It seems that all major new search engines undergo a somewhat similar birth. For months before they’re seen, they’re hyped, and anticipation builds to a fever pitch. The phrase “Google Killer” is inevitably bandied about. Then they’re released … to mass disappointment. The crowd disperses, at which point the true work can begin.
That’s more or less what happened to Search Wikia, the commercial counterpart to Wikipedia. Search Wikia proposes to improve search results through direct human editing, rather than using fully automated technology like Google or the newer semantic and natural language search engines. Released this January, Search Wikia was almost universally panned for offering poor results (though we were a bit nicer).
A new release today is adding a slew of features to the engine (some of which we previewed back in April). Users can now edit results extensively. They can modify the title and summary (seen below), add pictures or content from the page the result leads to, write comments, delete or hide results, or if they’re feeling less motivated, just give a star rating. All changes are closely tracked and logged. Helpfully, Search Wikia is also providing a quick way to switch to other engines if the results of a search aren’t good.
Those features address some pain points initial users had. Search Wikia’s initial editing tools were conceptually descended from Wikipedia, but Wikipedia isn’t known for ease or speed of editing.
But there’s a big caveat to all the new features: They only tangentially address the issue of search result quality. For that, there are only two real factors: The underlying search technology (i.e. Google-style automation), and human sweat equity. New tools may attract more users or make their work more effective, but in the end, Wikia just needs time to mature — not always an abundant resource in the fast-moving landscape of the Internet.
That’s why Mahalo, another human-powered search engine, has modified its approach several times, moving its focus to comprehensive pages built around subject areas — a strategy that appears to have led to faster growth. However, when I talked to Wikia (and Wikipedia) founder Jimmy Wales about Search Wikia, his faith in the idea of social search didn’t seem shaken by the experience of launching the product.
Wales says the next step for Wikia is working more on the automated back-end, which is based on the open-source Nutch and Lucene search engines. Following this release, the company will turn its focus away from user tools to customizing its internal tools and growing its index, which stands at around 30 million pages.
Another focus will be adding a “widget framework” for people to do specialized searches. Wales gave the example of searching for a zip code and coming up with weather results — an scheme that sounded a bit like the search-by-vertical approach that semantic engine Hakia started this year.
However, having seen the efforts of Hakia, Powerset and other new engines, Wales says he’s confident that social search is still the way. “I haven’t seen a lot of cases where [semantic search] improves anything anyone actually cares about. The right approach to search is to let computers do what computers do well, and humans do what humans do well,” he told me.
You can try out the new Search Wikia here. Let us know what you think in the comments, below.