AltaVista was created by researchers at Digital Equipment Corporation's Network Systems Laboratory and Western Research Laboratory who were trying to provide services to make finding files on the public network easier. Paul Flaherty came up with the original idea, along with Louis Monier and Michael Burrows, who wrote the Web crawler and indexer, respectively. The name "AltaVista" was chosen in relation to the surroundings of their company at Palo Alto, California. AltaVista publicly launched as an Internet search engine on December 15, 1995 at altavista.digital.com.
At launch, the service had two innovations that put it ahead of other search engines available at the time: it used a fast, multi-threaded crawler (Scooter) that could cover many more webpages than were believed to exist at the time, and it had an efficient back-end search, running on advanced hardware.
As of 1998, it used 20 multi-processor machines using DEC's 64-bit Alpha processor. Together, the back-end machines had 130 GB of RAM and 500 GB of hard disk drive space, and received 13 million queries every day. This made AltaVista the first searchable, full-text database of a large part of the World Wide Web. Another distinguishing feature of AltaVista was its minimalistic interface, which was lost when it became a Web portal, but regained when it refocused its efforts on its search function. It also allowed the user to limit search results from a domain, reducing the likelihood of multiple results from the same source.
AltaVista's site was an immediate success. Traffic increased steadily from 300,000 hits on the first day to more than 80 million hits per day two years later. The ability to search the web, and AltaVista's service in particular, became the subject of numerous articles and even some books. AltaVista itself became one of the top destinations on the web, and in 1997 it earned US$50 million in sponsorship revenue.
By using the data collected by the crawler, employees from AltaVista, together with others from IBM and Compaq, were the first to analyze the strength of connections within the budding World Wide Web in a seminal study in 2000.