This document, written in 1996, has been preserved for historical reasons only.

How to use AltaVista

Basic instructions

Getting started with AltaVista

Having accessed the AltaVista main page,, proceed as follows: You can start with the instructions given above, but by learning more about AltaVista you can significantly improve the efficiency of searches.

The second step in learning to use AltaVista

You will often find it effective to use the following kinds of search expressions instead of simple words:
paris "petite galerie" louvre
Finds documents containing as many of these words and phrases as possible, ranked so that documents with the most matches are presented first.
A phrase is any string of adjacent words. The preferred way to link words into a phrase is to use quotes.
Lower-case search will find matches of capitalized words also. For example, paris will find matches for paris, Paris, and PARIS.
Capital letters in a search will force an exact case match on the entire word. For example, submitting a query for parIS will search only for matches of parIS. (Don't be surprised if there are none.)
+noir +film -"pinot noir"
Matches may be required, or prohibited. Precede a required word or phrase with + and a prohibited one with -. This query finds documents containing film and noir, but not containing pinot noir.
Punctuation glues words into a phrase, just as quotes do. Punctuation is treated as white space, so this example is equivalent to "antique pump organ" (that is, three words enclosed in quotes).
This query matches pages that contain at least one word beginning with alumi and ending with m. In practise, it will alumi*m will find matches for both aluminum and the British English aluminium. Thus the *-notation is also useful for searching for words which may have variant spellings. However, there are some restrictions on the use of asterisks.
Very often the query result contains much more matches than you can reasonably scan through. Therefore you might wish to apply a new query on the result of a previous query, by using words that exclude irrelevant items. This is not supported, but you achieve the same effect by editing the line containing the previous query - typically, by appending new words to it - and then submitting the modified query. This way you will iteratively perform queries until you find useful information, as the following examples show.

Examples of Simple Queries

To find the documents most relevant to what you need, construct your query as precisely as you can. AltaVista ranks the documents found so the ones matching the most words and phrases in the query are listed first. Even so, you might not find exactly what you want at the head of the list if your search is too general.

For example, suppose you wanted information about the languages of American Indians but you did not know any specific language to search for. You might start with the following query: american indian language. (The word-count numbers quoted here are not updated as new pages are indexed. They serve as an example only.)

american indian language
word count: indian 395185, language 2048030, american 2654433. 100000 documents found containing as many of these words as possible, in both upper and lower case.
This search is much too broad. Of the first ten documents found, the first few appear relevant, but the rest are documents about languages in Asia.
Make clear how you want the query to be parsed. In other words, link american and indian together as a phrase. Include the plural of language in the search also by using the *-notation.
"american indian" language*
word count: american indian 30000, language* 2050463. 20000 documents found.
The documents found are now relevant to information about American Indian languages, enabling you to refine your search further. For example, suppose you want to know more about the ojibwe language that was mentioned in one of the documents found by this query.
Require that the word ojibwe and its variants ojibway and ojibwa be included in your next search. Since this is an American Indian word, you could now omit american indian from the search.
language* +ojibw*
word count: ojibw* 3625, language* 2050463. 1000 documents found.

Advanced usage of AltaVista

Simple Query and Advanced Query

AltaVista provides two different search interfaces (search screens), Simple Query and Advanced Query. You can do quite a lot of useful and even sophisticated searches with Simple Query. However, Advanced Query offers more functionality; on the other hand it is somewhat more tedious to use. It is advisable that you learn to use both interfaces.

In Simple Query, you basically type a sequence of words, possibly preceded by special keywords and possibly containing wildcards (asterisks). In Advanced Query, you basically type a Boolean search expression containing keywords AND, OR, NEAR, and NOT. Internally, Simple Query is implemented so that a Boolean search expression is constructed "behind the scenes" and then invisibly passed to Advanced Query. Thus, Advanced Query is technically the basic query, and Simple Query is a useful simplified interface to it.

The AltaVista main page contains the Simple Query interface. You can switch to Advanced Query just by following the link labelled Advanced. Similarly, you can switch from Advanced to Simple Query by following the link labelled Simple.

Using Advanced Query


You must use the binary operators AND, OR, NEAR, and the unary operator NOT to combine words and phrases.

If you just type two consecutive words in Advanced Query, there will be no implied AND or OR operator between them. Instead the query will search for only those documents in which that particular pair of consecutive words occurs. This is quite different from what two consecutive words mean in Simple Query!

Advanced Query also differs from Simple Query so that by default Advanced Query returns an unordered set of matches. In order to get some ranking you must use the type-in field labelled Results Ranking Criteria to enter words or phrases that will determine the ranking.

The syntax of the operators

The operators can also be written in lower-case: and, or, not, near. Alternatively, you can use the symbols & for AND, | for OR, ! for NOT, and ~ for NEAR.

If you need to use any of these words as search words in a query, you must place them in quotes, eg "near".

Using the operators

AND, OR, and NEAR are binary operators, whereas NOT is unary.
kayak AND "San Juan Islands"
The operator AND ensures that both are present in the resulting documents. The operator AND binds less tightly than juxtaposition.
"Digital Equipment Corporation" OR DEC
The operator OR ensures that at least one is present in the resulting documents. The operator OR binds less tightly than the operator AND.
Louis NEAR Monier
The operator NEAR ensures that both are within ten words of each other in the resulting documents. The operator NEAR binds less tightly than the operator NOT and associates to the left. This query matches Louis Monier, Louis M. Monier and Monier, Louis.
vegetable AND NOT "brussel sprouts"
The operator NOT is used to exclude words or phrases from a query. The operator NOT binds less tightly than the operator OR . This query is equivalent to vegetable and (not "brussel sprouts"). Do not use vegetable NOT "brussel sprouts"; this query is syntactically illegal.
You are allowed to use parentheses to group search expressions; in fact it's recommended as less confusing.

Examples showing the importance of parentheses

gold or silver and platinum
gold or (silver and platinum)
(gold or silver) and platinum
The first two queries are equivalent. They return documents containing both silver and platinum, together with documents containing gold.
If you want the search to find documents containing platinum and, in addition, in the same document, either gold or silver, you must use the third query pattern.

not gold and silver
(not gold) and silver
not (gold and silver)
The first two queries are equivalent. They return documents containing silver but not gold.
If you want the search to eliminate documents that contain both gold and silver, you must use the third query pattern.

gold near silver and platinum
(gold near silver) and platinum
(gold near silver) and (gold near platinum)
The first two queries are equivalent. They return documents containing gold located close to silver, and in addition, in the same document, the word platinum.
If you want the search to find documents containing gold located close to silver and, in addition, in the same document, gold close to platinum, you must use the third query pattern.

not gold near silver
not (gold near silver)
silver and not (gold near silver)
The first two queries are equivalent. They eliminate from the search all documents containing silver located close to gold.
If you want the search to find documents containing silver but want to eliminate those that contain gold located close to silver, you must use the third query pattern.

gold near silver or platinum
(gold near silver) or platinum
The two queries above are equivalent. They find documents containing gold located close to silver, together with documents containing platinum.

gold near (silver or platinum)
(gold near silver) or (gold near platinum)
The two queries above are equivalent. They find documents containing gold located close to silver, together with documents containing gold located close to platinum.

Constraining searches

It is possible to restrict searches to certain portions of documents by using the following syntax. The keyword (link, title, image,...) should be in lower-case, and immediately followed by a colon.

Constraining searches in Web pages:

Matches pages with the phrase click here in the text of a hyperlink.
Matches pages containing the name of the Java applet class found in an applet tag; in this case, NervousText.
Matches pages with the phrase in the host name of the Web server.
Matches pages with comet.jpg in an image tag.
Matches pages that contain at least one link to a page with in its URL.
Matches pages that contain the word algol68 in any part of the visible text of a page. (ie, the word is not in a link or an image, for example.)
title:"The Wall Street Journal"
Matches pages with the phrase The Wall Street Journal in the title.
Matches pages with the words home and html together in the page's URL. Equivalent to url:"home html".

Constraining searches in Usenet news articles

Please notice that these constraints can be used when searching from Usenet news:
Matches news articles with the words in the From: field.
subject:"for sale"
Matches news articles with the phrase for sale in the Subject: field.
You can combine this with a word or phrase. For example, subject:"for sale" "victorian chamber pots".
Matches news articles posted (or crossposted) in news groups with rec.humor in the name.
Matches news articles with the word invest, investment, investiture, etc., in the summary.
Matches news articles with the word NASA in all caps in the keyword list.

Useful tips

Find all links to your site, excluding pages from your own site

In Simple Query: +link: -url:

Alternatively, in Advanced Query: link: AND NOT url:

To speed up the search, you can leave out the very common words http and com.

Find someone

The person you want to find could be listed as Jane Smith, "Jane L. Smith," or "Smith, Jane L."

Therefore, use the proximity operator in the Advanced Query: Jane NEAR Smith.

Use AltaVista as a spelling or usage checker

Is it CDROM or CD-ROM?
Make a search for both words, and compare the word count: CD-ROM wins.

Use AltaVista to extract information from Usenet news

You can tell AltaVista to search from Usenet news instead of the Web.

You can use the newsgroups: keyword to restrict the queries to named groups.

In the Advanced Query you can select a range of dates.

And of course you can use the search capabilities to exclude certain authors or newsgroups, or to favor certain topics.

Bookmark a page with certain options enabled

You can restore your favorite options by simply retrieving this URL from your bookmarks.

Quick access to AltaVista

If you use AltaVista often and would you like to access it even faster, you can simply cut the following paragraph of HTML and paste it to your WWW document:

<FORM method=GET action="">
<B>Search <SELECT NAME=what>
<OPTION VALUE=news>Usenet
and Display the Results <SELECT NAME=fmt>
<OPTION VALUE="" SELECTED>in Standard Form
<OPTION VALUE=c>in Compact Form
<OPTION VALUE=d>in Detailed Form
<INPUT NAME=q size=55 maxlength=200 VALUE="">
<INPUT TYPE=submit VALUE=Submit>
The result:
Search and Display the Results

Problems in using AltaVista?

I know a page on the Web that matches my query, but AltaVista did not find it. Why not?

There are many reasons why AltaVista might not find a page that is in fact on the Web.

AltaVista found some documents that do not match my query. Why?

AltaVista indexes the contents of a document as of the day it finds it. It is possible that the owner of the document has made some modifications since AltaVista retrieved and indexed it. Even though the original document matched the query, the new version might not. Eventually AltaVista will get around to retrieving the page again and indexing it on the basis of its new content.

In our experience, however, when AltaVista finds a document that does not appear to match the query, the most likely explanation is that it does indeed match, but in some way that is not very obvious. For example:

AltaVista found a page I wanted to look at, but when I attempted to retrieve it, I got an error. Why?

This can occur when the status of the page, or the server it is on, has changed since AltaVista last retrieved and indexed it. It is also possible that your own internetworking infrastructure (routing tables, DNS service, security policies, proxies, and browser configuration), prevents you from making a connection to the server. The particular error message you get will give you more information.

Additional information about AltaVista

Detailed description of the AltaVista screens

The initial screen

The following notes basically relate to the case of using a graphical WWW browser (such as Netscape). You can use AltaVista with a text-only browser (such as Lynx), too, but the screen looks different; in that case you may wish to select the link Text-Only to get an interface which is especially designed for the purpose.

The initial screen, ie the Alta Vista main page at contains the following:

The icon line:
The search options line:
The search line:
The tip line:
A short randomly chosen tip intended to help in using AltaVista more efficiently.
Lines containing information about AltaVista:
A few lines of description of AltaVista, with some links to more detailed information.
Miscellaneous links:
AltaVista Software
The copyright notice:
A legal notice, containing a link to information about the copyright owner.

Notes to WWW document authors and maintainers

In the absence of any other information, AltaVista will index all words in your document (except for comments), and will use the first few words of the document as a short abstract.

You should pay attention to the very beginning of your document, using descriptive words in the title and first heading. The document will look more interesting, and due to the AltaVista ranking rules people's queries will find it more easily.

In addition, it is possible for you to control

by using the META tag to specify additional keywords to index, or a short description, or both. Let's suppose your page contains:
<META  name="description" 
content="We specialize in grooming pink poodles.">
<META  name="keywords" content="pet grooming, Palo Alto, dog">
AltaVista will then do two things:
Pink Poodles Inc
We specialize in grooming pink poodles. - size 3k - 29 Feb 96

AltaVista will index the description and keywords up to a limit of 1,024 characters.

If you have important documents which you would like others to find, you can specifically ask AltaVista to add the your document into its database. This can be done rather easily through the Add URL link on the AltaVista initial screen.

How searches work

To simplify the description that follows, we refer to the type-in field labelled Selection Criteria as the search field, and that labelled Results Ranking Criteria as the ranking field.

Simple Queries and Advanced Queries are different interfaces to the same search engine. This being true, you might be surprised that, under certain conditions, apparently identical queries can produce slightly different results, depending on whether you submit them as Simple or Advanced Queries.

Compare, for example, a one-word Simple Query, say plato, with the same word submitted as an Advanced Query, but with no ranking specified. More specifically, this latter query has plato in the search field and nothing in the ranking field. Each of the two queries produces "about 20000" documents, but the ranking is different in each case.

The explanation for the difference in ranking is rather complex, but briefly, AltaVista implements Simple Queries as Advanced Queries. More specifically, a Simple Query gets transformed into a boolean expression together with a set of words to rank the results.

In the example above, AltaVista will implement the Simple Query consisting of the one word, plato as an Advanced Query with nothing in the search field, but plato in the ranking field. Recall that in this example, the Advanced Query had plato in the search field and nothing in the ranking field; in other words, the two queries were actually not identical, and hence the different rankings.

If you submit a different Advanced Query, this time with plato in both the search field and the ranking field, the rankings of the documents matched will also be identical to those produced by the Simple Query for plato.

To sum up, all three of the following queries produce the same matches and in the same ranking order.

       Type of Query           fields            Query word
        Simple               search only            plato
        Advanced               search                ---  
                               ranking              plato
        Advanced               search               plato 
                               ranking              plato
The following query will give you the same matches as for the queries above, but in no particular ranking order.
       Type of Query           fields            Query word
        Advanced               search               plato 
                               ranking              ----


Ranking the results of queries

Ranking results of Simple Queries

For Simple Queries, AltaVista will rank the results based on a scoring algorithm; documents with a higher score appear at the head of the ranking list. A document has a higher score if the following hold:

You are therefore likely to find what you want close to the head of the resulting list of matches.

Ranking results of Advanced Queries

Use the type-in field labelled Results Ranking Criteria to enter words or phrases that will determine the ranking of the search results. Recall from the previous section that ranking an Advanced Query is equivalent to performing a Simple Query; the same scoring algorithm is used in both cases. Documents with a high score will appear at the head of the list. High scores are assigned if the selected ranking word appears in the first few words of the document (say, in the title of a Web page or in a header), or if the document contains more than one instance of the ranking word.

Here's an example query, starting with no ranking specified.

      Search field          (gold near silver) and platinum
      Ranking field         
      Result                2000 documents found and listed in no 
                            particular order.
The 2000 documents found will contain the words gold located close to silver and in addition in the same document, the word platinum. If you now choose platinum to rank the search results, the query will produce the same 2000 documents, as you might expect, but ranked so that those with the highest scores for platinum are placed at the head of the resulting list.

      Search field          (gold near silver) and platinum
      Ranking field         platinum
      Result                2000 documents found, ranked so that those with
                            high scores for platinum are listed first. 
You might want to proceed further. On the assumption that documents containing matches for these metals also contain references to other metals, you might want to check for occurrences of another. But notice what happens now to the search results.
      Search field           (gold near silver) and platinum
      Ranking field          palladium
      Result                 200 documents found
In this case, the Advanced Query has not returned the 2000 documents that resulted from this search and reranked them so that any with matches for palladium are listed first. A second level of filtering has been applied to the search result; 1800 documents that do not contain matches for palladium have been discarded. In other words, when the ranking field is not empty, documents that contain none of the words in the ranking field are discarded.

More about Words, Phrases, Capitalization, Accents, and the *-Notation


AltaVista treats every page on the Web and every article of Usenet news as a sequence of words. A word in this context means any string of letters and digits delimited either by punctuation and other non-alphabetic characters (for example, &, %, $, /, #, _, ~), or by white space (spaces, tabs, line ends, start of document, end of document). To be a word, a string of alphanumerics does not have to be spelled correctly or be found in any dictionary. All that is required is that someone typed it as a single word in a Web page or Usenet news article. Thus, the following are words if they appear delimited in a document: HAL5000, Gorbachevnik, 602e21, www, http, EasierSaidThanDone, etc. The following are all considered to be two words because the internal punctuation separates them: don't,, x-y, AT&T, 3.14159, U.S., All'sFairInLoveAndWar.

Only the words in a document are significant to AltaVista. AltaVista does not index punctuation or white space, so you can use AltaVista to look only for words and phrases, not punctuation.


A phrase is a string of words that are adjacent in a document, although they may be separated by any amount of white space or punctuation. They do not have to be grammatical in any human language--they just have to occur in a document as an adjacent sequence of words. Some examples:

Since the punctuation and white space are insignificant to AltaVista (except that they delimit words), the phrases above are indistinguishable from the following variants:

There are two conventions for typing a phrase in a query. The best way, leading to the least ambiguity, is to type the phrase as "a sequence of words separated by spaces and surrounded by double quotes". However, as an alternative, you may type the words of the phrase with punctuation (and no white space) between each pair of words. For example, these are all equivalent as queries:

The first is the one we generally recommend. Be aware that the punctuation characters & | ! and ~ have meaning in Advanced queries, and * indicates the *-notation used in both Simple and Advanced queries.


Capital letters are considered distinct from lower-case letters. When a word is found in a Web page or a news article, its case is preserved when it is stored in the index.

When you enter a word in a query, therefore, it is always safe, and generally recommended, to type it all in lower-case, because lower-case letters indicate a case-insensitive match. If you type any capital letters, you force an exact case match on the entire word.

Thus, the word turkey in a query will match any of turkey, Turkey, tUrKeY or TURKEY occurring in a document. But the capitalized word Turkey in a query will match only Turkey in the document, and not any of the other capitalization variants.


Accents are treated in the same way as capitalization. An accented word used in a query forces an exact match on the entire word. For example, if you use &eacut;el&eacut;ephant in a query, you will match only the French spelling for the pachyderm. However, if you do not care to enter accents in the search window (something which is browser, platform, and keyboard-dependent), you can always safely omit the accents, thereby matching both the French and English spellings.

The *-notation

To search for occurrences of any of a group of words with a similar pattern, AltaVista provides the *-notation. For example, you might want to search for matches of sing, singer, singers, singing. In this case, place the *-notation at the end of the word whose inflections you want to include in the search: sing*. But, a word of warning. AltaVista will also match words lexically unrelated to your query word. So the query sing* will also find matches for singe, single, singular, and for foreign words such as French singulier.

The *-notation cannot be used without restriction. To make such queries computationally feasible, AltaVista requires that the * be used only after at least three letters. The *-notation will match from zero up to five additional letters in lower-case only. Capital letters and digits will not therefore be matched.

The *-notation can sometimes be useful for finding variant spellings: for example, cantalo* will find matches for cantaloup, cantaloupe, cantalope, and their plurals. But take care how you construct the query word. For example, if you want to find matches for both color and colour, a query of the form col*r is not the most efficient. This query will also find matches for collector and atomic collider. In this case, it is more efficient to submit the query colo*r, which will find matches for both color and colour.

Finally, if your search using the *-notation finds too many matches, AltaVista will ignore the query. The query inte*, for example, produces the result,

Ignored  inte*: 4292323  
No documents match this query