AltaVista Photo Finder [later] AltaVista Images

AltaVista was one of the first successful search engines working from 1995 to 2013. AltaVista started under the domain and paid $3.3 million to acquire in 1997. The search engine was developed by Network Systems Laboratory and the Western Research Laboratory of Digital Equipment Corporation. In the following years, the search engine was sold with the owner companies first from Digital to Compaq and then from Compaq to Overture, which was sold almost directly to Yahoo. While AltaVista initially provided Yahoo's search results, Yahoo later offered AltaVista's search results. According to Danny Sullivan (see AltaVista web search), Digital didn't develop AltaVista to build a successful search engine, they created it to sell their computer technology by demonstrating the mass of data their supercomputers can manage. AltaVista offered numerous vertical search offers over the years.

In 1999 the AltaVista Photo Finder was launched, which was renamed AltaVista Images in 2000. Image search was part of the search portal until the end of AltaVista in 2013. Until 2003 AltaVista offered its own picture search. With the takeover by Yahoo in 2003 the picture search of Yahoo was used on AltaVista.

AltaVista Photo Finder is one of the first image search engines. It was a text-based search, for which image descriptions or corresponding texts on websites were evaluated.

Language Multilingual

Launched 1999
Closed July 8, 2013

Developer AltaVista

Country of Origin US America

1999 - 2003 Compaq Computer Corporation
2003 - 2003 Overture
2003 - 2013 Yahoo Inc

Topic Image SeEn

Region No Limitation

Technical functionalities
Image Search Engine
Image file search
Robot/Crawler based, algorithmic search
Search Interface / Search API

Used SeEn AltaVista Image search
Yahoo Image Search

Older Version Internet Archive / WebCite

Danny Sullivan (2002): »AltaVista makes multimedia content — images, audio files and video files, available to searches from its multimedia indexes, as explained below. Users access the multimedia index either through the tabs on AltaVista’s results page ... or by visiting the various multimedia services directly.

AltaVista provides crawler-based image listings, such as .gif and .jpeg files, that come from across the web. The AltaVista spider cannot actually “see” what’s inside of these images. Instead, it makes educated guesses.

For example, if you look for “eagles” using AltaVista image search, you’ll get pictures of eagles or graphics with the word “eagles” in them. However, AltaVista didn’t retrieve these pictures because it could recognize what an eagle looks like or because it could read the text inside an image.

Instead, AltaVista (and most crawler-based image search engines) remain mostly blind to what the actual image shows. Instead, they rely on the words that appear around the image or in the file name of the image to understand its content. So, pictures with the word “eagles” in the file name or pictures that appear on web pages that make use of the word “eagles” in the HTML text give AltaVista the clues it needs to display results.

In addition to crawling the web, AltaVista also presents images that come from partner sites such as Getty and Corbis.« Source

Danny Sullivan (2002): »Virtually all of AltaVista’s non-US editions began including images as part of its regular search results in April 2001. Known internally as Image Enhanced Results, or IER, this is where some listings in search results have images associated with them. Try a search for “london” at AltaVista UK or “eiffel tower” at AltaVista France to see examples of this.

AltaVista automatically chooses which listings should get images and exactly what images it will use. Specifically, here’s what happens behind the scenes:

AltaVista displays textual results, as usual. So, in a search for “buckingham palace,” it will display pages it considers tops for those words, using all its usual criteria.

Next, AltaVista will see whether any of the top results have pictures that qualify as a match for the search terms. First of all, that means the page needs an image on it. No images, no chance of having an image displayed. Next, the image needs to be in .jpeg or .gif format.

Assuming you make it past those barriers, you then need an image on your page that’s associated with the search terms. This could mean that the search terms are in the image’s file name — “buckingham-palace.jpg” would be an example of this. Next, it can also mean that the search terms appear in the HTML copy near the image. So, perhaps you have the words “buckingham palace” as part of a paragraph describing a picture on your page.

Finally, AltaVista says that images should be in full color and not too large in file size, though how large wasn’t specified. I’ve seen images from 3K up to 40K, but staying near the lower end of that scale seems better. « Source (2018): »In the beginning, to find an image, you would come up with some words to describe what you wanted to see ...

This started in the late ’90s, when AltaVista launched an image feature for its search that allowed you to put in a text term and return images. This was a proximate way to get people to the pictures they desired. Early image searches like AltaVista’s relied not on the ability to process the image itself and match that to text, but on image descriptions or corresponding text on web pages. « Source


»AltaVista is Spanish for "high view." The search engine was originally launched in 1995 as a subdomain of Digital Equipment's web site, as As AltaVista's popularity soared, most people trying to find it instead landed at the web site of Alta Vista Technology, Incorporated (ATI), which had launched the domain in 1994.

After unsuccessfully negotiating with ATI for the rights to the domain name, Digital sued ATI in 1996. In 1998, Digital's new owner Compaq finally dropped the suit and paid $3.3 million to ATI for the domain name« Source

Critical points

Features & Functionality


See also AltaVista web search Source

References & further Publications

Wikipedia (EN):
Wikipedia (Others):

Other Sources

TASI (2003): A Review of Image Search Engines URL:
Danny Sullivan (2002): How AltaVista Works URL: (2018): A Brief History of Image Search URL:

Created: 2019-10-14