Second Wikia Search version gets backing from former critics

Tech blogosphere, which first panned the project, applauds new use of user input

A slew of search companies have been formed over the years to be "Google killers," no matter how they've described themselves. But many of the start-up companies barely caused a ripple in the technology blogosphere.

However, when Jimmy Wales, the force behind Wikipedia, began talking about bringing to search the same concept that made his user-powered online encyclopedia successful, the tech blogosphere took notice. A healthy online hype cycle built up around the project, called Wikia Search. The hype cycle, however, crashed just as quickly as it peaked when an alpha release of Wikia Search was released in January and was quickly panned by several top bloggers.

The project and Wales faced the online equivalent of a wallop, as critics ripped it for its poor search results and the lack of the human search element that Wales had been plugging. Wales had said the human element was his way of taking on the computerized search algorithms used by other Web crawlers. Prominent TechCrunch blogger Michael Arrington called the initial release " one of the biggest disappointments I've had the displeasure of reviewing."

This week, Wikia Search launched many new features -- including the ability for users to edit results, add new results, delete results and rate results -- to mostly positive reviews from technology bloggers. Since the alpha release, 20,000 registered users have made nearly 60,000 edits to search results and written almost 25,000 mini-articles to be added to Wikia Search, the company said.

TechCrunch, a blog site that harshly criticized the initial version of Wikia Search, now says the search engine is "finally ready to play with." "Wales is relying on the community that grows up around Wikia Search to ban anyone trying to game the system," TechCrunch's Erick Schonfeld noted. "He is also relying on it to create the best search results."

Brad Linder, a blogger at DownLoad Squad, added that the new features may mean the site, which he initially called "disappointing," is now worth using. "Up until this week, Wikia Search was basically just like any other search engine," he said. "A computer scanned the Web for pages and decided which were the closest match to your search query. The only thing setting Wikia Search apart was the ability to create user profiles."

The new editing tools have the potential to help improve search results, he added.

"Wikia Search has a computer-created index of about 30 million sites," Linder noted. "But you can edit any page. You can also add comments, annotations, or 'spotlights,' which highlight the entire entry so that it looks a bit like a sponsored result you would get from Google. You never have to hit a 'next page' button. Just scroll to the bottom of your search results and Wikia Search will find a few more and lengthen your page. Since the search engine is not advertising-funded, there's no incentive to get you to click on additional pages.

However, he noted that users can edit their own company's search rankings, thus creating the potential for Web publishers to try to unfairly gain top search result positioning for their own sites.

"If Wikia Search takes off the way that Wikipedia has, the community of editors should be able to automatically correct this by removing inaccurate edits," Linder wrote.

Stan Schroeder, a blogger at Mashable, added that while the alpha release was "sorely lacking," the concept behind Wikia Search can now be seen in an actual product.

"If you're an enthusiast who wants to help, this is just like the early days of Wikipedia," according to Schroeder. "You can help sculpt the search results for the most important results, Web sites, ideas, people and concepts by investing a little time, and this proposition will surely be interesting to many. We'll be sure to revisit Wikia Search in a while to see if Wikipedia's concept of community-based editing translates to search or if search is simply too messy for this type of approach."

Schroeder acknowledged that while the search results returned in this latest release are much improved over the alpha release, Wikia Search still hasn't indexed enough pages to compete with the current search leaders.

Duncan Riley, a blogger at The Inquisitr, added that the updates make Wikia's focus on transparency clear.

"You can look at a list of recent changes to entries to track how and by whom any given result was modified," Riley noted. "The site's list of principles even takes a shot at the major search engines' insistence upon keeping their results and their methods so closely guarded. We've all grown accustomed to Google's complex and untouchable algorithm-based methods. I don't know that Wikia Search's concept will ever knock that kind of system out of the mainstream, but it definitely adds an interesting twist into the equation -- particularly for SEO-focused web developers who might have to cater to a different kind of ranking protocol."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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