Wikia, Inc. (www.wikia.com), the for-profit cousin of the Wikimedia Foundation (http://wikimediafoundation.org), launched the alpha release of its new search engine, Search Wikia (http://alpha.search.wikia.com), on January 7. Search Wikia is branded as a "social" search engine, significantly different from the big names in search, such as Google and Ask.com. Wikia is hoping that the open and participatory model will make Search Wikia the place to go for search results of higher quality.
Wikia is actively calling for input and help on the project, highlighting the fact that this search model is a direct descendant of the easy-to-use, easy-to-edit, and very user-friendly concept of the wiki. Users are meant to help improve the results by writing "miniarticles" that head the search results pages, by reporting bugs to the administrators, and by ranking the results in a 5-star system. All of this serves to aid other participants in the community and holistically build both the breadth and depth of this new search engine. Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikia, Inc., said in a phone interview that the miniarticles will serve several functions at once, because a good search engine should understand that "you need URLs, tidbits of information, spelling help, and lots of other possibilities," but the most important function of these miniarticles will be to create "disambiguation and definitions" that get fed back into the search index as improved and approved by the community of participating searchers. Wales says, "they’ll work as an indicator of quality." Quality, not quantity, seems to be Search Wikia’s target.
Response amongst the blogorati since Monday’s debut has been tepid. TechCrunch (Michael Arrington), as a typical example, expressed disappointment in the product: "The search results are poor and thin, as would be expected if not for the huge expectations that have been set. Absolutely no one is going to use this to search the web, until (and if) it is greatly improved." Fair enough: The search term ‘kirkyan’ fetches 3,700 results in Google, 364 results in Ask, and only 2 results in Search Wikia. A more common search term, ‘oprah,’ brings back 22.8 million results in Google, 14.5 million in Ask, and a little more than 12,000 in Search Wikia. This is clearly, as yet, a very low-end search engine.
But as Arrington later writes, this is only a proof-of-concept run. It seems that all of the hype that ran for months ahead of the debut (making the cover story, for example, in April 2007’s Fast Company) has set Wikia-watchers up to be underwhelmed by the performance of Wikia, Inc.’s new star product.
Wikia, however, remains optimistic. Wales says, "I’m a big believer in ‘release early, release often,’ so things are going to change a lot." He stresses that Search Wikia is the beginning of something—not the end product. It is still just "a project to build a search engine, not a [finished] search engine." It seems that Wikia sees the search business as a long distance relay run—not a sprint against the big names—and the relay team is all of us interested users.
Search Wikia is at its core a project that focuses a bunch of people (anyone who wants to join, in fact) into working together to see if they can build a fundamentally different kind of search engine. The real story here is in the people; that is to say, Search Wikia is meant to be built by and for its users, and it’s going to get very, very social (Facebook social) before too many more iterations are completed. Wales indicated that this is not a simple fetch-job, but rather a project that taps deeply into the social power of the new web, and that it requires massive collaboration in order to operate. People (rather than spiders) will be the Search Wikia powerhouse.
Users currently have three main ways to participate. You can rate the results from your search, you can modify the open source code (http://svn.swlabs.org/foowi), and you can tie search results and tendencies to your own or to other users’ profiles. Building Search Wikia to sort through your friends’ search ratings, your own and others’ interests (search history), and using communities of interest to disambiguate terms, Wales says, "is exactly the kind of thing we’re looking at," though these applications are still far from final form.
Wales expects waves of participation to come in at different times and in different strengths. The core Search Wikia community has already established a powerful framework, but the future of social search remains wide open. "We want to find a way for everyone to participate in some fashion if they want to," says Wales.
Challenges ahead include creating a technically elegant system that actually delivers better results than major search engines and building enough buzz and interest to really draw in and harness the numbers of people that this social search engine will require in order to operate and excel.