Technology

Critics Wallop Wikia


And for good reason. The new search engine doesn't even turn up Wikipedia's own entries, and its interactive features are wholly inactive, for now

Wikia Search, the highly anticipated search engine conceived by Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, arrived Jan. 7 without many of its promised "collaborative" features, prompting a chorus of harsh reviews around the blogosphere.

Preliminary testing of the site by BusinessWeek.com produced disappointing results consistent with the widespread grumbles, many of which concluded that Wikia Search went live far too early with this Alpha version. Wales, who has touted plans to incorporate user feedback into search results, launched the site without any of those capabilities in place. For now, Wikia Search is little more than an ordinary algorithm-driven search engine mixed with a few Facebook-type frills such as user profiles that can be used to find others with common interests.

"A Complete Letdown"

The scathing reaction among bloggers and other commentators was epitomized by a TechCrunch.com piece bluntly titled "Wikia Search Is a Complete Letdown." The article's author, Michael Arrington, said that while poor results are to be expected early in a search engine's life, expectations that the people behind Wikipedia might produce a second Web phenomenon had run wild. "Wikia search would be a disappointment even without the massive hype we've had to endure," writes Arrington. "And taking that hype into account, this product is an inexcusable waste of time." Over at SearchEngineLand.com, Chris Sherman offered another biting assessment: "It's really just yet another crappy search service that may, potentially, if all goes well, eventually turn into something useful." In a response posted on TechCrunch, Wales urged patience with the new venture.

In trying out the service, BusinessWeek.com put Wikia Search through a history test and the engine did not score well. In response to a query for "Abraham Lincoln," three of the top four search results provided links to elementary and high schools bearing Lincoln's name. Amusingly, Google's (GOOG) results for the same query led off with Wikipedia's entry about the former President—absent in Wikia's own results—followed by a string of biographical articles that one might expect. By contrast, such entries were buried deep within Wikia's results.

BusinessWeek.com also tested the new engine's handle on current events. When searches were conducted for "New Hampshire Primary," Google once again displayed the Wikipedia entry near the top amid a slew of links pointing to information on that state's Jan. 8 primary. Also, Google's first option was its "News Results" link, which led to 36,000 news articles about the primary. Wikia Search did a better job this time, matching some of Google's top results. But yet again, no Wikipedia entry was displayed and, even worse, there were no links to news stories from top media outlets. Google yielded 1.86 million results in a tenth of a second, while Wikia Search took longer to manage only 8,971 results. Eventually, Wikia Search will feature wikis, like those seen on Wikipedia, at the top of every search, but that feature will take years for the community to write and refine.

A major part of Wales' plan is to allow surfers to rank the search results by helpfulness. There are five stars to the right of every search result. By clicking them, the user can give any result a rating, producing data that will affect Wikia's future response to similar or related queries. However, when you try to rate a search result today, a window pops up with a message saying, "Sorry, these don't actually do anything yet :(." Another review of Wikia Search, from Allen Stern of CenterNetworks.com, cites this as a major problem. "I understand that it's in Alpha and things will improve and change as the plan moves forward, however I would have liked it to be a bit more polished before hitting the public eye."

Wales Counsels Patience

Only the social aspects of the new site stand out at this point. Users can create profiles similar to those offered by Facebook and MySpace (NWS), and another unique feature relates these profiles directly to the search engine: If someone conducts a Wikia search that matches an interest in your profile, your picture appears along with the search results. Wales hopes that incorporating common interests into the search tool will build community.

On the eve of the new site's launch, Wales had told BusinessWeek.com, "This is a project to build a high-quality search engine. Don't expect Google-quality searches on Day 1. That's just not going to happen." Wales reiterated that point in a posting on TechCrunch in response to Arrington's article and other criticisms around the blogosphere. Wales says he hopes to make the public realize that today's Alpha version is years away from his ultimate goal. Harking back to Wikipedia's inauspicious start, Wales encouraged the public to wait patiently and have faith in the new site. Despite a dearth of encyclopedia entries at launch, Wikipedia has become the eighth most visited site on the Web, Wales notes.

Burnsed is an intern for BusinessWeek based in Atlanta.

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