Wikiasari, Web 2.0, and Other Search Engines

Stephen DeAngelis

January 2, 2007

Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, has announced that he is developing a new search engine which places him head-to-head with giants like Google and Yahoo. The question is whether there is room in the already-crowded search engine category. According to an article by Erika Morphy, “The key differentiator will be Wikiasari’s open source search technology and ranking methodologies, which will be based on Wikipedia’s model of user-driven content — a sharp contrast to Google’s proprietary search algorithms.” [“Upstart Search Engine Wikiasari to Take On Google,” E-Commerce Times, 28 December 2006] As I wrote in an earlier post about Web 2.0, “Whereas Web 3.0 will be technology driven to make surfing more effective and user friendly, Web 2.0 is peer driven, with people building on Web 1.0 to make its content more connected and more useful. Information sharing is not only necessary in the information age, its natural. People are naturally social animals even when occupying cyberspace. Web 2.0 takes advantage of that instinct.” Wales is a natural leader in Web 2.0 development. Morphy writes:

“Since Jimmy Wales’ announcement last week that he plans to launch a new search engine in Q1 2007, speculation has been rife over what it could mean for the search industry — and specifically for Google. Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, is one of the few Web 2.0 players with enough clout to take on the search giant. Although he has not revealed much more than his intention to launch a new site next year, the basics are widely understood: The search engine, called “Wikiasari,” will rely on volunteer users, and it will be based on Apache’s open source search technology; the code will be made generally available. Also, users will be able to rank results according to personal preferences. Wikiasari reportedly will be a for-profit operation backed by venture capital money from several high-profile sources, including Amazon.com.”

Wales has a good shot at success. Despite the derision that greeted Time Magazine’s selection of “You” as Person of the Year, the fact is that connected groups are exercising influence in new and innovative ways. Wales is counting on such people power to make Wikisari successful.

“‘This will be a people-powered search engine,’ Cord Silverstein, director of engagement marketing for Capstrat told LinuxInsider. The search model typified by the major search engine providers uses proprietary algorithms to determine how results are ranked, regardless of the user’s preferences, he said. ‘If I type in “New York hotels,” I should get a very different set of results as a potential tourist than if Donald Trump types [it],’ he said, adding that the personalization of results will be a key differentiator. ‘One of the problems with Google is that it provides the same information to the world over and doesn’t take user perspective into account,. said Mary Hodder, founder and CEO of Dabble. In general, there are three areas in which search could be improved: user context, the algorithms for relevance, and the quality of responses, she noted. Wales ‘appears as though he is thinking about the quality of information,’ Hodder observed. Even if he never gets around to the other two issues, ‘if he can fix that one point, it will advance search technology dramatically,’ she added. Not everybody is sold on the idea of a wiki-based search engine, though. ‘It strikes me as an invitation to search engine spam,’ Miki Dzugan, president and chief marketing guru at Rapport Online, told LinuxInsider, referring to the practice of users submitting and resubmitting sites that offer little content value but have been tweaked to score high in search results. For example, ‘Open Directory, with thousands of volunteer editors, is not able to keep up with the new sites that continually are coming online. The publicly available submission form is bombarded with automated submissions, as well as persistent promoters of dubious Web sites that need to be weeded out. Human weeding alone cannot keep up with the spam,’ said Dzugan. Social-based search is not likely to solve the huge search spam problem. ‘While there is potential for socially generated and edited search rankings to be relevant in some areas, the same tools and controls make it exponentially easier for spammers to game the system to their own ends,’ said Anthony Iaffaldano, director of marketing at Reprise Media. Nonetheless, ‘there is plenty of room left in this market for an engine that offers a different take on search results than what’s currently available to users — an army of thinly veiled Google clones,’ he said, adding that ‘Wikiasari has an opportunity to change the market’s perception of what search should be.'”

Despite the opportunity for abuse, Wales is counting on the fact that people appreciate a degree of control in their lives — even on the Web — and enjoy feeling part of group (or smart mob) on the cutting edge of a new technology or phenomenon. Morphy notes that Google is in no danger of being put out of business.

“Even though it would make for great drama, Wikiasari will not destroy Google. ‘The search engine market is still in growth mode,’ said Riza C. Berkan, founder and CEO of Hakia, a meaning-based search engine Web site. Most people use Google, and that is not likely to change, he said. Increasingly, though, more people are using multiple search engines to find content. ‘In this market, there is always room for new ideas,’ he added.”

In an earlier blog [Globalization’s Competitive Landscape], I wrote about how Ask.com is trying to compete with Google and Yahoo by becoming one of the multiple search engines people use. Wikiasari will certainly have a leg up on most new start-ups and its appeal for those who want a more personalized Web experience will guarantee that it will a draw a large trial audience. The crowd won’t stay, however, if Wikiasari doesn’t deliver. Wales isn’t alone in trying to unseat Google. Powerset, hakia, ChaCha and Snap are all trying to beat the Google at its own game [“In Silicon Valley, the Race is On to Trump Google,” by Miguel Helft, New York Times, 1 January 2007]. According to Helft:

“These ambitious quests reflect the renewed optimism sweeping technology centers like Silicon Valley and fueling a nascent Internet boom. It also shows how much the new Internet economy resembles a planetary system where everything and everyone orbits around search in general, and around Google in particular. Silicon Valley is filled with start-ups whose main business proposition is to be bought by Google, or for that matter by Yahoo or Microsoft. Countless other start-ups rely on Google as their primary driver of traffic or on Google’s powerful advertising system as their primary source of income. Virtually all new companies compete with Google for scarce engineering talent. And divining Google’s next move has become a fixation for scores of technology blogs and a favorite parlor game among technology investors. … Since the beginning of 2004, venture capitalists have put nearly $350 million into no fewer than 79 start-ups that had something to do with Internet search, according to the National Venture Capital Association, an industry group. An overwhelming majority are not trying to take Google head on, but rather are focusing on specialized slices of the search world, like searching for videos, blog postings or medical information. Since Google’s stated mission is to organize all of the world’s information, they may still find themselves in the search giant’s cross hairs. That is not necessarily bad, as being acquired by Google could be a financial bonanza for some of these entrepreneurs and investors. But in the current boom, there is money even for those with the audacious goal of becoming a better Google.”

Challengers, to date, have made little progress against Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft with none capturing more than a tiny share of the search engine audience. Name recognition is part of the problem, but the big three are also not sitting idly waiting to be overtaken. They have the resources to hire the best talent to help keep them on top. With so much happening in the search engine arena, however, it is going to be interesting to see how Web 2.0 continues to evolve and how resilient some of these companies can be.