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AltaVista Launches AltaVista Prisma Technology
Posted On July 8, 2002
After being relegated to the sidelines while other search engines grabbed media coverage and user loyalty, AltaVista has attempted to implement improvements and win back searchers' hearts. For the last 6 months it has worked hard to improve the size, scope, and relevancy of its Web index and has added many new features and improvements. Now, AltaVista has announced the launch of AltaVista Prisma, a technology that aims to help users refine their queries and retrieve better search results.

The company describes AltaVista Prisma as "an assistive search technology that puts the user in control of his or her search experience by providing a 360-degree view of strongly associated terms and offering ways to narrow, expand, or redirect search result sets." When a user enters a query, the Prisma technology scans through the titles and abstracts of the top-50 most relevant results to select the 12 most associated terms. These "Prisma terms" can be words, phrases, names, or concepts.

The terms are displayed on the results page in a panel immediately below the search box. If a user clicks on one of these terms, it is added to the original query and a new search is run, with the results page presenting another group of Prisma terms. Next to each Prisma term is a hyperlinked chevron ( >>) that lets users launch a new search on that term alone, which could take their search in a direction that may actually be more in tune with their original need.

Company representatives stressed that the Prisma technology differs from categorization tools, which match queries to predefined directory categories, and clustering tools, which cluster results into folders or "buckets" of information. By presenting dynamically generated terms, the Prisma technology reflects the dynamic nature of the Web. Employing Prisma terms, they said, "allows users to select from a complete range of contextual meanings without limitation." Users also still get the usual relevancy-ranked results for a query.

"AltaVista Prisma delivers the full power of AltaVista's patented search technology in an intuitive and easy-to-use interface," said Fred Bullock, who joined the company about 6 weeks ago as chief marketing officer for AltaVista's Internet division. "It's not only the most effective way for users to tap the depth of resources and breadth of information available on the Web today, but it's a more engaging, efficient, and rewarding way to search. AltaVista Prisma is the first in a series of customer-centric search technologies that AltaVista is focused on bringing to market."

The company beta-tested the Prisma technology under the code name "AltaVista Paraphrase." For several weeks, 1 percent of U.S. visitors to were presented with terms from the Paraphrase tool. AltaVista reported that users clicked on the Paraphrase/Prisma terms four times more often than they clicked on "Others Searched For" and similar features on The company also reported that its internal blind testing revealed that searchers, by a 4-1 ratio, preferred AltaVista Prisma to categorization and clustering technologies from other search providers.

Gary Price, librarian and compiler of The Virtual Acquisition Shelf & News Desk (, said that he found the Prisma feature to be more useful than the similar "Refine" option on Teoma. Calling it a "search term selection tool," Price acknowledged that "it does provide a worthwhile service for millions of searchers who only enter a term or two into the search box." He also said, "In some cases, I've found AltaVista Prisma to help speed up answers to fast-fact type of questions."

Marydee Ojala, editor of ONLINE, and I both feel that the new feature reminds us of what longtime information professionals have used as a common search technique. Run a query, pull up a relevant article or two, and examine the terms and descriptors to get additional terms to use in the search. Chris Sherman also pointed out in his SearchDay newsletter that the terms can "offer useful clues if you're searching for something that you're not familiar with" (

Danny Sullivan, who once called AltaVista "that ever-changing service" (, said he thinks it's good that AltaVista Prisma serves to introduce new concepts to searchers, and that it could be helpful for some searches. However, he doesn't feel the new technology represents a "giant step" forward, and that it might not be enough to bring some searchers back to the service. Further, while AltaVista claims recent advances in freshness and relevancy, Sullivan said he has not done any comprehensive testing to accurately gauge its claimed improvements on what he said have been long-standing problems with the service.

The most impressive news, according to Sullivan, is that AltaVista recently brought the respected technologist Jan Pedersen onboard as chief scientist. Pedersen has held senior engineering management positions at Centrata, Inc. and OpenGrid, Inc., and he worked for several years at InfoSeek. He managed the advanced technology group at Verity where he was responsible for integrating new component technologies into the core Verity search engine product, including clustering, summarization, and query-by-example (QBE). Pedersen also managed the server products group, developing and launching the Verity Knowledge Organizer text-categorization product line.

It remains to be seen how many searchers will take advantage of the new Prisma technology and whether former defectors from AltaVista will be lured back with the recent improvements. AltaVista's new senior management team has certainly been busy pushing through a series of changes over the last 6 months, calling it a "relentless commitment to improving the user experience." The company has increased the size of its Web index to 1.1 billion items, but it still lags behind the recent announcements of FAST's 2.1 billion and Google's 2 billion. AltaVista has also launched a new freshness initiative called AltaVista Shortcuts; improved its news search; and worked on usability, navigation, and design.

AltaVista Prisma is available on,,,,, and If most of the pages in a given result set are non-English, the technology does not appear. Expanded support for additional languages will be available in the coming months.

Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.

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