The news that Yahoo! is to close down AltaVista on 8 July was greeted on the internet with shock. Shock because everyone over the age of 30 thought their original search engine of choice had ceased to exist years ago, around the time dial-up went out of fashion, while anyone under 30 struggled to believe that anything had existed at all before Google.
So AltaVista becomes the latest victim of the fickle world of the internet. Parent company Yahoo! has unceremoniously consigned it to the ever-expanding graveyard for the faded celebrities of the online world. AltaVista was considered a powerhouse of a search engine when it arrived on the scene in 1995 and soon attracted 80 million hits per day. True, its name never made it into any dictionaries as a verb but it reigned supreme for many years thanks to its ability to index tens of millions of webpages. But the dot com crash in 2000 hit it hard and the search engine found itself passed from parent company to parent company before ending up an unwanted child in the Yahoo! family.
It’s a story that has played out many times in a sector that shows no mercy to players who can’t change with the times. Who knows what has become of other 90s favourites, such as Lycos and Netscape? MSN messenger is another service that we couldn’t live without in the early days that has now faded away.
These companies’ business models were not continuously adapted, allowing new entrants to grab marketshare. In this latest case, Google disrupted the marketplace three years after Altavista’s launch and grabbed market and mindshare. Unlike Google, it was not a brand that was on everyone’s lips. AltaVista could have promoted its brand better and monetised its core offering in novel ways. But it didn’t.
Google thought about expanding its repertoire from the start, having understood that offering searches is ultimately a loss-making activity. AltaVista failed to diversify and couldn’t keep up. Even today, the image search function on its site is proudly labelled as “new”.
Now, Google dominates not only the search engine world but has its finger in just about every digital pie. As of next week, if you want to find out about AltaVista, you’ll have to Google it.
There is another side to the end of AltaVista. Where do its employees go from here? It would be interesting to hear their stories and accounts of the last 18 years. When the big banks go bust, we hear about redundancy packages and see pictures of staff clearing out their desks. It’s hard to even find out how many people are left working at the search engine after all this time and even harder to find out when they were told of its impending shutdown. Their voices are silent.
Nevertheless, Google could face a backlash. The ghosts of the internet past are a reminder that people can move on and find new platforms. Moves such as the decision to pull the plug on Google reader may seem minor, but could have long-term consequences. Even the big players need to remember the importance of brand loyalty.