Monday, January 7, 2008
Are humans really better search filters than computers?
Wikia search engine hopes to steal Google's thunder
Are humans really better search filters than computers? That's the question Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales hopes to answer as he unveils his new human-powered search engine Monday.
Wales will open the doors to curious web users to begin developing Wikia, the open source search engine that borrows a page from his original free encyclopedia. It also tries to steal a little thunder away from the reigning search champ, Google Inc.
"We're publishing all the algorithms so everyone can see how things work and we're publishing all the data as well so other people can collaborate with us to create other kinds of search indexes," Wales said in an interview.
The stakes are huge. While there are already a number of contending search engines like Yahoo, Ask.com and MSN Live, none has collared the multi-billion dollar online advertising market that fuels search engines to the extent Google has. And while Google and other search companies constantly update their complex software code to improve search results, their algorithms are never disclosed, for competitive reasons.
Enter Wales to shake things up. Although there have been other human-powered search engines floating around the web, none have more clout behind them than Wikia. As the founder of Wikipedia, Wales has become somewhat of an Internet celebrity and has millions of tech savvy users supporting his dream of making the web a fully democratic tool.
"In the last few years, the quality of search has hit a plateau," Wales said. "People are starting to notice that communities can do really amazing things if given the right tools. Additionally, it's taking that concept and recognizing the desire to experiment and see how we can move beyond the next level of quality."
For example, Wales says, if you're searching for a hotel in Paris, you don't want to turn up results on Paris Hilton's latest misadventures. Using Wikia, community members would program a search engine that would be able to recognize that you're not really interested in celebrity gossip.
Greg Sterling, an analyst with Sterling Market Intelligence, says that Wales' populous approach should intrigue some early adopters who have grown tired of Google's complex search algorithms.
"He's aligning himself with the people of Wikipedia versus the Death Star that Google is," Sterling said.
But there's a little twist. While Wikia gears up to square off against Google in the search world, Google has begun testing a new service that will directly compete with the reigning online encyclopedia, Wales' Wikipedia.
Dubbed Knol, the service will enlist experts to write on a wide-ranging amount of subjects and pay them depending on the amount of advertising displayed on the website. It should be launched sometime this year. The idea behind Knol is to avoid the mistakes that may be frequently made on Wikipedia.
"There are millions of people who possess useful knowledge that they would love to share, and there are billions of people who can benefit from it. We believe that many do not share that knowledge today simply because it is not easy enough to do that," said Udi Manber, a Google vice-president of engineering, in a recent posting on the official Google blog.
While the service may offer accurate reports, Knol is being viewed more as a way to bump Wikipedia articles down the search ranking list and to grab ad revenue in the process.
Yankee Group analyst Jonathan Edwards said previous attempts at competing with Wikipedia by Ask.com and Yahoo have failed and he doesn't see Knol faring any better.
"Wikipedia conquered the quality stigma they faced in 2006 and now the accuracy is astounding," Edwards said. "The inmates aren't running the asylum anymore and any mistakes are usually fixed as soon as its posted."
Wales also doesn't seem to be too worried about Knol.
"To me, since there is no collaboration, it's like another blogging platform," Wales said. "I think everyone's got really excited over comparing Knol and Wikipedia, but I just don't see it."
While Wikia may resonate with some groups of people, its unlikely to catch on to the mainstream search audience, says Sterling. But Wales' goal of attaining five per cent of search engine market share with Wikia may not be as lofty as experts originally thought.
"Anytime a company becomes as successful or as dominant as Google has become . . . there's resistance or backlash, and that creates a hunger for alternatives," Sterling said. "If the engine works and there's successful adoption, we could see it hitting those targets in a three-year window."
Wikia Search Engine Debuts January 7
After more than one year of work and $14 million dollar worth of funding and collaborations with Amazon.com, Bessemer Venture Partners, Netscape Communications co-founder Marc Andreesen, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and Lotus Development founder and Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder Mitch Kapor, Jimmy Wales, co-founder of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, announced the debut of Wikia Search engine on January 7, 2008.
Talks of a future internet search engine started December 2006, when Wales made a short comment on the possibility, but nothing was made very clear at the time. Wales limited himself to saying that Wikipedia and the ‘Search Wikia’ how it has been temporarily named, had completely separate managements.
It wasn’t until January 31, 2007 that Wales officially announced Wikia’s plans to build a search engine to rival Google and Yahoo, saying that “search should be open, transparent, participatory and democratic.” The goal was to achieve a 5 percent share of the search market, which still remains to be seen after this month’s launch.
Jimmy Wales said, according to New York Times: “We want to make it really clear that when people arrive and do searches, they should not expect to find a Google killer. Instead, people who use the Wikia search engine should understand that they are part of the early stages of a project to build a ‘Google-quality’ search engine.”
One major advantage Wikia search engine will have will be the reputation of the Wikipedia online encyclopedia, and the algorithm it is based on. Users are given the possibility to contribute to the relevance of the results, by rating the results and even by adding mini-articles, a similar concept as that of Wikipedia.
Wales continues to militate for the complete transparency and freedom of choice, as he thinks, according to the same source, that “it is unhealthy for the citizens of the world that so much of our information is controlled by such a small number of players, behind closed doors,” referring to the fact that there are only three major companies in the search engine market, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, and no one is aware of the criteria they use when they rank certain sites.