April 30, 2008

Wikia Search : A Media Case Study on "the human touch to outsmart Google"

There's a Wikia Search puff piece in the Los Angeles Times: Wikia's Weird Dream: "A new search engine from the minds behind Wikipedia relies on the human touch to outsmart Google. Does it stand a chance?"

It won't do any good for me to rant about this to my tiny audience, but I'll do it anyway in vain hope it'll show some of my critics that the hype I'm talking about does indeed exist:

Wikia, working from modest headquarters in San Mateo, Calif., is attempting something at least as audacious as Wikipedia's launch was in 2001: It is building a for-profit search engine to compete with Google. There are no legions of engineers. Instead, the endeavor is powered as nonprofit Wikipedia is: by volunteers. (Wikia and Wikipedia are different companies; all they have in common, besides a "by the people and for the people" philosophy, is their co-founder, Wales.)

Note how Wikia is given a halo effect from Wikipedia - "by the people and for the people" is much more accurately rendered "by the unpaid and for the investors". And later on, the answer as to how this sales-pitch works:

Why would volunteers donate their time to help a for-profit company?

"Wikia Search is basically doing something unique," says Mark Williams, an 18-year-old college student who lives on the south coast of England. He estimates that he puts in up to 20 hours a week rating search results for Wikia and writing mini-articles. "It's changing the future of how people can search, so that they know how and why certain results are coming up, and if they don't like the results then they can say so."

You - yes, YOU - can say so! And if your contribution helps a corporation make more money, then you can have a warm and fuzzy feeling from it. Unemployment insurance? Health benefits? A union? How can these compare to changing the future? (a semi-serious question).

Observer that the guy apparently hasn't heard of any of all the other social-search engines. That's the value to Wikia of all the publicity from Wikipedia (not the tiny bits of PageRank that might be sent to some Wikia sites from any hypothetical Wikipedia favoritism towards Wikia, or even various personnel connections).

Wikia executives have another criticism of Google. They look at its inability to control spam from its e-mail service, Gmail, and they see a parallel with the search engine: Google has been unable to entirely eliminate irrelevant search results. "I'm constantly surprised by how much money, how many computers, how many algorithms go into preventing spam, and yet every day I look in my mailbox and I go, -Dude, that's not right,' " Penchina says. What's striking, he says, is how much better people can do than Google's software in filtering out unwanted e-mail. In the same way, he says, volunteers can do that with search results.

Why, yes, if you can get a large pool of uncompensated labor to do lots of scut-work, that would work very well. The trick is, of course, getting that in the first place.

Meanwhile, all the Wikia-bashing has also resulted in some goodwill, even sympathy, from critics. Sherman of Searchengineland was critical of Wikia Search's launch, but he says he would like to see the underdog pull off an upset. "I'm kind of rooting for them because of the David versus Goliath aspect," he says. "Google has started taking on aspects of the Microsoft evil empire - it's too big, too dangerous. And isn't it cool that we're going to have an upstart that will give us an alternative?"

Volunteer for us to fight the Evil Empire! (pay no attention to the money we'd like to make off of you - you're changing the future, you're part of The Revolution!)

Others warn it would be a mistake to underestimate Wikia Search based on its early performance. "Anyone who is selling Jimmy Wales short over the launch is going to be in for a surprise," says John Palfrey of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. "He's leveraging many of the same things that made Wikipedia a global force. I think Wikia can have a huge impact on search engines over time."

And here is again why I will never be an insider, a club-member. I'd concur that Wikia Search is *trying* to leverage many of the same things as Wikipedia - but in my view that's not necessarily good.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikia-search | on April 30, 2008 11:59 PM (Infothought permalink)
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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LOL at the quote from the guy at the Berkman Center! Jimmy Wales is an honorary Berkman Fellow. Talk about a circle-jerk.

How appropriate that an 18-year-old college student is donating his precious time to a for-profit search failure, when he should be studying, eating pizza at 2 AM, playing flag football, and (heaven forbid) meeting girls.

Among the wiki-whackos, it seems only Jimbo caught on to that last priority in life, eh?

Posted by: Gregory Kohs at May 1, 2008 09:57 AM

It is old news but that quote from Penchina is very illuminating. He just doesn't understand that the highly structured nature of spam lends itself to simple filtering. A handful of rules is capable of dealing with a lot of the spam. Webpages, especially those that are intended to game the system, don't have quite that element of sameness. If they did, they'd be flagged by a duplicate content filter.

The one thing that Search Wikia seems to have overlooked in its rush to market is the quality of its search index. That one thing has killed more search engines than anything else. Shovelling a bunch of URLs into a crawler and hoping for the best does not work. Applying social search to clean an index after the index has gone live is like digging a hole on the beach with a teaspoon at the water's edge. It is always going to be flooded.

Perhaps Wikia Search will be just another fourth tier search engine low down on the pyramid where Google is the capstone. I don't know if it has anything near the organisation and search expertise required to make the jump to a second (Yahoo) or third tier (Microsoft/Ask etc) search engine.

Posted by: John McCormac at May 1, 2008 02:23 PM

Wait -- is Penchina trying to say that it would be better if humans went through my email to filter out spam, before I could get to read it?

No, thanks. I'd rather have the dumb machines.


Posted by: Vipul Naik at May 3, 2008 03:44 PM

Gregory: Jimbo majored in finance. He knows the value of labor to others.

John: I think he meant even with all the rules, things still get through, and there's no substitute for sweatshop labor, err, I mean, the human touch.

Vipul: Yes, I think that's what he meant. Like celebrities have personal assistants to screen their mail.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at May 7, 2008 07:57 PM