Wikia launching human-powered search
A new open-source search engine lets users vote on results.
Today, Wikia is planning to launch Wikia Search, a very early-stage version of its open search engine. Wikia (and Wikipedia) co-founder Jimmy Wales believes that it's necessary for the public to take control of search, which he sees as a shared need and thus a shared resource.
The site that's launching today is for users who want to "help us build a search engine," Wales said. So don't expect a Wikia-powered Google killer on Day One. "We want to be sure people aren't expecting a Google-quality experience on Monday."
Here's what Wikia is building: a human-ranked search engine and mini-Wiki, with a social network angle. The first two parts are the most interesting.
Wales says that initially the engine will crawl and index the Web, and give users algorithmically generated results. But users will be able to rank results up or down, which will have a strong influence on further results. This extra, intentional step of rating results will, I am sure, help little-known but high-quality pages rise in the rankings, and encourage link-farmed search spam to sink. Assuming, that is, that users take the time to rate, and that suitable antigaming technologies are put in place.
I tried a preview of the alpha on Saturday and couldn't see how users rate results. Hopefully the rating function will be added before launch.
Google, by the way, also applies human intelligence to its search results; see the Q&A with Google's Peter Norvig in MIT's Technology Review.
Users will be able to contribute mini-articles that live at the top of search pages (much like Ask's search toppers, I imagine). As on any Wiki, people will be able to edit and comment on the articles. This could become the best feature of the Wikia Search experience. These little guides dropped into search results pages by fellow surfers remind me of the hobo code marks: helpful advice left by other travelers who've been before where you are going now.
Wikia Search will have another social angle. Users will be able to find other contributors to work on the search engine with them, behind the scenes from the masses who just want results. It appears that Wikia Search users will also be able to attach their profiles to particular search results, indicating if they are an expert (or, I suppose, have a business interest in) what the search is about.
Wikia Search is all open source. Anyone will be able to download the code for the engine and the crawler. Some people will use this to tweak their Web sites so the Wikia Search engine ranks it more highly. But other people will try to improve the code itself, which could have a very interesting effect on SEO (search engine optimization) industry once and if Wikia Search gets big enough to matter.
Wales maintains that since users will be rating pages, there will be no "search engine optimization" to perform other than creating content and sites people like. Unless I am missing something, even with the option to put human ratings on pages, most pages will remain unrated. The algorithm will still matter. I do have high hopes for Wikia Search, though, since the idea of an open algorithm that is transparent, and transparently updated, strikes me as a lot more fair than the current black-box search engines run by Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Ask.
Can Wikia Search succeed? Web search is a difficult and expensive business, but as Wales says, "It monetizes well." Unlike many other crackpot sites we see, with search, if the users come, the money follows. Try out the very early, very rough Wikia Search at alpha.search.wikia.com.
And see also Mahalo, an evolving human-powered Web guide. Currently, Mahalo primarily uses paid staffers to create its topic pages, but a new "Mahalo Follow" feature lets users easily recommend sites to the engine--a more cost-effective way to quickly build a library of human-approved links.
Previous News.com story: Wikia Search to offer first peek next week.