Wikia’s Search Philosophy: It Takes a Village to Challenge a Giant

Amid warnings by its creators that users shouldn’t expect much yet, an alpha version of open source-based Wikia Search launched Monday with the goal of eventually becoming a user-regulated challenger to Google and other search engines.

Created by Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, Wikia Search is a for-profit venture that will be funded, in part, by advertising. It is the product of Wikia, a company at which Wales serves as board chairman, not the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit entity that oversees the volunteer-created and edited Wikipedia and has Wales as chairman emeritus.

However, Wales’ goal is that Wikia Search will be embraced by the general public in a fashion similar to Wikipedia. “Wikia’s search engine concept is that of trusted user feedback from a community of users acting together in an open, transparent, public way,” the company said.

First Draft

Initial users are greeted with a caveat that the site is in its infancy.

“What you see here is our first alpha release,” says a greeting on the site. “We are aware that the quality of the search results is low. Of course, before we start, we have no user feedback data. So the results are pretty bad. But we expect them to improve rapidly in coming weeks, so please bookmark the site and return often.”

Wikia is asking those interested in aiding the endeavor to help by writing the “mini articles” appearing at the top of popular search terms. The primary purposes of these articles will be to provide short definitions, disambiguations and photos.

“At the bottom of every page is a link to post bug reports,” the site reads. “Please use that link liberally to give us large amounts of feedback. Search is a fundamental part of the infrastructure of the Internet, and therefore it can and should be done in an open, objective, accountable way. This site, which we have been working on for a long time now, represents the first draft of the future of search.”

A Principled Approach

Wikia has four “organizing principles” in its vision of Internet search’s future: transparency, community, quality and privacy.

It works under the philosophy that search systems should be based on open source licenses and open content. Anybody should be able to contribute, either as individuals or as organizations, with “strong social and community focus,” says the Wikia site.

The overriding goal of providing quality search results and a good search experience must be maintained and the search engine should protect privacy by not storing or transmitting “any identifying data,” said Wikia.

Analysts had mixed reactions to the launch. Most criticism of the site’s performance was muted, possibly due to Wikia’s acknowledgment that the fledgling search engine is no Google challenger yet, and a general recollection that few people expected Wikipedia to succeed.

Power to the People

The pre-launch hype about Wikia Search might have been overdone, given the product that resulted, said Sterling Market Intelligence Principal Analyst Greg Sterling.

“I think that the central theme here is this was very heavily hyped, and what showed up today was probably not worthy of that hype, but they are trying to say it’s an alpha and will develop over time,” Sterling told LinuxInsider. “It’s a search engine that has an element of social networking and there’s nothing remarkable about it at the moment.”

However, “it has potential,” he said. “It will have to have participation and show some staying power and maybe, over the long term, it can turn into something different.”

Wikia is being savvy by branding the search engine as a project for the people, Sterling noted. “That’s a smart angle,” Sterling said. “They characterize this as a populist effort: ‘Here’s the people’s search engine. Take ownership of this site. Make it better or competitive.'”

Magnet for SEO Abuse?

Wikia Search will have a tough time fighting search engine optimization (SEO) experts and companies that will try to “game” the system to get their clients’ sites high rankings, however, said Internet marketing consultant Andy Beal.

“I think that whenever you have a technology that, at its foundation, relies on the contributions of others, it’s open to abuse and that’s especially the case when you consider that, as a search engine, Wikia Search is going to rely on the opinions of others in terms of which sites are going to rank,” Beal told LinuxInsider.

Wikia Search’s difficulty in combating SEO gamers will increase as the site gains market share, Beal said. Wikia Search’s open source search algorithm might be seen as “a door left ajar for abuse in the future.”

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