It's no secret that Google has been working on a Digg-like feature that lets users vote searches higher or lower, make comments, and alter the search results. Screenshots of the feature at work have been popping up in the wild for a year now. Search Engine Land's Barry Schwartz noted it in 2007. Google confirmed that it is testing the feature as part of its experimental search efforts.
Earlier this week, Ben Gomes, distinguished engineer at Google, alluded to the experiment in a blog post Aug. 26 and provided this screenshot of what users could do with such a feature. The buttons next to the results let users bump the results up or down.
Gomes offered the information with this caveat: "At this point, I can't say what we expect from this feature; we're just curious to see how it will be used."
My first thought after reading the post is that sounds a lot like what Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is doing with his Wikia Search, which launched in January and lets users edit data about search engine results and rank them for relevancy.
I spoke to Wales today, Aug. 28, and he didn't seem too concerned, acknowledging that while he was aware Google was testing such a feature, he hadn't read the Gomes blog post, but pointed out that the experiment appears random.
"Random is interesting. If it's random it's difficult for a community to form. I always draw a distinction between things that I would consider to be crowdsourcing-and I consider that to be a very negative term-that aren't really thinking about a community of people getting together to discuss thoughtfully and work together to build something, but rather it's atomistic. They show it randomly to individuals and they may do something useful or not. That's not to say that it's impossible for that to be valuable, it's just that it's very different from what we're doing, which is trying to build all of the tools for a community to come together and take editorial control of the search engine altogether. That's very different from some kind of user feedback feature."
Wales also said he wonders how Google's search ranking tool works, and whether or not changes made by users using Google's random search ranking test will be visible to everyone else. Unfortunately, Google has so far declined to say how this experimental feature works.
The thing is, Wikia Search hides nothing. Everyone has a shot at influencing the results and tagging them; it doesn't hit and run randomly like the Google Search ranking feature.
Wales isn't too worried about the feature now, though he soberly admitted that when you're a startup as small as Wikia, you can never to get too comfortable offering a competing search product. "We should be so lucky if we were important enough for Google to actually respond to something we're doing."
But what if Google opens this feature to the general public?
One of the reasons Wales started Wikia Search is that Google and other top-line search engines were too secretive about how the algorithms arrived at their search queries. Wikia Search is intended to open up the search process by allowing users to give results the thumbs up or thumbs down.
If Google makes this search ranking feature official, I'd be hard pressed to see why users, the majority of whom already use Google (70 percent in the United States, according to Hitwise), would go to Wikia Search.
However, if there's one reason why Wikia Search, despite some early bugs, could survive and thrive in the era of Google, it lies in Wales' notion of community.
Just look at Wikipedia: Wales inadvertently started a monster crowd collaboration tool, which fomented the rise of the wiki in the consumer sphere that bled over into the enterprise.
What's the net-net? I believe if Wales succeeds in building a strong-enough community at Wikia Search, users won't want to leave that venue. Currently, Wales said Wikia Search averages about 50,000 queries a day from over 391,000??Ã registered users.
If Wikia can extend that, it could have a chance of surviving regardless of how similar Google's search ranking feature is to Wikia Search.
Conversely, if Wikia Search fails to take off, users will keep on Googling. Moreover, if the search ranking feature kicks in for Google, it will be more gravy in Google's search boat.