Mahalo: A Retro Approach to Search?

Search engine Mahalo just launched in alpha mode at the end of May. As the newest project from Jason Calacanis, we might expect big things. But there’s something very familiar about its approach. Can it really achieve superior relevance using human guides?

Calacanis’ most recent claim to fame is selling Weblogs Inc. to AOL for $25 million a couple of years ago. Since then he’s managed to annoy an astonishing number of SEOs with his attitude toward search engine optimization. David Berkowitz of Media Post Publications quoted Calacanis’ as explaining that "My point about SEO is that it is gaming [the] system and done by weak people who have sites that shouldn’t rank high. We are not trying to SEO — we are trying to help people avoid bad sites and find good ones."

Calacanis also has a reputation for a very large ego, as noted by Wikipedia and many others. Add that to his dislike of SEO, and you get a lot of people saying that there’s no way Mahalo is going to work. And when you consider that Calacanis’ approach disregards the treasured long tail of search and actually represents a step backwards of sorts…but I’m getting ahead of things.

Instead, let’s take a look at Mahalo on its own merits. Taking its name from the Hawaiian word for "thank you," Mahalo’s human guides build custom search results pages for search terms. Calacanis’ goal is to get the top 10,000 search terms in the system, excluding adult content (there are plenty of other places users can go for that). Mahalo’s guides will also build fresh pages for timely news topics, new movies, and so on. Mahalo’s current stable of guides numbers 40, but is expected to increase to 100. The guides definitely have full-time jobs on their hands; not only do they have to build the original pages, they have to maintain the pages after they’re built.

If you think something sounds very familiar about this approach, you’re right. DMOZ did it with its own directory and About.com did it before it was known by that name, to name just two. More recently, Adam Jusko started up his own people-powered search engine, Bessed, which I reviewed here back in March. In a sense, then, this search engine is really more like a web directory, and looks more like the past of searching on the Internet rather than the future. Still, let’s try it out and see what we find.

Mahalo has a very attractive, inviting home page, thanks to its hiring "the best designer on the planet," according to Calacanis. Here’s a screen shot, cropped and resized to fit:

It’s obviously not as bare bones as Google, but not as busy as Yahoo. It actually displays 12 main categories on the home page, with plenty of subcategories as you can see. According to the press release, only 4,000 SERPs have been built as of yet. "We’re in month five of a five-year project," Calacanis explained. He hopes to reach that magic 10,000 by the end of this year, at which time the site will enter beta and then launch.

Just for the heck of it, I really wanted to see one of Mahalo’s pre-built pages, so I clicked on "Guitar" under "Products." What I got was really too gorgeous and well put together to do justice to with just one screen shot…so I’ll compromise by giving you a screen shot and explaining the rest:

Okay, right under the search box near the top left of the page it says what category and subcategory the page belongs to — in this case Products, then Musical Instruments. On the right you’ll see a box with a "Guide Note" that defines what a guitar is in one sentence, followed by some "Fast Facts" about guitars ("Conventional no. of strings: Six.").

Of course it’s everything under the word "Guitar," carefully organized by type, that really makes this page a drool-worthy resource. The first list is "The Mahalo Top 7," which I’m assuming Mahalo considers to be the seven most important links relating to guitars. And it’s a nice mix: the Wikipedia entry, a news site devoted to guitars, the official sites for Fender and Gibson, and others.

It doesn’t stop there, of course. There are five links to "Guitar Performances on YouTube;" a similar number of links to "Guitar Information & News;" eleven links to "Electric Guitar Manufacturers;" five links to "Acoustic Guitar Manufacturers;" four links to "Bass Guitar Manufacturers;" and on and on. There were separate lists on the page, with varying numbers of links, for guitar retailers, guitar bargains, guitar accessories, guitar tabs, guitar images, guitar heroes(!), guitar boards & blogs, and related searches. My hat’s off to Jeff Lauras, who wrote this page (as it says right at the bottom). This is an example of what human-powered search can be at its best.

In the screen shot I took you’ll see symbols next to some of the listings. These are hands making a funny "V" shape, and they mean that one of the guides thought that link was particularly cool. If you hover over the symbol you’ll find out who thought it was good and why. Here’s an example from the Guitar page:

The site has a similar system for pages they think are worth suggesting but rate some kind of warning. The warning icon is a yellow triangle with an exclamation point inside it; Mahalo provides a complete list of the warnings it uses. These range from the site auto playing audio or video to requiring membership for making purchases or seeing content. The warnings are actually pretty diverse, and if you hate being sent to sites that haven’t been updated in a while, or are ad-heavy, or aren’t actually safe for work, you’ll definitely appreciate this system.

Sometimes the warnings are more in the nature of information. On the Guitar page, the "warning" for Craigslist only said that classifieds on Craigslist often feature guitars, and to check your own city. Personally, I think they ought to consider using a different symbol for "information" rather than "warnings." There is a special symbol for information, but it’s specifically for "sites that our guides find useful that might be new to you." It’s a blue circle with a question mark inside. Hover over it, and you get a question: "What is [name of site]?" Click the blue circle, and you get taken to an answer page. Here’s the one for Technorati:

The guides know that they don’t know everything. Those who want to be a little more proactive with their search engines can create an account, after which they can recommend links. Each page also has its own message board for discussion between logged in users. Additionally, you can click on links on each page to report a problem; you don’t have to be logged in for that feature to work, though you do have to pass a captcha test (which is only sensible).

Incidentally, if you’d like to see Mahalo page creation in process (sort of, anyway), you can go here. And then of course there’s Jason Calacanis’ blog which is full of information about Mahalo, including such matters as how the guides are dealing with pages getting spammed.

Okay, time for me to put on my nasty cap. In my research about this site I found out that it doesn’t do very well with specific queries, and the narrower your search, the worse it does. Somebody with my range of interests wouldn’t use Mahalo as my primary search engine. When I put in a search for "bobbin lace" (making lace is one of my hobbies), rather than getting an impressive page like the one for guitars, I got an "Oops! We haven’t hand-written a result page for bobbin lace yet." There is a link to an explanation as to why, and another link that lets you tell them to notify you when they build the page.

They also show "related pages" that already exist on Mahalo…but I’m not sure who or what decided these pages were related. They include pages for sneakers, corsets, oatmeal, and bras. I guess I should count my blessings that sewing machines weren’t included (referencing the "bobbin" part) and I can in some way understand why sneakers, corsets, and bras were suggested…but oatmeal?! You got me there.

Fortunately, all was not lost. Below those suggestions, Mahalo returned results from Google for the same search, and they included some beautiful pages, from the purely instructional to those that facilitate the purchase of bobbin lace making supplies. Interestingly, sponsored links were on the bottom, not the top, which is different from the way Google itself presents its results.

I’m mentioning all this now because I think we can conclude, even though it’s in alpha, that Mahalo’s model is not sustainable — IF it is looking to become a search engine that competes with Google. But the fact is, it isn’t. Calacanis’ hopes for Mahalo are more akin to turning it into a "destination site" rather than a search engine. He wants searchers to take their most common, easiest inquiries to Mahalo. Perhaps it can be a place to turn to when you think you’d like to take up a new hobby, or want some news on your favorite celebrities, or need to help the kids with their homework…you get the idea. It’s worth noting that Mahalo’s technology and health categories did look pretty comprehensive as well.

In short, Mahalo is not a Google killer, but then it’s not designed to be. Is there room for this kind of human-powered search in the market? Do people really want it? One must think so, or else there wouldn’t be so many social search sites and DMOZ and About.com wouldn’t still be hanging in there. But is it where the future of search is going? I have to wonder. They say everything old is new again, but I’ll reserve my judgment. Calacanis said he has enough money from investors to keep the company going for five years; my guess is by then he will be ready to sell it to another search engine, possibly even Google itself.

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