Will AltaVista Overtake Yahoo! And AOL?

As one of the pioneering Internet search engines, AltaVista is hoping that a combination of revamping its Web site and a $120 million (US$) ad campaign will be enough to catapult it out in front of Yahoo! and America Online.

Created in 1995 by Digital Equipment Co., AltaVista was folded into Compaq Computer Corp. as part of the PC giant’s 1998 takeover of Digital. However, earlier this year, Compaq sold an 83 percent stake in the company to Internet investment firm CMGI.

Since then, industry observers believe that the Andover, Massachusetts-based CMGI has been intent upon making Alta Vista stand out among its various Internet properties so that it could someday spin it off in an Initial Public Offering.

Building Up The Site

To bring this scenario about, it has been reported that AltaVista has beefed up its staff to more than 600 employees from a measly 80 workers last year. It has also created a new tag line for the plethora of TV commercials it has scheduled: “AltaVista: Smart is beautiful.”

The revamped site includes live video, constantly updated news and such tools as a digital shopping assistant that helps a user find the best prices on goods and services.

Pry Users Away?

AltaVista’s TV ad campaign debuted Monday night during ABC’s Monday Night Football. The company ran four spots totaling three minutes in an effort to convince viewers that AltaVista is the new center of the universe.

Company officials said that these spots are just the beginning of the $120 million ad campaign, which will be stretched out over 10 months. Currently, 70 percent of the budget is slated for television, with 20 percent to print and the balance going to radio and online ads.

As an added jumpstart for the site, AltaVista also sponsored a 45-minute Webcast concert Monday featuring Grammy-award-winning singer Lauryn Hill.

However, even with the big bucks, many enhancements and extraordinary hoopla, some experts doubt if AltaVista will seriously challenge either Yahoo! or AOL.

Both Spent Years Developing Their Brands

I agree with them. It has taken both Yahoo! and AOL years of hard work, trial and error, and hundreds of millions of dollars in research and advertising to attain the kind of ubiquitous branding both e-commerce giants have attained.

Even by incorporating the Ask-Jeeves technology — which will allow people to search AltaVista by querying the engine in sentence form — will do little to tear people away from AOL and Yahoo!.

Having taken a look at the site myself, I have to admit that it’s greatly improved — but a far cry from the 900-pound cyber gorilla it would take to pry away faithful patrons of its two biggest competitors.

If Hype Would Make It So

In the fantasy world of dot-coms, where churned out hype is the daily prescribed pabulum for the masses, CMGI can pretend that its new and improved AltaVista site will kick AOL and Yahoo’s collective butts, while I pretend to agree with them.

But in the real world, it’s just not going to happen.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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