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Google's Weakness, AltaVista's Strength 326

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:
  • Wow (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @04:39PM (#3158900)
    I'm amazed, an entire article astroturfing AltaVista. Sadly, the author is a bit short-sighted, and doesn't realize how quickly stuff appears in Google's cache (often within weeks, less than a month), or that even if something accidentally ranked lower because of the number of links a given page receives, it still ends up in the first page or two anyway. *Sigh*
  • by jptwo ( 551230 ) <m2eme@yahoo . c om> on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @04:44PM (#3158926)
    long after banner ads had come to altavista, you could avoid them easily by using its text-only mode.
    powerful commands and no ads... what a concept!

    i only switched to google after altavista finally got rid of their text-only page.
  • why google is flawed (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Dr Kool, PhD ( 173800 ) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @04:46PM (#3158951) Homepage Journal
    Google returns search results based on the "rating" of a site. The rating is mostly based upon how many other sites in Google's database link to that site. While this scheme is more tamper-proof than the "greatest word match" that some search engines use, it isn't invincible.

    It's quite easy to get your site rated high: Create a hundred free web sites on geocities and post a page full of nothing but links to the site you want to pump up. You'll get rated "10/10" in no time.
  • by edrugtrader ( 442064 ) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @04:50PM (#3158981) Homepage
    i wish more sites would develop tool bars similar to google... it is extremely convienient.

    on all my windows boxes it is one of the first things i install.

    google is probably the best search tool right now, and they make using it a breeze. altavista used to be the best search tool, but they made it harder and harder to use, and then search tool lost its top spot. totally different situation. if google looses its top spot in the search tool field, i'll still use it for its ease of use.
  • I love AltaVista (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @04:51PM (#3158992)
    Boolean mumbo-jumbo? That's the best PART of AltaVista. Google limits querys to 10 words? That stinks! Google is great for simple querys about common subjects. AltaVista's boolean query is great for finding that site whose link you can't remember but you remember some of the words that were close together. AltaVista's boolean query is great for finding information on little-known subjects that you can pretty well guess what keywords will be near each other. I used to use AltaVista's boolean query exclusively. Now, I find it's best to try both AltaVista and Google. Each find content the other won't.
  • by KenSentMe ( 528496 ) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @04:52PM (#3159004)
    I dunno, this may be off topic, but according to this link [bowmansbrigade.com], Google does not accept any ads for companies that have websites or products in any way affilliated with firearms or knives.
    This comes as a dissappointment for someone who regularly visits Geeks With Guns [geekswithguns.com].
    Say it ain't so...
  • by AdamBa ( 64128 ) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @04:53PM (#3159015) Homepage
    It is amazing how much lameness people put up with from search engines right now. It's one of those things where people will look back in ten years and be amazed. Think of all the fiddling around you do with search terms to try to find what you want...gak! Search engines need to figure out what a page is actually about -- only then will they be reasonable.

    Of course you can find things with search engines now. Google's "trick" of counting links helps a little bit for a particular class of query, which is when you know the name of an organization and you want to find its site...it works well because more people will link to the site as opposed to other sites that discuss it. But as I have written elsewhere, if AltaVista is 99% lame, then maybe Google is only 97% lame...which is three times better, but still terrible if you take a step back.

    Now Google is doing a lot of good things outside from its basic search engine, which should be applauded. The caches, saving old Usenet posts, the image and catalog searches, etc. are all good things -- but they don't affect its basic ability to search well.

    Further karma ho' expounding can be found right here [osopinion.com].

    - adam

  • by geordie ( 258181 ) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @05:02PM (#3159081) Homepage
    5 years ago Altavista was my search engine of choice. Both for my own searches and as the number 1 engine for getting my clients websites ranked in.

    Back then you could submit to Altavista, and have a good ranking within a week.
    Over time, the relevance of the returned results dropped dramatically and the time to get a site listed plummetted, quite often taking longer than Yahoo!

    Then Google came along and I haven't looked back since. I've consistently been able to find the results I'm after thanks to the way Google indexes sites.
    I'm now able to almost guarantee clients that their sites, whether old sites that are being revamped or new sites that are freshly hatched, will be ranked well within Google and also ranked within a short period of time. I think the longest I've ever had to wait for a site to be fully indexed is three months.

    Plus the indexing of database generated pages and PDF documents by Google is a life saver. Without this feature a lot of the content I develop would be lost.

    I think it will take a miracle to get Altavista back on track. I wish it was as great as it once was, but for now it's relegated to one of the less important engines both from a searching and a submitting point of view.
  • by tiltowait ( 306189 ) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @05:02PM (#3159082) Homepage Journal
    ... because it is so good.

    I'm a librarian. It is the most difficult time in history to do library research. There are hundreds of overlapping commercial databases out there, each with their own coverage, interface, and search engines.

    Students used to locating information with Google are appalled at the steps it takes to locate a scholarly journal. You need to browse a list of subject databases, search them, then locate a printed copy of the journal via our catalog (a growing but still small percent of journals are available online).

    Someday searching the various literary databases may be as easy as Google, but in the meantime there are drastic capitalist impediments to making it easy to do library research.

    ... so ask a Librarian if you ever need help ...
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @05:07PM (#3159131)
    Sitting right here [google.com] is how to get links that refer to your page. If you bothered to read, it clearly states that site: is a modifier, ie. needs more input to work. Once again, a pointless argument because someone couldn't do a little research. It took me all of five seconds to get this info.
  • by j-turkey ( 187775 ) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @05:08PM (#3159134) Homepage
    I don't mean to be a reactionary or anyhting, and I could be totally misreading this...but the author describes Webseed Publishing's business as very much the same kind of "Google Bombing" discussed earlier today.

    The way I'm interpreting that is abuse of Google's ranking system. Its an inherently dishonest business practice and I'm led to the conclusion that (Webseed Publishing && affiliates)==dicks.
  • by SkyLeach ( 188871 ) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @05:13PM (#3159170) Homepage
    I would like to see a program and specification that dictates a formal data format for information in a mathematical schema. This could be the foundation for a universal translator and certainly a decent means of doing a search engine.

    The idea is pretty simplistic, although the implementation is complex.

    Any communication takes place by translating an idea into a sensory input form.

    Examples: Sight (written language, video, sign-language), Touch (brail, texture), Sound (conversation, music), Taste (Like water for chocolate?), Smell (pheromones?).

    Obviously, not all of these mediums are easy to work with, but we can certainly start with written language.

    All languages use the same basic principle: convey relevant information about a central subject. How they go about doing it is different even between versions of the same language (British English vs. American English).

    If we described an objective hierarchy of physical objects described by pure mathematics and implanted them into a central, world-wide database then open-source parsers for each language could handle the task of translating any written text, in any supported language, into this common language. If correctly implemented a search engine could enter into a short dialogue with a person performing a search and then return information very specifically relevant to what the user was searching for.

    Example dialogue:
    [user]I want information on Mary Jane Carpenter.
    [google]There is a very famous person by that name. Her official website is [here]. [Here] is a list of fansites and [here] are some other sites which discuss her. That name is mentioned in [these] sites, but it is unclear if they are talking about the same person. [Here] is a list of other people with that name.
    [user]The person I am looking for isn't famous.
    [google]Then you are probably looking for one of [these] people.
    [user] Are any of those people from St. Lewis?
    [google] [Here] is a sight dedicated to a Mary Jane Carpenter from St. Lewis.

    This may sound like an impossible streatch but it really isn't. The famous Mary Jane Carpenter has a unique id on her object and many thousands of attributes which uniquely identify it from any other Mary Jane Carpenters. Ambiguity is dictated by the same rules that govern conversation: context.

    If I have a page that contains no content other than Mary Jane Carpenter sucks! then a simple fuzzy logic routine should be able to infer that the Mary Jane Carpenter I am talking about is probably the famous one. Other clues could be gained from other parts of my site or other documents which have me as a source.

    I realize that I am talking about a HUGE database, but it sure would be handy...
  • by afidel ( 530433 ) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @05:13PM (#3159171)
    And that is that I sometimes NEED to use the near keyword in altavista to get a complex search to work correctly. If google added the near keyword I would get rid of my quicklink bar entry for altavista's advanced search.

    the advanced search page is all text, not even a banner ad so it's almost faster than google to load.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @05:15PM (#3159183)
    A lot of people ignore the single biggest innovation for quality results that Google did: default 'and' states for keywords. I worked at AltaVista for a year and tried to convince people that it was the way to go but no one would listen. When combined with their ranking technology [which is impressive but not infallible] it yields the best results.

    fun fact: I also tried to get a proposal started for AltaVista to acquire Google in the summer of '99. Aren't you glad I failed?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @05:21PM (#3159225)
    By licensing their search engine tech. to other companies.
  • by douglips ( 513461 ) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @05:35PM (#3159324) Homepage Journal
    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.

    According to http://www.leekillough.com/robots.html [leekillough.com] - iaea.org is commonly used as a fake referrer by spam harvesters.

    [iaea.org is a] fake referrer that's often used -- [deny requests with that referrer] unless your pages are related

    in some way to atomic energy and could really be linked to from www.iaea.org
  • Re:MSN is better (Score:2, Interesting)

    by RatOmeter ( 468015 ) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @05:36PM (#3159335)
    Well, let's see...

    Ahh, you mean slashdot.jp?

    Which happens to be registered to VA Linux Systems Japan, whereas slashdot.org is registered to OSDN, who happens to own VA Linux Systems Japan?

    You mean that link? You mean Slashdot Japan?

    How ridiculous is that?

  • by JhAgA ( 24929 ) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @05:40PM (#3159367)
    As it was over-explained, Google ranks pages according to how many links elsewhere points to that page.

    Remember this post from Slashdot [slashdot.org] ? It is about Macromedia wanting Flash to be used to design the entirety of a site.

    So, I don't suppose Google can fetch the URLS inside a Flash file (correct me If I'm wrong), so, if Macromedia's dream become true, how would Google cope with it?

    BTW, how any search engine would deal with such a catastrophe? :D

  • Re:MSN is better (Score:2, Interesting)

    by wheany ( 460585 ) <wheany+sd@iki.fi> on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @05:42PM (#3159372) Homepage Journal
    Crack-smoking moderators note: The third link, a.k.a "some japanese site" is slashdot.jp [slashdot.jp]. And if you want "More results from slashdot.org [google.com]", you click on the damn link. Is it good that a search engine lists three million links to the same domain by default?
  • by basso ( 230632 ) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @05:45PM (#3159393)
    I type in google.com and it loads damn near instantly.

    The Google folks were at a local user group meeting a few months ago. They told us that they have byte counters -- the human kind -- monitoring how many bytes each page served takes. Their mission is to keep the count down.

    They got very noisy applause for that statement.
  • by jfengel ( 409917 ) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @05:45PM (#3159394) Homepage Journal
    Google treats new sites as having low utlity, but that doesn't mean that Google is out of luck on new content. Google knows that certain web sites, especially web logs (like Slashdot itself) and news sites are updated very frequently, and re-indexes them more often. Thus, if you're interested in current events, Google will tend to return results on current events from "reputable" sites. (I've been unable to find a reliable reference for this; you can check out this one from DaveNet [userland.com].)

    This doesn't help you out if you're trying to get your new business noticed, which is something site managers care about desperately. It also doesn't help you find the new business that appeared two weeks ago that might be able to help with your problem. Sadly, it's generally the same business owners who care about that case, too, since in general somebody has already beaten you to the punch with their web site and the customer gets the problem solved, without you.

    No, it's not perfect, but it solves the problems of web searchers very, very often. It may be less good for web site owners, but compared to the searchers they are in the minority.
  • by dbc ( 135354 ) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @05:49PM (#3159416)
    OK, so this is only marginally on topic, but I think the experimental result was interesting.

    The other day I played with the Google advertising generator, just to see how much an ad would cost and how it worked, not with any intention of advertising. (Check it out, it's fun.) Anyway, I pretended to be advertising a local special-interest club where I am a member. By the time I had picked the advertising keywords that gave me the ad traffic that I wanted, those very same words typed into the search box brought up the club's web site as the third link on page one.

    I would advertise why, exactly?

  • Re:Wow (Score:4, Interesting)

    by neuroticia ( 557805 ) <{moc.oohay} {ta} {aicitoruen}> on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @06:00PM (#3159478) Journal
    Agreed. New sites that I've posted have been up within a week or two, and new content to already indexed sites usually shows up within search results anywhere from a day to a few weeks later.

    If the site is unique to its topic then it will appear higher in the rankings immediately as opposed to *yet another PHP site* which might never climb higher than number 80,991. This is not necessarily harmful to the surfers though the owners of the site will not be pleased.

    If it's taking your sites a long time to show up in the rankings then chances are it's not a Google problem so much as well.. Is your site really that unique afterall? Are you using the same search terms that the average user looking for your site is going to use? If you're a shoe store in Massachusetts your customers wouldn't find you by searching for shoes- they'd find you by searching for "Shoes" and "MA".

    I'm always finding new content with Google, but I never use it to find up-to-the-minute stuff. I never use *any* search engine to find that. I ask myself what it is I want to know and go to a news site related to that item. Chances are that NO ONE has it indexed yet. Not Google, not Altavista.

    Isn't that what everyone does?

  • by ohios ( 558312 ) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @06:32PM (#3159644)
    this /. blind worship of google's "extreme talent" is quite amusing. sure, there are some clever people there, the thing grew out of Stanford from what i understand, but, there are clever people in all companies. what tends to stifle the clever peoples' talent is business case - i.e. is your stuff gonna give Return On Investment. whilst your vc is throwing money at you it is quite easy to seem like the coolest company (as far as i understand google is a private company and can say what they want about their finances, profitable or not).

    thing is, i'm sure there are some extremely talented people working at inkotomi, altavista, etc. but, those companies have been around long enough to have to 'fess up to the accountants and justify the work they do.

    google, i think, is just hitting that stage - the google competition, whilst being an ingenious idea to most of you guys, suggests to me (cynical engineer type that i am) that they have run stone dry of ideas...
    talented people working at inkotomi, altavista, etc. but, those companies have been around long enough to have to 'fess up to the accountants and justify the work they do.

    google, i think, is just hitting that stage - the google competition, whilst being an ingenious idea to most of you guys, suggests to me (cynical engineer type that i am) that they have run stone dry of ideas...
  • by philfr ( 89798 ) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @06:33PM (#3159655)
    While reading the article, I was pretty sure such a delay was simply not true. So I tried "bush nuclear" as keywords (a current hot topic). Guess what ?
    The first 6 links were less than 12 hours old. So maybe "Months" should be understood as "Hours".
    I also used to use Altavista.
    A very long time ago...
  • Re:Wow (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @06:41PM (#3159711)
    I take it Google must actively search some pages, such as well known news pages.

    Some who are more familiar with eastern and Australian news might know that a few days ago a young Melbourne couple were detained in China, and sent back to Australia for unfolding a banner. The story isn't important here, what is, is that I went to school with the girl, actually that's not important either, what is important is that I plugged Emma Dodrell (the young lass's name) into google _that night_, less than 12 hours on, and got 4 related articles from news sites around the world.

    Somewhere the gears are churning.
  • Re:Not only that... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by yota ( 165006 ) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @07:20PM (#3159947)
    The Google toolbar is one of the biggest reasons I use IE. (Well, that and the fact that page developers, including myself, follow the rule of thumb "Design so that it looks good in IE and works in Netscape.") But anyway, I digress. If you're using IE, check out toolbar.google.com [google.com] and download it.
    There an implementation of the Googlebar for Mozilla too and it works nicely, it's not as cool as the original one but it's improving quickly. You can find it here: http://googlebar.mozdev.org [mozdev.org]


  • by divbyzero ( 23176 ) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @08:57PM (#3160414) Journal
    While you are right about people stressing the wrong differences, your claim about AV and Google's respective syntaxes being interchangable is false.

    In AV's simple syntax, unadorned terms are not required to be in the results, they are only preferred. If you want to require a term, you must prepend a plus sign. Google does not allow you to distinguish between required and preferred terms. This may arguably be simpler, but it takes away control from you, the user.

    AV also offers a separate advanced syntax which provides support for nested booleans, and positional operators like "near", "within", "before", and "after". Google, while it allows a single level of simple booleans, does not provide any means by which to nest them. It completely lacks positional operators other than phrase matching. Again this takes control away from you, the user.

    It never fails to mystify me why Slashdot readers, a crowd biased strongly towards programmers, engineers, and Unix users, namely people who love to have lots of control over things, would favor a dumbed down search service! (I agree that there are other problems with AltaVista, such as the annoying popunder ads. However, these have nothing to do with the quality of its search syntax.)
  • by Ride-My-Rocket ( 96935 ) on Wednesday March 13, 2002 @09:47PM (#3160577) Homepage
    I have to admit that, after reading Richard Seltzer's response to Mr. Doctorow's article, I'm wondering which search engine he's really arguing for. He freely admits two key facts: that poor business decisions had led to a decline in the quality of searches in Altavista searches, even before Google arrived on the scene; and that Google is a lot better at turning up quality, long-standing content than Altavista is.

    So maybe Google doesn't have ALL the latest stuff....... it's extremely good at 95% of what I need, and I don't even need to use those silly "+", "*", "-" symbols anymore. Also, is it just me, or did Altavista only recently decide to fix the special character parsing of keywords in its searches? I remember a time in the not-too-distant past when doing a search on keywords containing "." or "'" would choke, and only return the prefix part of the keyword. And perhaps the best thing about Google? No popups, no sloppy "I paid for advertising" links posted at the top of my result set, no banner ads on each and EVERY DAMNED PAGE -- Google searches, and that's it!

    But even if this sounds like I'm bashing Altavista, I'm not. I still fall back on it to see what it'll turn up when I'm looking for rather obscure subject matter, and besides, I don't think Google would be where it is today without having another search engine to compete against. And now that Google's fortunes are rising, Altavista has started focusing more on the quality of ITS searches once again -- a situation where we all win.

Don't tell me how hard you work. Tell me how much you get done. -- James J. Ling