Q&A: What Should Have Been Successful but Ultimately Failed? Why Did It Fail?
The rise and fall of early search engine giant AltaVista always reminds me of Terry Malloy’s famous speech from On the Waterfront.
“I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.”
Digital Equipment, AltaVista’s parent company, didn’t quite know what to do with its rising star and, much like Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy, AltaVista was a victim of wasted potential.
AltaVista was originally conceived as a test case for one of Digital’s super-computers, and Digital saw it mainly as a demo for its hardware capabilities. Digital failed to see AltaVista as a potential revenue generator (which is ironic considering the contemporary popularity of search engine marketing).
After testing the search engine among its own employees, Digital rolled out AltaVista to the general public in 1995. With the ability to index ten times more pages than its competitors, AltaVista was an impressive tool that quickly rose in popularity. By 1997, the site attracted over 80 million visitors daily, and by the next year, 20 multi-processor servers were required to handle the volume of search queries.
Unfortunately, after Digital was bought out by Compaq, AltaVista was transformed into a complex web portal with a cluttered homepage in an effort to keep pace with industry leader, Yahoo. As a result, users migrated to Google, a new search engine that took the former AltaVista model and improved upon it by making it faster and simpler to use.
By the time AltaVista was reverted to its simple design, it was too late, and, after scrapping the plans for an IPO, it struggled to become profitable.
Ultimately, AltaVista was sold to Yahoo, which eventually closed down the largely-forgotten search engine in 2013 with a one-sentence announcement.
Maybe if Digital Equipment had realized the potential superstar it had on its hands or if Compaq had kept to the search engine’s simple front-end design, AltaVista could have competed with Google. But, alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
Instead, a lack of faith in AltaVista’s potential left this heavy hitter benched.