Wikipedia founder to create user-driven search engine
12/25/2006 5:51:19 PM, by Ryan Paul
Wikia, a for-profit corporation created by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, is preparing to launch a search engine that will leverage the user-driven model that has contributed to the massive success of the Wikipedia.
The Wikia corporation plans to launch the search engine with financial backing from online retailer Amazon (some sites are erroneously reporting that Amazon is involved in the development process, but please note that they are just providing financial resources for Wikia at this point) and a handful of other technology companies, but Wales hopes to generate profit from the service with advertising. In an interview with the Times Online, Wales says that "the revenue model for search is advertising," a truism demonstrated by competitors Google and Yahoo. Does Wikia have what it takes to beat the best at their own game? Wales is hoping that the reputation of Wikipedia and the transparency of the user-driven approach will be enough to attract users.
According to Wales, conventional search-engine ranking algorithms lack the efficacy of human intervention. "Essentially, if you consider one of the basic tasks of a search engine, it is to make a decision: 'this page is good, this page sucks'," says Wales, "Computers are notoriously bad at making such judgments, so algorithmic search has to go about it in a roundabout way." Wales also complains about poor results from mainstream search engines, commenting: "Google is very good at many types of search, but in many instances it produces nothing but spam and useless crap."
Although many consider Wikipedia to be a useful tool, Wales himself is one of many who insist that the web-based community encyclopedia shouldn't be treated as an authoritative source. The quality and accuracy of Wikipedia content has been questioned on numerous occasions and the site has stirred up controversy more than a few times in the past. Most Wikipedia contributors have seen edit wars and outright manipulation transpire even within articles that don't address controversial topics. A prank by television comedian Stephen Colbert, for instance, led to mass vandalism earlier this year. When one considers the competitive advantages of high search engine placement and the growing number of search engine "optimization" firms that specialize in improving a site's page rank, one begins to wonder how Wikia plans to prevent the system from being exploited.
The commercial nature of the new service could also potentially deter users. It is worth noting that Wikipedia users overwhelmingly rejected the use of advertising on Wikipedia when it was suggested as a potential means of funding future growth for the site. Users may be reluctant to contribute to the betterment of a commercial site that may end up being bought by a bigger company. Consider, for example, the tragic death of TV Tome, a comprehensive community-driven television content guide that was eventually bought by CNET and transformed into a garish, excessively commercialized Web 2.0 monstrosity of significantly less value to users.
Even commercially successful user-driven web services have challenges of their own. Digg.com, for instance, battles spammers who attempt to mass-"vote" content onto the front page. At the other end of the spectrum, the most popular items on Digg are typically bizarre novelties; of the top fifteen Digg stories from the last 30 days, four relate to Digg itself, four relate to the tragic death of James Kim, and the rest are mostly humor. My point is that popular content is not synonymous with useful or informative content (no, discovering YouParkLikeAnAsshole.com on Digg hasn't tangibly improved my life in any way), so a search engine that ranks pages by popularity rather than some measure of value (Google's algorithm is an attempt at this) may produce useless results.A user-driven search engine service has a lot of potential if it is done correctly. Despite all of its problems, Wikipedia is still an extremely valuable resource and a site that I personally visit an average of three to five times a day. To compete with Google, Wikia will have to keep the advertising simple and focus on making Wikipedia's neutral-point-of-view policy work for search rankings. If that happens, Google might have some real competition on its hands.