclusively almost since its public debut. However, I think that this point will become less and less important.

    Yes, it's true that Google's algorithm prevents new content from being ranked high, because no one has linked to it yet necessarily, but that's by design - it is indeed at that point unproven in terms of quality. However, the spidering process can use improvement so that when many many people link to this new site just a few days later, it now ranks higher.

    Google specifically mentions (in previous interviews I read with employees) that they're always working on updating the speed, as well as the precision. The longterm goal is to significantly decrease the amount of time it takes to respider everything, and therefore make the info more relevant faster. I trust that they will continue to improve, and eventually this differentiation between "Altavista is better for new stuff, Google for old" will go away completely.
  • by cicadia (231571) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @03:55PM (#3159029)
    Maybe it's time to switch back :)

    Check out www.raging.com [raging.com]. Altavista search; nothing but text.

  • by ACK!! (10229) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @03:56PM (#3159036) Journal
    Sure I go to AltaVista and others after hitting a brick wall with Google but that is very rare for me. Perhaps the issue is when I do searches I am looking for info on technical issues usually revolving around compiling this or that GNU package or Service.

    No tool is the best tool for every purpose and perhaps many people should give other search engines a try and see the strengths.

    However, I don't really see that point of an article that is simply a Hoorah for one service over another with differing models of profit and aims.

    The author had simply pointed out that AltaVista as opposed to other search engines has advanced searching abilities including the ability to exclude terms. No, it has to be an AltaVista over Google article.

    Different tools for different times and different uses.

    ________________________________________________ __
  • by Brecker (66870) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @04:01PM (#3159080)
    Google has exclusions, site and link queries too.

    See http://www.google.com/help/refinesearch.html
  • by commonchaos (309500) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @04:02PM (#3159087) Homepage Journal
    I for one have not used Altavista since google came out. I do lots of research, on many differen't topics (I used to do debate). And I have never had any reason to go back to Altavista, Indeed this article has encouraged me to try out Altavista again, but I would have liked the author to show exactly in what respects Altavista is better than Google.
  • by billybob (18401) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @04:04PM (#3159098)
    I've used google exclusively for the past 2 years. Never, not once, have I had to go to another search engine. 99% of the time, what I search for with google, I will find what I am looking for within the first page (10 results), very very often in the first 2 or 3 results.

    I have no need for altavista. I don't care if yo use altavista. Google works just fine for me. If altavista works just fine for you, so be it. Use it. No one cares.

    All this speculation on the future of google recently is ludicrous. "google bombing" poses no threat. The people who work there are extremely talented. If it becomes a problem, they will undoubtedly fix it.

    Google is the most popular search engine in the world, and with good reason. They are not going to give that up.

    So will everyone please just sit down, shut up, and stop bickering. Use whatever tool works best for you.
  • by gst (76126) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @04:04PM (#3159099) Homepage
    wrong.... yes... google doesn rate your page upon the pages which link to your page.

    but the higher the pages which link to your page are rated, the higher your page is rated.

    this means if you just link from geocities pages which are "bad" rated themself (cause there is no content), links to your page doesn't give you any advantage.
  • by billybob (18401) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @04:08PM (#3159135)
    Because the name is better, and because it's clean? But no mention of it returning the most relevant results.

    Are you telling me that if google switched names and interfaces with a terrible search engine (like, say, excite or lycos), you would start using that?

    You, sir, are stupid.
  • by gnugnugnu (178215) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @04:24PM (#3159245) Homepage
    The mailto link "Richard Seltzer" is woefully malformed.
    "mailto:seltzer@samizdat.com or http://www.samizdat"

    Please fix it.

    When it is fixed, please dont fuck up my karma by marking this as redundant.

    I would consider subscibing if it would gaurantee proper links and spellchecking.
  • Learn your tools (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Snowfox (34467) <snowfox&snowfox,net> on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @04:34PM (#3159316) Homepage
    Google is similar to a UNIX command-line tool. It's a well-defined and simple interface, and enough information is provided for you to use it effectively if you just do a little reading.

    Read the excellent information Google has provided about how the engine works, and use the engine with its inner-workings in mind. When you meet the machine half-way instead of trying to dumb it down for the user, you'll get a hell of a lot more done.

    In Google's case, taking half a minute to think about what you're looking for, then tossing in a few related bits of jargon or other words relevant to the context you're after does amazing things. With a little forethought, you can almost always find what you're after and be down to a page with nothing but relevant links with just an extra word or two added as filters.

  • by Neuracnu Coyote (11764) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @05:04PM (#3159490) Homepage Journal
    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.

    How do you explain this [google.com], then? It's a standard Google search for the terms 'Andrea', 'Yates' and 'verdict'. The top link is hardly a year old, but rather an extremely recent and relevant link [cnn.com] to CNN's site about the trail verdict.
  • by roseanne (541833) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @05:22PM (#3159588)
    Sounds good! Why don't you enter the Google programming contest? This idea would be interesting to implement, even if in testbed conditions. Incidentally, Teoma (or Vivisimo -- forget which) already offers something like this, though not on the scale you outline (they have "topic clusters").
  • by rickliner (263200) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @07:48PM (#3160378) Homepage
    Indeed. Would that include spell-checking of random comments from users who type "guarantee" and "dont"?
  • by child_of_mercy (168861) <johnboy@@@the-riotact...com> on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @09:52PM (#3160733) Homepage
    the first time I saw googlebots in my access logs i nearly fell over, we hadn't asked anyone to index our site.

    but I have to admite to being very impressed, every month the googlebots come to visit, they don't disrupt the site (the National Library of Australia hit us with a denial of service attack called "Pandora" when they tried to suck down the enitre site in one go, complete with recursing loops), and they rank us very highly (perhaps too highly, there are more authoritative sites in our region, we do more comment).

    anyway I suspect the author forgot that most users of search engines aren't website owners hoping to be indexed, but people doing searches.

    Sites that have been regularly updated for a couple of years tend to be a better source of information than those slapped up yesterday.

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