December 11, 2007

Wikia Better Than Google?

CEO of Wikia, a search engine launching soon with an open algorithm, has been talking big for a long time now. Unfortunately for Gil Penchina, not much scares Google — they will just get more aggressive. They have more people and talent than Wikia will likely ever have, and Google’s massive loyal user-base will put anything Google does on a pedestal with little regard for the “competition”.

It’s not just the ability to produce a “better” search engine that is important though — that’s the easy part. The difficulty lies in getting people to use it because most people naturally don’t like change, or to be told what to do. Barring a barrage of unprecedented viral marketing campaigns, Wikia is doomed. Even great companies like Ask have been spinning their wheels for years while spending millions on advertising — and in some ways, you can argue that they even have superior search technology.

But how can a company like Wikia fail when they have these “four ongoing principles“?

  1. Transparency - Openness in how the systems and algorithms operate, both in the form of open source licenses and open content + APIs.
  2. Community - Everyone is able to contribute in some way (as individuals or entire organizations), strong social and community focus.
  3. Quality - Significantly improve the relevancy and accuracy of search results and the searching experience.
  4. Privacy - Must be protected, do not store or transmit any identifying data.

I am guessing the idea is to make the algorithm open so that the SEO community will be tempted to focus on optimizing content for Wikia. If this is any part of the reason for an open algorithm, I would argue that webmasters will care less about optimizing for a search engine that has no market share. There is more money in trying to figure out Google’s algorithm — and it’s more fun.

The majority of people use search engines to find information, not to contribute. For the same reason I don’t like Google’s “do you know a better result?” experiment, I think “community” and “search engines” are a bit like oil and water. If I knew a better result for a search query, I wouldn’t be searching — and if I do, it’s likely I’m a spammer or trying to game the system. If the entire search engine is built around this principle, it could become difficult to find unbiased information.

That’s a good principle — and it would be nice if they could somehow replicate the “quality” of Wikipedia. But like I said before, it’s not quality that is going to make you the most used search engine while Google exists.

Ok, Well I guess the hope for better quality results are out the window. How will Wikia produce better results than Google if they can’t do personalized search? It’s going to be pretty hard to figure out what people might be really looking for if you don’t “store or transmit identifying data”. What does this really mean? Well, Wikia will not be able to store server logs containing IP addresses, query strings or user agents — basically making them useless. They can’t even save search queries done through their search engine. Even AOL forgot that those can contain private information.

Some of the people working on this project are starting to wonder if anything will ever happen with it. One poster on their forums asks if the project is dead — and the response is reminiscent of the Monty Python “dead parrot” skit.

“It is very much alive. Development has temporarily slowed down a little, due to various factors, but it is certainly not dead. –Mark (Mschel) 23:19, 28 October 2007 (UTC)”

Another member, who worked on the “Strobili” component of Wikia has also recently announced his departure. He states “[the project] is not going in the same direction that I am going.”

Perhaps Wikia will die before it even lives? Honestly, I think that is the best case scenario.