Wikia's Jimmy Wales on Going Against Google in Search
I've been having a hard time getting my head around why the world needs so many search engine choices. Don't get me wrong. Choice is great.
So, we have newfangled search startups such as Cuil, Mahalo, Powerset and others that have recently upgraded their wares, including Ask.com, Hakia and today, Wikia.
What to do? For me, it's trying them all and going right back to Google, which is where I'm most comfortable. If my behavior is the rule, rather than the exception, that can't be good for the search startups.
So I asked Wikipedia creator and Wikia Co-founder and Chairman Jimmy Wales for help. My question to him was something like this: how does a new search engine try to compete in a market where bloggers are telling Microsoft to quit trying to buy Yahoo because the search engine war is over? Is the key play to pull a Powerset and sell out to Microsoft?
Wales, whose company just added an API to let programmers integrate content from Digg, Twitter and other sites, told me he likes the structural features of the search market:
One of the interesting things about search is that unlike some other Web features, there are not very many network externalities, meaning we switch search engines and your mom sticks with the old search engine. It doesn't really affect you very much. That's very different for something like Facebook, which has network externalities. In other words, I can't justify switching to another social network because all of my friends are already on Facebook. Switching costs are very high. Wherever you see a market where switching costs are very low, and where the product itself is becoming commoditized then people tend to compete on brand. That does not tend to be a lock-in market. There is always the possibility for somebody new to come up if they've got something innovative and different.
Yes, but these innovative products tend to get bought up, as we've learned from Powerset. Wikia is different because it's open source.
I imagine plenty of companies might like Wikia's crowd-sourcing capabilities, allowing visitors to rank and edit search results, but Wikia's open-source nature is likely garlic for search vampires looking to suck the blood out of new technologies.
As much as Wales might love to duplicate the success of Wikipedia in search, it will be hard. Google is so strong and there is so much competition.
Wales pointed to when people claimed the browser wars were over in the wake of Microsoft's dominance with Internet Explorer. While NetScape was a casualty of that war, Opera, Firefox and, ironically, Google's Chrome have risen to challenge IE.
"I don't think anyone would say the browser wars are over at this point because it's a whole new competition with Chrome coming out, so I think search is like that," Wales added. "I think we go through different phases of different industries where we hit a plateau of what's going on where it's time to do something new."
But is it fair to compare the browser wars to the search wars? If the browser is the door to the Web, Google, Yahoo, et al are the libraries.
People walk through many doors to get places, but I and almost everyone else has a favorite library. Would you leave your favorite library for something else? What would it take?