AltaVista has rolled out its new Advanced Search Center (http://www.altavista.com/cgi-bin/query?pg=aq&what=web/), "designed to meet the needs of demanding Internet searchers, from librarians to medical researchers," according to the company's press release. The Advanced Search Center marks the company's fourth specialized search capability, joining AltaVista's Multimedia, MP3/Audio, Video, and Image Search Centers launched earlier this month.
"No other Internet service offers a more comprehensive collection of advanced search tools for its users," said Andrei Broder, vice president of research at AltaVista. "We are confident that our new education and community tools will open a wide door to Web users worldwide who want to experience the power of our Advanced Search Center and become expert searchers."
Regular AltaVista users will find the most significant changes are the redesigned, friendlier user interface, the addition of new "community" features, and notably bulked-up help files, documentation, and tutorials. The only significant new control appears to be the ability to cluster results, limiting results to one per Web site.
The Advanced Search Tutorial is particularly valuable for searchers wishing to take advantage of AltaVista's full capabilities. The tutorial consists of four major parts: "Directories vs. Search Engines," "Advanced Search Features," "Main & Advanced Search Elements," and "How AltaVista Works." Each section consists of numerous subsections, with well-designed navigation features allowing you to either read the tutorial in sequence or drill down quickly to a particular topic of interest. Numerous examples, illustrations, and tips add depth to each tutorial.
The "Advanced Search Features" section does a particularly good job of explaining how AltaVista implements Boolean operators. It's important for searchers who are unfamiliar with AltaVista to take the time to go through this section, since all of the major search engines implement Boolean in differing ways. The "Main and Advanced" section also offers vital clues on using features such as wildcards, field searching, multi-language searching, and searching for non-text objects.
Some of the tips offered in the tutorial are absolutely essential for controlling your results in Advanced Search. For example, unlike Basic search, Advanced Search provides no automatic results ranking. You control the ranking of results by listing your keywords in order of importance in the Sort By box. If you leave the Sort By box blank, the results appear in random order. This critical advice should appear on the search form itself rather than being buried in a tutorial, but at least it's available to the careful reader.
The "How AltaVista Works" section is a gold mine of information for both searchers and Webmasters alike. In this section, AltaVista provides a detailed blueprint for understanding exactly how its index is created and how relevance is computed, and it provides specific recommendations for Webmasters to make Web pages "search engine friendly." Though it is geared toward Web page authors, searchers should study this section closely, as it provides invaluable insights that can help hone and focus search strategies.
The new "community" sections are bulletin boards dedicated to specific topics, including "Better Queries," "AltaVista Friendly Sites," and "Stop the Spammers!" The idea of forums where AltaVista users can post questions, share information, and interact with one another is a good one. Unfortunately, there's little activity in the forums, and there doesn't appear to be much commitment on the part of AltaVista staff to participate. (Internal clues do suggest that a number of "private" members are probably AV staffers. Well then, why not identify yourselves?)
Sites like Slashdot.org have demonstrated that community interaction can be valuable to users and also act as a powerful magnet for attracting traffic to a site. In its current form, however, AltaVista's public forums have a bolted-on, "everyone has to have community" feel and aren't very useful for serious searchers.
Overall, AltaVista's Advanced Search Center is a welcome addition to one of the Web's premier search services. Though there are no dramatic new additions to AltaVista's search tools, the well-designed portal-like interface, combined with the wealth of information provided in new tutorials, certainly go a long way toward AltaVista's goal of meeting the needs of demanding Internet searchers.