For the fourth time in less than a year, AltaVista (http://www.altavista.com) has redesigned its flagship search portal, offering both a cleaner, more intuitive interface and a suite of new services that will appeal to novices and information pros alike. While many of the changes are cosmetic, AltaVista has also added numerous new features that make finding specific types of information, files, or a particular media type much easier than in the past.
In a welcome move, AltaVista has clearly returned to its primary mission of being a Web search engine. News, shopping, content "channels," Web tools, and all of the other de-rigueur trappings of a major portal are still there, but they're less obtrusive than before. The new design is uncluttered and well organized, providing one-click access to customized "search centers," a new power search form, new "search tools," and a Web directory (rechristened "categories"), in addition to the standard query form.
Navigation is straightforward, with a tabbed interface at the top providing links to each of the major sections of the portal. The five tabs include Search Home (the default interface), Comparison Shopping, Channels (content provided by AltaVista partners), Rewards, and Email and Other Tools. Navigation links in the left column are specific to each of the major tabbed categories while maintaining a similar functionality across the service. This consistent approach makes navigation easy and eliminates clutter.
The revamped design takes good advantage of the new trend toward "surfacing" content by offering a wealth of suggested links in addition to traditional search results. Essentially, these links are pre-constructed queries for the most popular topics in particular categories, as well as numerous related searches that bring up reviews, product information, news, and so on.
Several new features are worth noting. These include the following:
AltaVista introduced its "Entertainment Center" as the first step in creating a variety of vertical search centers focused on a specific domain of information. "Our search center approach delivers on our promise to be the premier knowledge portal, with a focus on helping users to tap into the wealth of information available on the Web," said Vaughn Rhodes, director of product marketing at AltaVista Co.
Each search center enables a customized search of the entire Web, specific to a particular category of interest, such as music or movies. "Our search technology ushers our users to the best seats in the entertainment house," said Ross Levinsohn, vice president of AltaVista Network. Search centers have their own customized search box where users can specify parameters relevant to a particular category. The new entertainment center uses a specific, entertainment-related index made up 35 million image, audio, and video files, as well as a radio index of more than 6,000 streams. Also included are relevant entertainment-oriented Web pages drawn from the full AltaVista index of 350 million pages.
Results are filtered to screen out keyword matches that have no relevance for the category. For example, if a user types in "cars" in the music search box, the results will include the music group The Cars, but will not include any motor-vehicle-related information. "You can expect to see more of this vertical approach from AltaVista," said Levinsohn. "It is our intention to continue to innovate and build upon the search center concept. It is a strategic step in the direction of building a complete Web-wide information resource."
The new power search form offers a guided approach to advanced search for less-experienced users through a series of drop-down menus. These menus guide users through the differences between phrases and Boolean searches, allowing queries to be limited by date, time, domains or URLs, country of interest, and language of interest. Though intended for less-experienced searchers, the power search page is so easy to use and works so well it's a viable alternative to AltaVista's advanced search form.
Search Guides are essentially topic-specific mini tutorials offering tips on how to search for Web sites, products, images, and more, using specific examples with both suggested keywords and search syntax to get the best results for a particular query. Most of the current search guides cover popular topics like researching health issues or conjuring up Harry Potter information.
Following Lycos' lead, AltaVista now allows you to get a glimpse of what other people are searching for. Search trends include the week's top-25 search terms, with up or down arrows indicating increasing or decreasing popularity. Commentary is provided by AltaVista spokesman Norm Sperling, who offers interesting insights about why certain terms are popular and reveals a bit about AltaVista's inner workings. For example, Sperling noted that "Concorde" climbed into the top-25 search terms in the week following the tragic Air France crash. But the keyword "concord" was just one of more than 200 different phrasings used as queries. Users asked about the Concorde, Air France, crash (accidente, absturz), Paris, jet, airplane (avion, flugzeug), and related terms in assorted languages.
Overall, AltaVista's redesign offers welcome, though not revolutionary, enhancements to one of the Web's most popular search engines. The streamlined interface and the addition of several new goodies send a strong signal that AltaVista is hearing and responding to the needs of serious searchers, much to the benefit of us all.