Technology

Wikia Wants to Shake Up Search


Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, is launching a new kind of search tool, with results that rely on users' input and open-source software

Jimmy Wales isn't entertaining David-and-Goliath delusions when it comes to battling Google at Internet search. Wales, co-founder of online encyclopedia Wikipedia, knows his new Web-search tool won't come close to reaching Google's (GOOG) market share any time soon. But he's got what may be an even grander agenda: Wales wants to shake up how people search the Web, whatever engine they use.

Wikia Search debuts Jan. 7, the result of more than a year of development (BusinessWeek.com, 12/27/06) and $14 million in funding from Amazon.com (AMZN), venture capital firm Bessemer Venture Partners, and a who's who of angel investors including Netscape Communications co-founder Marc Andreesen, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, and Lotus Development founder and Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder Mitch Kapor. The search engine is being launched by Wikia, a San Mateo (Calif.) for-profit that evolved from a company Wales co-founded in 2004.

What separates Wikia Search from many other Web-search tools, including Google's, is that it will incorporate human input with methods based on computer programs. A potentially more important distinction is that Wikia will publish the code undergirding the search tool. Opening the source code fits with the growing movement in the field of technology, including within Google, toward open software.

Soliciting User Input

Wales hopes other search companies will follow Wikia's lead, becoming more transparent in their methods and integrating more user input. "It's a political statement as much as anything else," says Wales. "I think that we should be concerned about secret…proprietary software, a small amount of companies controlling a huge amount of flow," he adds. Wales says Wikia's goal is to "produce something of decent quality that will impact and push other players in the industry toward more openness."

The quality quotient will depend largely on user participation. Wikia Search will encourage users to rate the effectiveness of search results. In subsequent queries, Wikia Search will favor those results deemed most helpful in prior queries.

Unlike the nonprofit Wikipedia, Wikia Search will generate revenue by selling ads that appear alongside search results. In fact, the search engine will have no apparent connection to Wikipedia. The Wikia Search site, which went live at www.wikia.com on Jan. 7, will have more in common with Google's familiar layout than with the online encyclopedia's.

Can It Live Up to the Hype?

Wikia Search has been generating buzz for months, and may draw enthusiastic participation early on, according to industry analysts and observers. The challenge will be getting early adopters to return, and bring their friends. "You can look at a lot of these different services: They're announced, they spike, they get a lot of attention in blogs and publications," says Tom McGovern, chief executive of search engine Snap.com. "But then you get into the marketing problem of convincing that person to come back two days from now and do another search."

Wales cautions against expecting too much from Wikia Search too soon. As for any search engine, especially one with a strong human component, it will take time for Wikia Search to produce pertinent search results. "Don't expect Google-quality searches on Day 1," he says. "That's just not going to happen."

A Search for Community

Wales is banking on the sense of community that has built Wikipedia into a popular, if flawed, source of information on the Web. "Wikipedia started with nothing and steadily built an audience over six years to become the No. 8 Web site on the Internet," he says. "An audience will stay if they have a sense of ownership, which is what we're providing with the search project."

Wikia Search will foster community by letting users build Facebook-esque profiles to forge ties to people with common interests. The engine will also use wikis, the online collaboration tools, to publish brief Wikipedia-like articles along with search results. "I have an understanding of what is important to community," Wales says. Wikia Search also will take pains to combat the spam that can plague search engines that rely on user input, empowering the Wikia Search community to block troublesome users from placing content.

Still, Wales says it may take at least two years for the engine to reach the standard set by Google and competitors such as Yahoo! (YHOO) and Microsoft's (MSFT) search tool. That may be too long for impatient Web surfers, says Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of the Search Engine Land Web site. "If it doesn't come through the first time—that's it," he says. "People won't go back again when there are so many other options."

Hard to Break the Google Habit

The most popular of those options, of course, is Google. "Quitting Google is like quitting smoking," Sullivan says. "It's a habit that's hard to break, and people don't want to break it." The Mountain View (Calif.) company had 57.7% of U.S. searches in November, according to Nielsen//Net Ratings. The closest rival was Yahoo, with 17.9%. "I don't think [Wikia Search will] reach a meaningful market share in the foreseeable future," says Snap.com's McGovern. "In an industry valued at a lot of money, a 5% market share would be terrific, but I think that's going to be very difficult to do."

What it lacks in share, Wales hopes Wikia Search will make up for in influence. Already, Google has taken a page from Wikipedia with its plan to introduce Knol (BusinessWeek.com, 12/14/07), an online tool that gives users an incentive to pen authoritative articles on a given subject. The giant is by no means injured, but it may well be paying attention.


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