Monday, January 7, 2008 marked the launch of Wikia Search, the long-awaited, much-hyped search engine from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. Wikia Search takes many of the principles that made Wikipedia such a success, such as open-source software and community-driven effort, and applies them to search. Wales believes that this new approach to search can not only rival the Google-dominated market, but help to reshape and disrupt the chokehold that they have on the search industry.
Those are some pretty lofty expectations if you ask me, but hey, it doesn’t hurt to dream big. Unless of course you then fall flat on your face, which it appears Wikia Search may have already done. But maybe not.
Caution: Site Still Under Construction
While Wales and his new company warned that Wikia Search would be launching in an extremely alpha state, meaning that there’s still a lot left to be desired, there has been a lot of hype about this new search engine for the past year and expectations were high. Perusing the web today, it seems that many people are less than impressed by the launch, and have begun ripping it apart to shreds. Others, however, remain hopefully optimistic that the search engine will improve as it continues to operate in an early alpha stage, eventually moving to beta, and then into something more developed and refined.
If it weren’t for the repeated warnings about the search engine’s extreme state of infancy, I would be utterly put off by what was launched today and likely write Wikia Search off altogether. At this point, it’s nothing more than a bad search engine with the ability to add a profile. Yippee. Even after playing around with Wikia Search for a bit, I’m not yet ready to formulate an opinion on it. It is entirely too early in the game to do so, with what little they have shown us. Others, however, might not be as understanding as I am.
If You Build It, Will They Come?
The success of Wikia Search lies in the hands of volunteers who will help operate the site. If users are keen to join up and become active, Wikia Search should enjoy at least marginal success. If they fail to attract a critical mass, it will fade from our memory as fast as the Furby fad of the late 90’s.
Assuming that Wikia Search can attract willing participants, there are volunteer opportunities suitable for everyone from the hardcore programmer to the casual web surfer. There are options for those interested in actually working with the software to improve and extend it, as well as opportunities for who simply would rather suggest pages for the index and evaluate and rate search results.
To get involved, you simply need to register on the site. Once registered, you’ll join a social network-like environment, where you can compile a list of friends, build a profile, upload photos, and be notified of friends’ actions.
What It Is, What It Will Be:
Wikia Search is based off the open-source Nutch software, and currently contains an index of web pages created by Grub (a company acquired by Wikia last year). The search results are, at this time, extremely bad and quite thin. At Monday’s launch, Wales indicated that the index would have anywhere between 50 million and 100 million web pages, which by today’s standards is quite minuscule.
There is also not yet any kind of real human element to Wikia, as we were promised. This functionality will supposedly come later on down the line, said Wikia Search CEO Gil Penchina. For the time being, users can only add keywords to their profile, or help contribute to a “mini article” that appears at the top of search results for queries. When a search is done by others for those keyword terms, the user’s picture will be shown in the right-hand column. Eventually, Wikia hopes to allow users to edit and improve results for searches that interest them. But that will come later.
Wikia Search’s vision for the future includes allowing users to rank the quality of individual search results, which they will thus factor in when solving future queries. It is in this way that people will be able to influence the algorithmic search results. Sounds dangerous.
Allowing people to influence algorithmic search results will undoubtedly attract spammers like bees to honey. Being able to manipulate the SERPs is a web site owner’s dream! But according to Wales, those who attempt to abuse the system will quickly be noticed by administrators and community members. Abusers will be promptly blocked and banned, said Wales.
As I said previously, Wikia Search at the present time is little more than a bad search engine with a social networking element. And do we really need anymore social networking? If Wikia is banking on the social element to keep it afloat at the start, they better think of a new plan of action fast. How many profiles and online relationships can one really expect to maintain?Volunteers are desperately needed to beef up the index, and fast. With results like these shown currently at Wikia Search, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to use it for search until it is greatly improved.
Jimmy Wales doesn’t expect the search engine to meet industry standards for at least two years. That’s two more years that Google and Co. have time to gain even more ground on the upstart, which means that Wikia is going to have to start attracting attention and volunteers fast. The critical checkpoints, in my opinion, will be six months from now, and then one year from now. They’re hardly anything to judge now, so it will be interesting to see what, if anything, can be done with this new idea in search.