Tales from the Net

a work in progress

Monday, January 7, 2008

Wikia’s open-source “social search” alpha is up

Wikia, a for-profit company started by Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia fame, has gotten a lot of attention both for their open-source focus and for their plans for applying community effort to refine search results, an approach generally known as “social search”. The alpha version of Wikia search was released today, with loads of coverage including the New York Times and Business Week. From Wikia’s “about us” page:

We are aware that the quality of the search results is low.

Wikia’s search engine concept is that of trusted user feedback from a community of users acting together in an open, transparent, public way. Of course, before we start, we have no user feedback data. So the results are pretty bad. But we expect them to improve rapidly in coming weeks, so please bookmark the site and return often….

I believe that search is a fundamental part of the infrastructure of the Internet, and that it can and should therefore be done in an open, objective, accountable way. This site, which we have been working on for a long time now, represents the first draft of the future of search.

The initial experience is a combination of a social network (a photo, friends, a “whiteboard” a la Joomla’s chatbox or Facebook’s wall) and search results, very similar to Mahalo Social. From a quick experiment, Mahalo made it much easier for me as a user to contribute: I could just provide my favorite link in response to a search result, along with 100 characters about why I liked it, and a few tags. Wikia, by contrast, invited me to write a “mini-article” on the topic, and when I bring up the page it emphasizes that they want content and not just a link — and warns me four times not to spam or I will be blocked. How inviting. And yeah, the search results are pretty bad. Still, it’s early days yet; wouldn’t want to jump to any conclusions.

Initial reviews are a mixed bag — as somebody said on the Slashdot conversation, “don’t they understand the meaning of ‘alpha’?” Michael Arrington describes it as “a complete letdown” on TechCrunch (in a comment, he defends his views because he’s been using it for four whole days); MG Siegler focuses more on the social aspects and is “more intrigued then I would be.” Wales makes some good points in his responses (summarized nicely on Terrence Russell’s Wired blog) and his comments a week ago in a Slashdot thread, emphasizing that for approaches like social search (or Wikipedia) which rely on “wisdom of the crowds”, rushing to judgment before the crowds are there is ridiculously premature.

Wikia’s well-funded (including $10 million from Amazon), and despite the controversies there’s no question that Wikipedia showed Wales can build a community that can create generally-high-quality results, so we’ll certainly be seeing a lot more about this over the course of the year. In South Korea, Naver dominates the search market with a social search approach; a lot of people are skeptical that a new site can overcome Google’s huge advantages, but if Wikia can get to their goal of 5% market share they’ll be hugely successful. I’ll check back from time to time and perhaps even get up the nerve to do a mini article one of these days.

posted by Jon at 5:11 pm  

1 Comment

  1. ReadWriteWeb’s Believe it or not, Mahalo is Growing has some discussions about why people might find it useful, as well as why these statistics might be misleading.

    Comment by Jon — January 14, 2008 @ 2:29 pm

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