AltaVista has unveiled a new and more user-friendly site at a glitzy New York bash. With a new logo and its slogan "Smart is beautiful", AltaVista hopes to create a brand with which a broad audience can identify.

"Yahoo is like an amusement park - fun, functional and fast," says AltaVista CEO Rod Schrock. But "AltaVista is like the Epcot Center - dynamic, and thought-provoking."

Long favoured by techies for its far-reaching and efficient search technology, AltaVista's popularity has lagged behind that of top-tier portals such as Yahoo and Excite, which have focused on more consumer-oriented offerings.

The new AltaVista features spiffy colours, personalization capabilities, improved search technology and an integrated e-commerce area, with more than 100,000 merchants. The site also offers more content - primarily news from the New York Times and the Washington Post, but also live Webcasts and "cams" to give viewers a peek at things like freeway traffic.

"We deserve to be known as more than just a great search engine. We are now a new media company," says Schrock.

CMGI lends support Polishing the brand will improve AltaVista's chances in the portal race, but leveraging the support of new owner CMGI is even more crucial. The investment firm's ever-growing arsenal of more than 50 Internet companies means an easily accessible network of content and services - from financial information site Raging Bull to Internet service provider to ad network Flycast - that could help propel the portal back into the mainstream.

Things looked good for AltaVista in the early days. Just as people were realizing how difficult it was to find anything on the Web, AltaVista broke onto the scene with its pioneering search engine technology in December 1995. But it languished at Digital Equipment, which was in its death throes. Meanwhile, upstart rivals like Yahoo benefited from AltaVista's early vision.

AltaVista’s luck changed when Compaq acquired Digital last year. Compaq chairman Ben Rosen, realizing he had a diamond in the rough, spurned advances by Yahoo and Time Warner to acquire all or part of AltaVista. Instead, he spun it off as a subsidiary in January with plans for an IPO. Rod Schrock, who ran Compaq's consumer products group at the time, was tapped as the search engine's president and CEO.

Morph the merrier Schrock realized the importance of morphing AltaVista into a portal, as other search engines had done, by offering content and services in order to keep users within the site. Compaq, which acquired the same month, bought Zip2, a company that develops local city content, for $300 million in February. But Compaq's strategy for integrating the new properties with AltaVista remained unclear. Meanwhile, rival portals were making even bigger deals. Among them: Excite merged with broadband provider AtHome, Disney folded Infoseek into the Go Network and Lycos bought search company HotBot.

Within months of Compaq's purchase, the hardware manufacturer sold AltaVista to its third owner, CMGI. And after years of missing the boat, David Wetherell's deep-pocketed firm, which also owns a nearly 20 per cent stake in Lycos, may finally be able to help AltaVista get back in the game. A new marketing budget of US$120 million will enable AltaVista to launch a major ad campaign; compare that figure to its previous budgets of less than $1 million. The work force has also been muscled up to more than 600, from the 55 who worked there in January. About two-thirds of the new staffers had worked at the newly acquired and Zip2.

But CMGI may need to hold its adopted child's hand some more in order to help it catch up in the highly competitive portal market. In a Media Metrix report of the 50 most-visited US Web sites in September, AltaVista was ranked 17th, with 9.4 million visitors - well behind top-placed Yahoo, with 32.1 million visitors. It also trailed AOL's Web sites, Microsoft's portal, Go Network, Excite and Lycos.

Moreover, while AltaVista's traffic was relatively flat, traffic for most of the top portals had dropped since August. While not alarming, the dip may presage that users are moving away from portals altogether, making it even more critical for AltaVista to push its model further.

AltaVista will also need to continue building on its core search and technological innovations. It was the first to offer advanced technology like multilingual translations and remains one of the few to provide searches of photos and audio. Executives say AltaVista's servers index more Web pages than any other site - about 90 per cent of the Web. They also claim AltaVista is the sixth-largest Internet company in the world in terms of users, with 40 million unique visitors.

The relaunch comes four months after AltaVista's announced purchase by CMGI from Compaq, in a stock deal valued at $2.3 billion. The sale was completed in August, with Compaq retaining a minority interest. As it has done successfully with other properties such as Engage and GeoCities (which it has since sold to Yahoo), CMGI plans to file an IPO for AltaVista in January.