Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2013 Issue

AltaVista RIP

Altavista98

Alta Vista during its heyday.

This is not a story about books. There... now that I have lost most of my readers, I can write about whatever I want. This is about how access to information changes. Once slowly, changes now flash by as quickly as you can unwind an 8-track tape. And yes, there are comparisons to bookselling.

The 1990s began with small bookshops trying to fight off the large chains. It ended with the chains trying to fend off internet sellers. It all happens so fast. A few become large, the rest either disappear or find a niche where they can outperform the giants. There really isn't much other space. Evolve or die applies to bookselling as surely as it does to dinosaurs. And to the internet. We are entering another time of change for bookselling, but that is an issue for another day. For now, we will take a look back at an early giant of the internet. RIP, AltaVista.

My own introduction to the internet came in the second half of the 1990s. There were lots of alternatives if you wanted to search that vast universe of information out there you never could access before. An internet search was filled with excitement then. Basically, there were two types of search sites. There were the directories. Frequently compiled by hand, they placed links to sites under topic headings. Yahoo had the most notable one, but there was LookSmart, Overture and thousands of smaller ones, the bigger ones trying to extract a fee from the sites they listed, the others hoping to get by on advertising. Does anyone ever use a directory any more?

The second way to search the internet was through a search engine. There were lots, each with its own formula. America Online (AOL), which was the largest online service provider in the era of dial-up, and their largest competitor, CompuServe, also provided search. So did early dial-up rival Prodigy. Non-service provider search engines were all over. Yahoo had a search engine as well as a directory. And there was Excite, Infoseek, Lycos, MSN, Snap, Ask Jeeves, HotBot, Inktomi, Webcrawler, and many others I have forgotten. But, the best of the lot was AltaVista. Most of the others were web portals, as Yahoo and AOL still are today. They provided news and everything else, search being just one feature. Not AltaVista. They offered search, that's all, but were the best at it. Sound familiar? Whatever their formula, and each search engine had its algorithm, AltaVista provided the best matches. I don't recall anyone ever turning AltaVista into a verb. I never said I was “Altavista-ing” anything, but I AltaVistaed a lot of topics in the late 1990s.

AltaVista was born in 1996. It was the child of Digital Equipment Corporation, another great tech name from the past. It moved on to Compaq in 1998 when DEQ was sold, then to CMGI. Remember CMGI? Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots, was originally named CMGI Field. That's how big CMGI was. The Patriots never played a game on CMGI field. By the time construction was completed, the internet bubble burst and CMGI could no longer afford the naming rights. Those rights moved on to safety razor manufacturer Gillette. What an ironic backward twist of technology that was. In 2003, AltaVista moved on to Overture, which itself was taken over by Yahoo later that year. It has remained there ever since. At least until July 8, 2013. That is when Yahoo shut it down. Rest in peace, AltaVista.

At the turn of the millennium, one of my jobs involved finding websites, directories and search engines to post links to my employer's website. Search engines might not know your website existed if you didn't tell them. One day in performing my AltaVista searches for sites I didn't know, I came across a new search engine with a funny name. It was called “Google.” Obviously, you can guess the rest of this story. AltaVista had turned itself into a web portal like Yahoo and AOL, Lycos and Excite, its owners believing there was a greater audience for these multi-purpose sites. Google was like the original AltaVista. Even today, while Google offers much more, its home page remains a simple search page, just as it was when I first stumbled across it. AltaVista later returned to simplicity, but by then it was too late.

Why did Google become such a huge success, eventually crowding everyone else either out of the business or to minor status? Today, Bing, successor to Live, successor to MSN, still competes. Parent Microsoft can afford to compete. It is a distant second. If someone else still competes, it escapes me. AOL uses Google searches; Yahoo uses Bing's searches. Truth be told, in recent years AltaVista just used Yahoo/Bing searches. Google swamped everyone else. How? They used a formula that determined which sites were most popular, rather than those which just matched your search terms most often. I didn't know about algorithms at the time. What I did notice was that I got better matches, better even than AltaVista. I switched. I don't recall anyone else I knew knowing about Google then. I had just stumbled upon it and found it significantly better. Obviously, in the years ahead, just about everyone else had the same experience. It was noticeably better, enough so to switch. Microsoft and Bing offer a capable search engine, but they have never been able to match that first Google experience, no matter how much they tell us their searches are better. Maybe they are better as claimed, but they just don't seem that different. You need a reason to change.

What does this have to do with bookselling? Not much directly. It's just a reminder of how quickly things can change. The heyday of AltaVista in many ways matched the heyday of internet bookselling. The internet opened customers all over the world to every small town bookseller. Dozens of book listing sites appeared. The Advanced Book Exchange (now AbeBooks), Alibris, successor to the pioneering Interloc, and Amazon were the largest and still are. Most of the others either disappeared or soldier on in irrelevancy, though European ZVAB, later arrival Biblio, and a few local sites are still significant. However, none can perform quite as they did when internet bookselling was new. Buyers were accessing this incredible new medium for the first time and filling their shelves with books they never thought they would find. Meanwhile, the price of listing was incredibly cheap, often just a small percentage of the sales price if, and only if, the book sold. Today, listing is more expensive, the number of books listed competing for attention far greater, and sales harder to come by. It's no longer easy. The bookseller needs to adapt. Adapt or perish. Adapt or become AltaVista.  


Posted On: 2013-08-01 00:00
User Name: PeterReynolds

I used AlltheWeb.com a.k.a. Fast.no . It was better than Google in Google's early days. It had a larger number of results and I don't think Google had as good previewing of sites. See http://web.archive.org/web/20061227221338/http://fastsearch.com=63&amid=1383


Rare Book Monthly

  • <center><b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>The Library and Picture Collection of the late Martin Woolf Orskey<br>June 26</b>
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Book of Hours. Illuminated manuscript, Flanders or northern France, c. 1450. With 12 full-page illuminated miniatures. £10,000 to £15,000
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Zahrawi, Abu’-Qasim, al- (c. 936-1013). <i>Albucasis chirurgicorum omnium,</i> Strasbourg, 1532. The first comprehensive illustrated treatise on surgery. £3,000 to £5,000
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Milles, Thomas. <i>The Custumers Alphabet and Primer,</i> 1608. Gilt supralibros of 17th-century English bibliophile Edward Gwynn. £2,000 to £3,000
    <center><b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>The Library and Picture Collection of the late Martin Woolf Orskey<br>June 26</b>
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Guillemeau, Jacques. <i>Child-Birth or, the Happy Deliverie of Women,</i> 1st edition in English, 1612. The second midwifery manual printed in English. £1,500 to £2,000
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Rabisha, William. <i>The Whole Body of Cookery Dissected,</i> 1st edition, 1661. Rare. Five copies in libraries. £2,000 to £3,000
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Royal binding. <i>An Abridgment of the English Military Discipline,</i> 1678. Contemporary red goatskin gilt by Samuel Mearne for Charles II (1630-1865). £1,500 to £2,000
    <center><b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>The Library and Picture Collection of the late Martin Woolf Orskey<br>June 26</b>
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Pallavicino, Ferrante. <i>The Whores Rhetorick,</i> 1st edition in English, 1683. Rare anti-Jesuit satire. £2,000 to £3,000
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Swift, Jonathan. <i>The Benefit of Farting,</i> 1st London edition, 1722. Teerink 19. £2,000 to £3,000
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Edwards, George. <i>Natural History of Uncommon Birds</i> [and] <i>Gleanings of Natural History,</i> 7 volumes, 1743-64. Contemporary tree calf, 362 hand-coloured engraved plates. £8,000 to £12,000
    <center><b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>The Library and Picture Collection of the late Martin Woolf Orskey<br>June 26</b>
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Campbell, Patrick. <i>Travels in the Interior Inhabited Parts of North America,</i> 1st edition, 1793. Howes C101; Sabin 10264. Uncut in original boards. £5,000 to £8,000
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Hearne, Samuel. <i>A Journey from Prince of Wales's Fort in Hudson's Bay, to the Northern Ocean,</i> 1st edition, 1795. Sabin 31181. Large-paper copy. £2,000 to £3,000
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Edgeworth, Maria. <i>The Match Girl, A Novel,</i> 1808. £1,000 to £1,500
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ian Fleming, <i>Goldfinger,</i> first edition, inscribed to Sir Henry Cotton, MBE, London, 1959. Sold for $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Joseph Brant, Mohawk Chief, ALS, writing after pledging support to King George III against American rebels, 1776. Sold for a record $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Sonia Delaunay, <i>Ses Peintures</i> . . ., 20 pochoir plates, Paris, 1925. Sold for a record $13,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Diana, Princess of Wales, 6 autograph letters signed to British <i>Vogue</i> editor, 1989-92. Sold for $10,400.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Alexander Hamilton, ALS, as Secretary of the Treasury covering costs of the new U.S. Mint, 1793. Sold for $12,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Benjamin Graham & David L. Dodd, <i>Security Analysis,</i> first edition, inscribed by Graham to a Wall Street trader, NY, 1934. Sold for $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> George Barbier & François-Louis Schmied, <i>Personnages de Comédie,</i> Paris, 1922. Sold for $9,375.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Alphonse Mucha, <i>Ilsée, Princesse de Tripoli,</i> Paris, 1897. Sold for a record $13,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ralph Waldo Emerson, <i>The Dial,</i> first edition of the reconstituted issue, Emerson’s copy with inscriptions, Cincinnati, 1860. Sold for a record $3,250.
  • <b>Christie’s Paris:</b> Blaise Cendrars and Fernand Léger, <i>La Fin du monde filmée par l’ange N.-D.,</i> Paris, Editions de la Sirène, 1919
    <b>Christie’s Paris:</b> André Breton, <i>Second manifeste du Surréalisme,</i> Paris, Editions Kra, 1930
    <b>Christie’s Paris:</b> Paul Eluard and Pablo Picasso, <i>La Barre d’appui,</i> Paris, Editions « Cahiers d’Art », 1936
    <b>Christie’s Paris:</b> Blaise Cendrars and Fernand Léger, <i>La Fin du monde filmée par l’ange N.-D.,</i> Paris, Editions de la Sirène, 1919
    <b>Christie’s Paris:</b> Hans Bellmer, <i>Die Puppe,</i> Paris, G.L.M., 1936
    <b>Christie’s Paris:</b> Salvador Dali, <i>La femme visible,</i> Paris, Editions Surréalistes, 1930
  • <b>Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini. June 27</b>
    <b>Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini:</b> KENNEDY ONASSIS, JACQUELINE Typed letter signed to Oleg Cassini. $400 to $600
    <b>Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini:</b> [CASSINI-KENNEDY FASHIONS] Important archives related to the development of fashions for Mrs. Kennedy… $4,000 to $6,000
    <b>Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini:</b> [CASSINI-KENNEDY FASHIONS] Detailed ledger of the Kennedy White House years… $500 to $800
    <b>Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini:</b> KELLY, GRACE. Four autograph letters to Oleg Cassini. $5,000 to $8,000
    <b>Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini. June 27</b>
    <b>Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini:</b> CASSINI, OLEG. Group of Kennedy-era original fashion sketches. $1,000 to $1,500
    <b>Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini:</b> KENNEDY ONASSIS, JACQUELINE. Autograph letter signed to Oleg Cassini. $800 to $1,200
    <b>Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini:</b> CASSINI, OLEG. Fashion sketch titled “Mrs. Kennedy-Palais de Versailles-State Dinner.” $800 to $1,200
    Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini: [CASSINI, OLEG - KENNEDY, JACQUELINE.] Group of approximately 130 original fashion designs… $800 to $1,200.
  • <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Darwin, Charles. <i>On the Origin of Species.</i> Presentation Copy. Sold for $500,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Darwin, Charles. Autograph Letter Signed, 3 pp, negotiating the 2nd American edition with Appleton. Sold for $21,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Hemingway, Ernest. Autograph Letter Signed, 8 pp, Paris, 1924, to his father discussing Bullfighting, Stories, and his new baby. Sold for $25,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Shakespeare, William. <i>Corialanus.</i> London, 1623. 1st printing [Extracted from the First Folio]. Sold for $50,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Swift, Jonathan. <i>Gulliver's Travels.</i> London, 1726. 1st edition, Teerink's A edition, fine, large copy. Sold for $21,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Fitzroy, Robert. Autograph Letter Signed to agent Thomas Stilwell, informing him of the progress of H.M.S. Beagle. Sold for $17,575.
    <center><b>Bonhams<br> Property from the Collection of Nicole and William R. Keck II</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Shakespeare, William. <i>Sonnets.</i> 1901. 2 volumes. Printed on vellum and illuminated by Ross Turner, bound by Trautz-Bauzonnet. Sold for $13,825.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Beardsley, Aubrey. <i>The Birth, Life, and Acts of King Arthur.</i> 1893-94. 2 volumes. Contemporary painted vellum gilt by Chivers. Sold for $5,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Assisi, St. Francis. <i>The Canticle of Brother Sun.</i> Illuminated on vellum, for the Grolier Society. Sold for $7,575.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Rackham, Arthur. <i>Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.</i> 1/500 copies signed by Rackham. Sold for $4,825.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Proust, Marcel. <i>Du coté de chez Swann.</i> 1st edition, 1st issue. Inscribed by Proust. Sold for $8,825.

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