I spent a bit of time yesterday playing on Wikia, a new for-profit search engine created by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales that tries to build upon Wikipedia's formula of having contributors create and refine content.
As BusinessWeek explains it: "... it offers a hybrid of software-powered search, � la Google, blended with the human-driven 'social search' exemplified by Yahoo Answers, which lets people post questions and harness the wisdom of the crowd."
It borrows a number of key ideas from search king Google, most notably an advertising-based revenue model and a super-simple launch page that features nothing more than a search box and a cute cartoon cloud.
It also throws in a dash of Facebook by allowing users to create profiles, add friends and create wikis for favored topics. At this point, there doesn't appear to be much point to those features. (I've found little use for Facebook or a similar site in my daily life, so I am not especially qualified to comment on that. As fellow IT Business Edge blogger Loraine Lawson wrote: "I can't possibly think of a reason to go (to Facebook) every day. Especially since my inbox and a wall calendar will provide many of the same services.")
While the idea of adding a human element to search makes sense, the results so far leave room for improvement -- quite a bit of room. The top result for George Bush took me to a site unambiguously titled "George Bush is a Crackwhore." Also appearing high in the results were Technorati and a couple of sites with presidential "humor." There was also what appeared to be a bogus profile for the current president.
Results for Jimmy Wales appeared to be more relevant, though, with a link to Wales' own blog and a bunch of other blogs and news articles about him. Interestingly, the "mini-article" for Wales that appears atop the results has already been edited by contributors a half-dozen times.
One contributor felt compelled to write that "Jimmy Wales is gay." The original mini-article, "Jimmy Wales founded the Wikimedia Foundation" was revised twice, to add the name of Larry Sanger, the co-founder of Wikipedia. (Sanger now has a Wikipedia alternative in Citizendium.) As of 10:30 EST today, it reads: "Jimmy Wales is the co-founder of Wikipedia and Wikia."
As on Wikipedia, looks likerampant revisionism could be an issue for Wikia. It actually troubles me far less on a search engine than on something that purports to be an online knowledge repository.
Part of the problem with my initial forays onto Wikia may have been due to heavy use from curious types. I got a number of "unable to connect" messages when clicking around the site. Yet Wales himself freely admits (in a comment to Michael Arrington's critical post about Wikia on TechCrunch): "Yeah, the search sucks today." It will get better, Wales says, and as with Wikipedia, the idea was to create something different.
Yet even on that score, Wikia is a failure, opines Mashable blogger Stan Schroeder, who expresses a preference for Mahalo. He writes:
Besides offering much better search results, and actually delivering on the "human" element of search, (Mahalo) has a lot more options, a better integrated social component, hell, it even looks better.
Schroeder goes on to say that Wikia "looks like something that was cooked by two guys in one month in a basement, and as such, it blends in well with the thousands of other mediocre search engines out there." And that may be its biggest problem.
Whatever your opinion of Wikipedia (and I confess, I often get downright bipolar about it), it took a different and fresh approach to knowledge sharing. It was radical. A social approach to search? Not so radical. As Schroeder points out, it has already been done -- and better -- by others.
Much of the press coverage, of course, has focused on whether Wikia could ultimately pose a threat to Google. (And hey, it's at least a little refreshing to see a new entrant join Microsoft and others in the ranks of potential "Google killers.")
I wonder if Google doesn't have a few social-search tricks of its own waiting in the wings. Search Engine Journal blogger Greg Sterling speculated about just such a possibility in May 2006. And surely Google must have some plans for Jotspot, the wiki software developerit bought in late 2006.