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AltaVista Makes a Comeback

Search engine AltaVista re-launched Tuesday, with new search capabilities and a new targeted advertising strategy.

Sporting a new logo and stripped-down interface, AltaVista's site would no longer carry skyscraper ads, a policy which builds on the ban of pop-up and pop-under ads instituted in August. Instead, the Alto, Calif.-based company plans to rely on targeted advertising and paid search, taking a page out of Google's book.

"The changes were driven by feedback from AltaVista users," said Fred Bullock, AltaVista's chief marketing officer. "They said they preferred a more streamlined look and feel."

AltaVista, owned by CMGI , plans to roll out a number of advertising programs designed to capitalize on the online ad industry's recent focus on relevance, in lieu of intrusive formats, as shown by the success of paid search listings.

Rather than developing paid search products itself, however, AltaVista is continuing its long-running partnership with Overture Services, having recently renewed a deal that extends the relationship until May 2003.

Through Overture, AltaVista will provide paid search listings on the right side of its results pages, which used to have skyscraper ads.

"One of the things we've seen in the last year is that while advertisers have bought the banner, there's a growing importance put on paid listings," said Bullock.

Internally, the company is experimenting with Tracer ads, which are served based on users' earlier searches. For example, if a user searches for "cars" and then returns to the site later that day, AltaVista could still serve him a General Motors ad based on his earlier search. AltaVista will also offer a rich-media program that can serve audio or video links to user queries, as well as integrated search units that allow user to search advertisers' sites directly from AltaVista.

"We really don't see any difference between delivering relevant search results and relevant advertising," Bullock said. "From the end user's perspective, it's all content."

Under a strategy it calls "Power of Precision," AltaVista hopes to become a player again in the burgeoning search business, taking advantage of one of the few bright spots in the Internet advertising landscape. As an early search engine praised for its technical acumen, AltaVista tried to parlay its popularity into becoming a portal in the late 1990s, only to lose out to the vast offerings and audience of Yahoo!, while Google snuck in to emerge as the king of search.

"In retrospect, that was a mistake," Bullock said.

For the past eight months, however, AltaVista has been getting back to its roots, closing its free e-mail services in February and eschewing portal features like free stock quotes and comparison shopping. At the same time, the company rolled out buffed-up search tools, like Prisma, an advanced search technology that allows users to find Web sites, audio or video files, while also providing parallel topics to help the searcher find the information.

The re-launched site builds on these moves, with 50 percent of displayed search results refreshed daily and a function that offers users the option to refine their searches. Prisma is now available in five languages. The site also sports a News 2.0 search service.

AltaVista's refocus on search might have come too late. Yahoo!, MSN and AOL are the acknowledged cream of the crop in portals, while Google has established itself as the leading search technology provider.