Wikia Brings Own Brand of Open, Social Search

With Wikia Search, co-founder Wales and his company set their sights on the search giants.

As expected, Wikia Jan. 7 is launching Wikia Search, a socially driven, open-source alternative to top-line search engines from Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.

Wikia Search, forged from the floundering Grub distributed search project Wikia bought from LookSmart July 27, lets users filter sites and rank search results, and lets them see how the search results were arrived at.

Wikia co-founder Jimmy Wales told eWEEK that Wikia Search will let people sign up and enter a profile like any social network. Users then list their interests, which essentially serve as keywords for the search engine, and can link to friends and invite other people interested in the same topics.

There is also a mini-article feature that, similar to the collective intelligence method of Wales' Wikipedia zeitgeist, lets users come in and edit the top section of the search results page.

For example, entering a query for the White Stripes rock band will yield results like any other result return, albeit with social input at the top and a list of people on the right interested in the band that a user can contact.

Wikia Search is starting small, with between 50 million and 100 million pages indexed. Wales is banking on the fact that users will then be able to rank the relevance of the algorithmic search results returned from Wikia Search on a scale of one to five. That data can be fed back into the search algorithm as a part of the review process.

This notion is largely anathema for major search vendors Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, which guard the secret sauce of their search algorithms.

To read more about Yahoo embracing social search, click here.

"We're anticipating there will be a lot of interesting creativity around what the community decides to do with that from things like disambiguation [the Wikipedia process of resolving conflicts in article titles that occur when a single term can be associated with more than one topic] to little mini-articles defining terms to best links," Wales said.

Social search is not new. Yahoo has implemented elements of social search in its new engine, and a bumper crop of startups, including Eurekster, Mahalo and Lijit, are struggling to find their niche in the market. Yet those firms lack Wales' pedigree in the social computing sphere, as well as Wikia's deep pockets and resources.

Moreover, because Wikia Search is open source, tech-savvy users thwarted by guarded algorithms from major search providers can check out how the search crawler processes searches and poke around its APIs (application programming interfaces).

This factoid will likely be a major hit with search engine marketing folks exasperated by Google's algorithm changes and their subsequent PageRank fluctuations, but isn't likely to be a big deal with the consumer searcher, said Greg Sterling, of Sterling Market Intelligence.

"The ability to rank or contribute to results is also kind of a non-starter to most people," Sterling told eWEEK. "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."

Wales acknowledged there will be parts of Wikia Search that some users won't likely participate in, but he said the project is, to some extent, "a political statement about what we can expect as consumers on the Internet."

Wikia eventually will make money from the software through ads, though Wales said he and his team haven't decided on ad methods or partners.