A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.
A quarter-century ago, one of the first major search engines came to life on the internet as an experiment of sorts—a public test of a server manufacturer’s primary product that anyone with a web connection could take a part in.
The experiment, for a time, proved more successful than anyone could have ever imagined. But the problem was, it was an experiment at heart that was never intended to be a business—and that meant better suited companies would eventually topple this innovation. Eventually, it would ensure that this cutting-edge idea would become a part of the past.
But nobody is going to encase the innovations of 1995 and 1996 in amber on the internet: Time does not stand still, and neither do web sites, no matter how important they are or once were. But it would sure be nice if we could.
It’s with that in mind that I write about AltaVista, Digital Equipment Corporation, web domains, and how important history can turn into the basis of some random company’s crass marketing scheme.
In honor of AltaVista’s 25th anniversary this month, I’d like to lament the loss of its original home to the gods of search engine optimization.
Do not expect a backlink.
The combined size of the two hard drives that Scooter and Turbo Vista, the machines that ran AltaVista, sported as of early 1996. (As tech legend Bob Metcalfe wrote in InfoWorld at that time, the two machines worked in tandem, with the more modest Scooter, with a 20-gigabyte hard drive and 1 gigabyte of RAM, fetching the pages, and Turbo Vista, with two gigs of RAM and a 250-gig hard drive, storing those findings and serving them up to web viewers.) The machines, which stored a modest amount of information between them by today’s standards, essentially existed to show off just what the DEC Alpha processor could do. In fact, that was the reason AltaVista existed in the first place: The person who came up with the idea, Paul Flaherty, had been tasked with showing off the power of a new line of DEC computers, and had the spark while on vacation. It was eventually developed by DEC employees Michael Burrows and Louis Monier.
How AltaVista, our first good search engine, fell into the digital abyss
Digital Equipment Corporation survived for more than 40 years as an independent company, but it was a company built for an earlier era of computing—and while it adapted better than contemporaries like Wang Laboratories, it ultimately began to struggle at the start of the 1990s, and ultimately could not find its footing into the modern day.
But on the way, less than three years before the company was sold off, DEC almost accidentally stumbled upon a mainstream web application that in many ways is more familiar to regular users than the groundbreaking PDP and VAX computer lines that the firm made its name on in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.
During that period, DEC was one of the most important computer companies around. Founded by Ken Olsen and Harlan Anderson in 1957, the two former MIT researchers leveraged venture capital to build computers for industry—and found success by focusing on relatively small minicomputers over mainframes. DEC was an important company for computer history, but it missed out on trends as fundamental as the personal computer and (initially) the popularity of UNIX-based operating systems, and the company struggled to reshape its fortunes throughout the 1990s.
AltaVista came to life as a part of this turnaround effort, which starts with a processor line called the DEC Alpha. The Alpha, a 64-bit RISC microprocessor line, was well-positioned to compete handily with major CPUs of the era from companies such as Intel and IBM on the speed front. It was a worthy competitor that gave DEC a chance to make a comeback, but price ultimately was the deciding factor for many buyers—and DEC couldn’t compete with the Intel Pentium on that front, at least in the desktop and workstation market.
DEC, trying to kickstart things, needed a way to promote what the Alpha could do, and it was decided that a project to highlight the Alpha’s capabilities at chewing through a massive database was just the way to do it. And what better database to chew through than the World Wide Web? Hence, we got AltaVista, a shining example of what a struggling company’s server hardware could do.
DEC was not new to the internet—hardly. In 1985, the company registered one of the first commercial domains on the internet, DEC.com, as technology companies staked their claims for top-level domains. But the Digital.com name, registered in 1993, was the one that most users associated with DEC in the 1990s, thanks to AltaVista.
At www.altavista.digital.com, regular users could search the web for items with a degree of depth and sophistication that most other search engines could not offer at that time. It was groundbreaking: Someone had built an internet search engine that treated the internet with the respect it deserved.
So why did AltaVista lose? Well, while it was a great idea for a marketing tool, it was almost as if DEC didn’t realize that the search engine was a worthy business on its own until it was too late. Which meant that after they built the thing, they naturally would face competition from companies that did understand this, like its eventual conqueror Google.
By floating Altavista, analysts said, Digital is hoping to receive more recognition for developing a cutting-edge Internet technology. That could boost sales of Digital computers much the way Sun Microsystems has benefited from its development of the red-hot Java computer language, even though Java itself has generated relatively little profit, and Sun has so far announced no plans to spin it off.
(The Sun comparison is apt, though Sun was far more adept at figuring out what to do with Java than Digital ever was with AltaVista.)
In The Search, a 2005 book on the rise of Google and the search engine in general, Wired cofounder John Battelle blamed a corporate culture that didn’t know how to handle having its kind of innovation under its roof:
To borrow from the present, AltaVista was the Google of its era. In 1996, it was arguably the best and most-loved brand on the Web. It presaged many of the current innovations and opportunities in search, from automatic language translation to audio and video search to clustering of results. And as a business AltaVista attempted—and failed—to go public three times in three short years under three different owners. Possibly most instructive, AltaVista was the product of a company that was an extraordinary success in its original business but ultimately failed because of hidebound management unwilling to drive by anything other than the rearview mirror.
Ultimately, despite being the most popular search engine as recently as 2000, a series of poor decisions—including the misguided and eventually reversed choice to turn the search engine into a Yahoo!-style portal—ultimately ensured AltaVista would lose its place in the digital conversation. It was sold off multiple times, generally as part of a larger corporate segment, and by the time Yahoo! acquired AltaVista as a part of its 2003 purchase of Overture Services, AltaVista had become yesterday’s news, disconnected from the domain name that had berthed it years prior, and ultimately forgotten about by most regular internet users.
During the last decade of its life, it was essentially a shell of its former self at Yahoo!.
“Earlier this year, we announced an ongoing effort to sharpen our focus and deliver experiences that enhance your daily lives. As part of that, today we’re shutting down a few products so we can continue to focus on creating beautiful products that are essential to you every day.”
— Yahoo!, in a 2013 announcement—deep in the Marissa Mayer era of the company—that it was shutting down AltaVista. (If you visit altavista.com, it redirects to Yahoo! Search.) The shutdown had long been rumored, first appearing in a slide by the company’s chief product officer suggesting things that should be shut down to consolidate the company’s offerings.
Why, as an internet user who cares about history, you shouldn’t visit Digital.com to learn about DEC
In late 2020, AltaVista and DEC are two dusty segments of internet history, things that don’t see the light of day very often. But it’s worth noting the irony that the best way to learn about AltaVista in 2020 is not through the top result of a search engine.
If you do a search for AltaVista on the web at this time, the first result that comes up is for a site called Digital.com (note: all links to this site intentionally link to the 1996 Internet Archive version of the page). Rocking the headline “AltaVista Search Engine History Lesson For Internet Nerds” (linked via the Internet Archive for reasons I’ll explain below), you might think that this historical research project is noble in nature.
With a professionally written article, it seems to be very insightful and informative in nature.
But the truth is, it’s something of an internet bottom-feeder. It exists primarily to help create a top-of-funnel stream of content for Digital.com’s primary goal in 2020—a site focused publishing AI-driven software reviews that it can then make money from.
Digital.com did not start like this—first registered in 1993 by DEC, the site was the second home of the company, after DEC.com. But DEC, like its most famous consumer product, passed through a few hands as it faded out of view. In 1998, the company, which saw its minicomputer offerings fall into a tailspin that the Alpha processor line was unable to stop, was sold to Compaq. Compaq, in turn, had over-invested in the enterprise market and was acquired by Hewlett-Packard in 2002, with parts of the legacy DEC splintering between HP and HP Enterprise when that company split in half in 2015.
In the process of all this splintering, the Digital.com domain, which had been owned by HP for many years, was sold off in 2014 after many attempts by the tech giant to get rid of it. In 2015, meanwhile, a firm named Review Squirrel got its start, and that company later acquired the Digital.com domain, soon taking that name for its company.
Long story short, this historically important internet domain name—which hosted one of the first popular search engines—is now being used to launder some random company’s search engine presence, and if you search for AltaVista, DEC, or any piece of internet history related to Digital Equipment Corp., you’re essentially clicking on an ad for the former Review Squirrel.
I am a scholar of internet history and a noted hater of backlink schemes, and when I first learned of this site a few months ago—after receiving a backlink request from them, of course!—my brain nearly exploded. It was as if someone took everything I hate about the modern internet and combined it into one domain.
“I do not publish unsolicited resources, sorry. I’m sure Ken Olsen and Harlan Anderson would be excited to know that their company’s primary domain name was being used as a content factory,” I immediately quipped as soon as I got the email. (I, of course, did not hear back.)
I will admit: As of right now, there is nothing stopping owners of culturally important domains from preventing their future reuse in non-respectable ways. For example, TheFrisky, once a popular women’s blog, now leverages its near-decade worth of search traffic as a cudgel, taking advantage of its decaying cultural role to help push up the identity of a Serbian music producer.
Now Digital.com isn’t arguably doing anything as sketchy as that, but it is doing something that I find equally as distasteful—it’s leveraging a bedrock piece of internet history in an effort to help push up its own marketing presence.
A year ago, I wrote about why websites with strong historic relevance should gain some sort of protection from this kind of thing, citing the way that Yahoo! had frequently mistreated its properties throughout its history as one reason for that. Yahoo! is only a side player in the saga of Digital.com, but I think its story nonetheless reflects the same general issue: Businesses do not care about history unless it’s something they can monetize.
Digital.com treats history as the top of the funnel, but you should see how dark the bottom of that funnel gets. It’s not pretty.
In a way, I’m glad Digital.com exists, even though I hate everything about what it represents. It’s as strong of evidence as I can find in favor of my argument that we need a way to protect dormant but historically important domain names from being reused for commercial reasons.
It shows what happens when large companies prioritize a quick buck over an important legacy. You can argue that HP had its hands on the internet equivalent of a Honus Wagner baseball card and decided the responsible corporate thing to do was to see what happened if it put the card up for auction.
Well, I’ll tell you what happens—there’s a chance that someone without a lot of respect for history gets a hold of it and decides to take the card out of its plastic case just because they can. And honestly, that scares me, and it’s something I fear someday might happen again with an even more valuable card.
The internet needs to start retiring jersey numbers. Digital.com was the equivalent of the number 23, and we’re letting a third-stringer wear it.