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5/4/2007
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AltaVista--Almost Google

Digital Equipment Researchers set the standard for Internet search.


Paul Cormier

Paul Cormier
We could have been Google. We should have been Google," says Paul Cormier, shaking his head in disbelief at how close his Digital Equipment research team came to wealth and Web immortality. The story of how AltaVista rose and fell is one commonly told in technology circles. The object lesson: The best technology doesn't always win; the technology that connects to the right business engine for its time often does.

As search caught on in the mid-'90s, search engines tried to monetize the newfound traffic to their sites. The real potential for revenue was in ads placed within or alongside search results, where users who might be interested in the ads were sure to see them. It was controversial; many of the Web's original members wanted to maintain its noncommercial status. "There was a debate about accepting pay for placement," says Louis Monier, founder of the AltaVista search engine research project at Digital. "I was enormously opposed to that."

AltaVista

AltaVista
(click image for larger view)

Eventually, Google found a way to include pay-for-placement ads in its search results and keep them clearly labeled. The reliability of its search plus its AdWords advertising business eventually allowed it to outstrip rivals in the speed, depth of results, and mix of services offered by its site.

But it was AltaVista that established the universality of full-page Web searches with subsecond response times. AltaVista set the standard Google had to match, says Cormier, now executive VP with Linux marketer Red Hat. "We let the technologist and research purists drive it too much," he laments. "It wouldn't have hurt to have had a little business entrepreneurial influence" on the team back then.

Return to the story:
What's The Greatest Web Software Ever Written?

Read the blog:
Greatest Web Software: Let's Hear Your Choices

View the timeline:
A History of Web Software

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