AltaVista actually publishes their criteria for ranking sites. While I am not sure how much of it reflects the actual practice to date, it is instructive to look at their documented criteria.
Update (17 June 2006): this article is no longer relevant to today's AltaVista. AltaVista has undergone numerous changes since this article was written in 4 April 2000, and no longer uses the same engine as that described here. Please read my articles on Google Search Engine Ranking and More Tips on Google Search Engine Results Placement for current information on the search engine scene.
Update (17 December 2010): Closure of AltaVista — it looks like AltaVista is about to be closed by Yahoo!, its current owners.
The AltaVista FAQ suggests a few things you should do in order to improve your web page's ranking. Here are a few of the important ones:
Your title tag should hold keywords that meaningfully describe your page. Note that this "title" refers to the one in the <head> section of your document, not the one displayed in your browser window.
The description meta tag, that is, a tag like <meta name="description" content="..etc..">, is used as the description of your site in AltaVista's listings, and may "also influence the ranking of your page for specific search terms". This means, presumably, that if someone searches for a particular keyword, and it appears in your description and title tags, AltaVista will accord that page a higher rank than if it did not occur there.
The proximity of one keyword to another, and their
keyword density is important to AltaVista.
This probably means that if someone searches for "search engine optimization" and your
page has many instances of those three words in sequence, your page is considered
more relevant than another page with those three individual words scattered all over the page.
For more information about keyword density, see my other article on
Density in Search Engine Ranking at
Although not mentioned in the current version of their FAQ, it is usually held among webmasters that links to your site containing the keyword that the visitor is searching for improve your site's ranking on AltaVista. For example, if a visitor is searching for "CGI scripts" and there are many links to your site with those words in the anchor text, your site will be ranked higher.
Back in the year 2000, there was an article on AltaVista describing how the keyword meta tag was rated by the search engine spider. That document has since been removed (or at least, I can't seem to find it any more). The document mentioned that the words in the keyword meta tag has the same value as the other words on the web page itself, except for one very important case: if your meta keyword tag contains keywords that do not occur in your main web page, your page will be penalized. The document went on to say that your ranking may improve if you use both the title tag and relevant first few lines in your web page without any meta keyword tag.
Today, that document has disappeared. What's left of it, a general FAQ, no longer even mentions the meta keywords tag. I have a suspicion that the keywords tag is no longer even indexed by the spider.
AltaVista mentions a few practices that it considers as search engine spam. You might want to avoid these on your page since AltaVista says that it will block sites practising such tricks. Here are some of the items mentioned in their FAQ.
Extremely small text, hidden text, etc: these are typically used by webmasters to inflate the number of occurences of keywords appearing on a page.
Pages with excessive keywords: presumably if your keyword density is above a certain threshold, AltaVista will consider your page to be spamming the index.
Duplicate content: this includes mirrors of your site as well as identical content appearing from different domain names. If you need a mirror from different domains to distribute your bandwidth around, you may need to create a robots.txt file to forbid the AltaVista spider from indexing your mirror sites.
AltaVista used to be one of the most popular search engines around in the late 1990s. Today, it's popularity has diminished somewhat, and is probably overtaken by Google. Nonetheless, since submission to the index is free, and many of the documented ranking criteria mentioned above are common criteria used by other search engines, it is still a good idea to take note of them when you design your site.
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