Wikia Search Goes Live in Alpha Mode

What can you say about a search engine that goes live in alpha mode and publicly admits it is “aware that the quality of the search results is low”? Say hello to Wikia Search, the open source brainchild of Jimmy Wales, the father of Wikipedia. He believes Wikia Search offers an antidote to the “black box” approach of the major search engines. Is he right?

Not according to most of the pundits. Michael Arrington at Techcrunch gave the fledgling search engine a review so nasty you could almost see the pixels flaming: “…it may be one of the biggest disappointments I’ve had the displeasure of reviewing…it’s barely a search engine at all…this product is an inexcusable waste of time…”

Chris Sherman from Search Engine Land is slightly kinder. While noting that “it’s really just yet another crappy search service that may, potentially, if all goes well, eventually turn into something useful,” he says that right now it’s “essentially useless as a search engine.” Ouch.

Allen Stern from Center Networks admits that he wanted to love Wikia Search. Even he noted that “finding accurate results is a bit tricky” and concluded that “Wikia Search has a long way to go in terms of interface, usability and features” before he would start using it regularly. Stern suggested that releasing the search engine in alpha may not have been the best way to go.

Clint Boulton from eWeek noted that Wikia Search’s open source approach would probably play well with SEMs frustrated with Google’s algorithm changes. However, he quoted Greg Sterling of Sterling Market Intelligence as thinking the average consumer will be less than impressed. “There have been a variety of efforts to engage users in reranking, identifying relevance, what have you, and it’s a great concept, but as a mass-market phenomenon…it hasn’t become viable in search.” If this is what Jimmy Wales believes will truly set his search engine apart and make it popular, he may have to rethink his approach.

Bad reviews inspire a certain curiosity in some of us; could it possibly be as awful as everyone says it is? After all, love it or hate it, Wikipedia has become an important resource online, so how far wrong could this search engine have gone? I set out to discover the truth. Please keep in mind when you read this review that things can change very quickly with any open source product or service.

Wikia Search is based on the “concept…of trusted user feedback from a community of users acting together in an open, transparent, public way.” It’s not working too well as of yet because, at the beginning, it has no user feedback, but the company expects results to improve rapidly in the weeks and months ahead. This is somewhat reminiscent of the course that Wikipedia took; Jimmy Wales admitted he had to supplement the content of many of the articles in his anyone-can-edit-it encyclopedia before it reached a certain critical mass.

Here’s a shot of the search engine itself:

 

Of course a bare page doesn’t really tell you what a search engine can do. I decided to search for – what else? – “search engine optimization,” without the quotes, to see what would come back. Some of my results were predictable, but others…well, I guess a picture will give you a much better idea:

 

Let’s check out the parts of this page one by one. As you can see, there are plenty of results, though of course not as many as Google would deliver. Then again, who goes all the way to the end of Google’s results anyway?

You’ll notice a link right next to the list that says “discuss these results.” It leads to a “mini talk” on the search’s topic. As of this writing, that talk has no content.

 

As you can see, there are four links at the top: “Mini,” Discussion,” “Edit,” and the plus sign (+). This is one way the search engine gets feedback about its results. I’ll hold off on covering this for the moment, and stick to the main results page.

Right at the top of the page, just below the sentence telling you how many results came back, you’ll see a gray box. That box contains a mini article about your search topic (search engine optimization in this case). These are written by volunteers. What you’re seeing is the collapsed version of the article. You can click on links to expand it, show its revision history, or go to the full article. In this case, the full article and the expanded version are one and the same; I assume that for some searches, an expanded version of an article is still somewhat short, while the “full” version is rather longer.

Here is an image showing this mini article’s revision history:

  

The results list itself was not particularly surprising. It was the standard 1-10 with links to each page, but the results themselves did not impress me. All ten were search engine optimization companies. Now, this might be fine for the companies, but what about someone who wants to learn what SEO is and how to do it? Perhaps I’m biased because I write for a content-rich web site, but a few short sentences defining SEO at the top just doesn’t cut it.

You can usually go to a cached version of a web page from the results. It’s not as useful to do this with Wikia Search as it is to do this with Google, though, because Wikia Search doesn’t highlight your search terms on the page. It uses the Nutch algorithm, which is why you see clickable numbers on the last row of each result. You can click the number to go to some code that explains why that particular result received the score it did. This is part of Wikia’s transparency.

To the right of the search results is a collection of images. These are people who, for whatever reason, are associated with our query. Hover over each image and you’ll get a name. Who would have thought that Joris Roebben looks like one of Homer Simpson’s neighbors? If you want to see where clicking on the images takes you, though, you have to register for an account and log in.

Below the gray box housing the images is another gray box that will take you to other indexes. For our query, Wikia lists three options. If you click on the question mark, though, you get a rather “enlightening” set of paragraphs:

I guess here should be some article about how the indexes work. I could not figure it out in (very) short time but decided to at least leave a note here. And because I am already here I would like to make a suggestion: I would love to have an "open stuff" index, so that when I search e.g. for a scientific paper I do not have thousands of hits that offer me to buy the article..

Yeah, me too, plus this paragraph is by another person. Nothing to indicate that. Clearly, this is meant to be a wikipedia like function. but why the heck would a help question mark on a piece of functionality be something anyone can comment on?

Service needs work Jimmy. I love what you’ve done, but not so sure what you’re doing!

I checked the other three indexes listed; there’s really nothing to indicate that they might be more (or less) useful than the one used by Wikia. One of them did have Search Engine Land somewhere on the first page, at least, so that’s something.

It seemed as if there were certain features I couldn’t access unless I created an account. To register, I gave Wikia a screen name, password, email address, and my real name. That last was optional. Wikia needed the email address to send a confirmation email. It showed up within a few minutes. Once you’re registered and logged in, you can edit your profile. Profiles look very much like what you would expect if you’ve spent any time on social sites; here is mine before I added anything:

 

Now that I’d registered and logged in, I could click on the images associated with my search and look at profiles. That’s nice; I understand the privacy issue. But I can’t say that I think much of a search engine that won’t give me any information about people who are important to my search. Perhaps Wikia should add an option to its profiles that allows users to add a paragraph about themselves that they don’t mind making public to those who use the search engine but are not registered with it.

You do get more options when you’re logged in when it comes to editing articles. There is also a tutorial that welcomes you to Wikia Search and explains how to edit, report bugs, etc. The interface feels a little awkward if you’ve never edited Wikipedia – a relevant point, since Wales is trying to appeal to a larger audience, including those who may never want to edit a search engine entry or Wikipedia article. Conversely, since anyone can edit certain things, such as the mini articles, they’re potentially open to abuse (or at least some rather strange self-focused content, as I showed you in the previous section). Here’s a telling point: Matt Cutts’ profile notes that he is “Thinking about spam on Nutch,” the algorithm that drives Wikia Search.

After trying several other searches on the search engine, I have to agree with most of the reviews. Wikia Search is clearly in alpha. It is not ready for prime time. It was launched in the same way that Wales launched Wikipedia, without much content. But, as other observers have pointed out, Wikipedia had little online competition. Wikia Search is competing with the major search engines plus hundreds of niche search engines. Many of these are already human-powered; think social bookmarking services like del.icio.us, some of which are even supplemented by crawlers, like Searchles. It’s questionable whether Wales will attract enough interest in Wikia Search to give it any value — his rivals include the best search engines with the brightest thinkers money can buy, and his approach is unproven in this field. 

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