the tweney report

what you need to know about technology. by d. f. tweney


2002-07-03: AltaVista adds a new trick to its bag

It's hard to remember now, but at one time AltaVista was the hippest, fastest, and most effective tool for finding things on the Web. Anyone remember the blimp they flew around the country in 1998? That may have been the high point for the search engine, which started out as a way for Digital engineers to show off their programming prowess and the power of their hardware. Then Digital got sold to Compaq, which spun AltaVista off to CMGI, a holding company.

Without Digital to fund it, AltaVista had to rely on advertising for revenue, and smaller budgets meant that the underlying technology stagnated. AltaVista started to look a especially dated after the ascendance of Google, which is faster, easier to use, and covers more of the Web. For the past year, AltaVista has been coasting dangerously close to search engine oblivion.

Still, the engineers at the Palo Alto company have a few tricks left in their bags, and the latest is a pretty useful reference tool.

AltaVista Prisma, which debuted yesterday, is fairly straightforward to use. You enter a search term on the AltaVista home page, and the top of the search results page displays twelve related terms that the Prisma technology has picked out. Below that is a banner ad, then the usual list of search results.

The related terms are all links that let you refine your search. When you click on one of them, AltaVista adds that term to your query. For instance, when I entered a search for "haiku," Prisma suggested "Basho," "Japan," and "Japanese Poetry" -- all related subtopics. Other suggestions included parallel topics, such as "senryu" and "haibun" (related literary forms) and "verse" in general.

AltaVista's Jonathan Glick, director of internet search services, told me that Prisma figures out the most relevant terms by doing textual and link analysis on the top 50 search results for your query. In plain English, textual analysis means looking at what kinds of terms appear alongside your search query, or in document headlines and opening paragraphs. Link analysis means examining what terms are used as hyperlinks, and what pages they point to.

The upshot is that Prisma terms aren't strictly subcategories of your search, nor are they attempts to map your query term to a pre-defined hierarchy of categories. Instead, think of them simply as related terms.

As it turns out, this is a good way to explore topics about which you know little or nothing. Type in "Double Indemnity" and the search terms include the movie's director (Billy Wilder), stars (Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray), and writers (James Cain, Raymond Chandler). Type in "The Who" and the suggested terms include recently-deceased bassist John Entwhistle (but no links to stories about his death).

Prisma is one of the most useful ways to add depth to a search that I've seen recently. Instead of listing things in a linear fashion, along a single dimension (the ambiguous "relevance" factor), this lets you pursue a Web search in several different directions. It's easy to use, and it doesn't get in the way of the search results, which are still there on every results page, below the Prisma terms.

Will it replace Google? Doubtful -- Google is still the winner for speed and comprehensiveness (with a close contender). But Prisma will help keep AltaVista in the running, and it shows that there's still life in the search engine arms race. That's good news for all of us who need to find things online.


AltaVista Prisma - How to use it

Related story: FTC asks search engines to clarify which search results are actually paid ads


copyright © 2002 d. f. tweney / tweney media

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