The book The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture (mostly about Google, but covers other history as well) probably sums up Altavista's history as well as anything:
The mighty rise and fall with spectacular regularity int his business, and the pace of boom and bust only increased as the Internet took root in the mid-1990s. Yet Altavista is remarkable for a number of reasons. To borrow from the present, Altavista was the Google if its era. In 1996, it was arguably the best and most-loved brand on the Web. It presaged many of the current innovations and opportunities in search, from automatic language translation to audio and video search to clustering of results. And as a business Altavista attempted -- and failed -- to go public three times in three short years under three different owners. Possibly most instructive, Altavista was the product of a company that was an extraordinary success in its original business but ultimately failed because of hidebound management unwilling to drive by anything other than the rearview mirror.