The AltaVista division of Compaq Computer Corp is continuing to develop the guts of its search engine technology in an attempt to pull it away from the pack. Director of marketing Celia Francis said of the latest additions: we’ve leap-frogged ourselves. The search engine now offers the ability to search images, ask questions and bubble-sorts better-quality pages to the top of generic inquiries. AltaVista users can choose between the search query interface, a set of categories to delimit the search, or the ability to ask questions in a natural language format, thanks to technology licensed from Ask Jeeves Inc. It works with a database of about six million questions to provide a web site that could, say, tell somebody the weather in New York if they frame it as a question. The other main new feature is Photo Finder, which uses technology from Virage Inc to deliver thumbnail photos matching the user’s search parameters. The photos are listed in order of quality, as well as relevance to the search. The default setting employs a filter to keep the quality high, but a non-filtered option can be chosen. Most of the images come from the Corbis Inc database, another AltaVista partner. Another new feature is On-Target, which is proprietary technology that sorts the quality of search response to text inquiries, and, says Louis Monier, technical director of AltaVista, delivers the best quality index results page on the web. He says it is particularly useful when users enter generic inquiries, such as ‘car’ and could get a lot of fairly useless pages returned back with little or no difference between them. Monier and Francis were both reluctant to provide details about how On-Target works for fear of spammers finding out about it and pushing their sites to the top. There is also new phrase detection technology so users do not have to enclose phrases in quotation marks and a spell checker. Compaq has also developed its own filtering system and combined it with Spyglass Inc’s SurfWatch. Compaq also employs a set of editors to look at web sites suggested by users as having objectionable material. Compaq says it has 140 million pages indexed, which it claims makes it the largest index on the web, a claim that is difficult to prove or refute. But back in May AltaVista told us the same figure, but Monier puts the lack of increase down to the fact that the company has been de-duping the index, removing duplicate copies of the same page.