Search Wikia is no Google killer – yet, say Web experts

Search Wikia, the open-source, community-driven search engine created by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, has the potential to alter the search market but is unlikely to unseat Google, according to Web industry analysts.

The search engine’s developer, Wales admitted as much saying “Search Wikia is an extreme alpha project. It’s a project to build a search engine and not a full-fledged competitor to Google yet.”

The project’s method of using volunteers and users to rank Web pages and Search results as opposed to the arbitrary “secret sauces” used by Search Engines such as Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL, Ask.com and Google does turn current Web search methods on its head, analysts say.

“It plays to the powerfully shaping trend of measuring the wisdom of the crowds,” said Dave Jonah, principal of Jonah and Associates, a Web optimization firm based in Moncton, New Brunswick.

Much like Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia written and edited by a community of volunteer collaborators, Search Wikia will rely on user input.

Users will be able to rank the quality of the individual search results and Search Wikia will factor that feedback when solving future queries. “That way, people will be able to influence the algorithmic search results,” said Wales.

Wales said it will likely take at least two years for his Search Engine to turn up search results that approach industry-standard quality.

Jonah agrees. “The big ‘if’ is: will 100,000 or so volunteers be able to produce better search results for users than the 15,000 that Google employs to do this or the estimated 10,000 of Yahoo or the 8,000 or AOL?”

He said search ranking methods have been steadily moving towards the model that Search Wikia proposes.

When Google began, the search engine simply matched search key words with the number of occurrences of that word on a Web page, Jonah said.

After that, search engines began ranking results based on the number of hits and links it obtained. “You could say it was all built on the old concept of ranking the popularity of a girl walking down the campus hallway based on the number of people that looked at her.”

“We’re seeing a shift from the decision of the few on what is relevant to that of the decision of the crowd.”

Google, according to Jonah, is also trying out its own flavour of user- generated search ranking.

He said the search engine is asking permission from its users to obtain their access to their search profiles. The information is then used to determine the top search results.

Google is also ranking searched Web pages based on the number of rejections it gets from searchers. If people click on a site but leave it after a very short period, it is chalked up as a rejection, Jonah said.

Another Web analyst says everyone in the industry appears to be working on trial and error mode.

“Everyone is essentially flying blind,” said Karsten Weide, program director of digital media entertainment for analyst firm IDC in San Mateo, Calif.

He said various companies are employing their own algorithmic mixes to flesh out search result relevance and popularity but no one has achieved the Holy Grail.

Search Wikia’s take on using the power of social networking appears to have the advantage of offering a “more direct link to user feedback.”

“Previously there was no interpreted user feedback loop that directly attached to the search algorithm,” he said.

With the Search Wikia model, social networks can affect search results. Volunteers or communities that are experts in certain topics have the potential of providing searchers with more relevant results, he said.

In this scenario, marketers need to be attuned to communities populating their industry and be able to provide worthwhile content to gain high rankings and substantial Web traffic.

However, an inherent fault might prove a challenge he said.

“User ranking is only as good as the user providing it,” Weide said.

Search results judged as good by volunteers could be useless for some searchers.

This, Weide said, is already experienced by people who get results from highly specialized sites. “For instance, results dished out by the popular community-based tech site Digg might only resonate with techies.”

Jonah said search technology and methods will only get better in the years to come.

“At the moment, when searchers fail to find what they are searching for in other search engines, people tend to default to Google.”

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