Computerworld

Wikia Search opens up to broad participation

Anyone can influence what the search index contains, as well as rate the quality of its Web pages

Wikia Search, the open-source search engine that is the brainchild of Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, will begin letting anyone participate in building its index by adding, deleting and rating Web pages. "This is a complete overhaul of everything," said Wales.

During its "alpha" period, which started in January, Wikia Search has drawn about 20,000 registered users who have in turn made about 60,000 edits to search results and written about 25,000 mini articles.

However, starting on Tuesday, anyone, registered or not, will be able to influence what the index contains, as well as rate the quality of its Web pages, Wales said.

In addition, people will be able to edit the content of a search result URL by modifying its headline and description. Moreover, people will be able to capture a portion of an indexed Web page, such as some text, and add it directly back to the Wikia Search index, a feature Wales calls "annotation."

Contributions are reflected immediately and don't go through an approval process. The quality control will be primarily up to the search engine's user community, Wales said. In cases of attempts to spam the index on a large scale, it's possible to mass delete those submissions and block specific users, he said.

"It's all the classic things that we learned from the wiki model: basically putting all that editorial control into the hands of the community so that it's easier to do good than to do harm. That's the basic philosophy," he said.

Wales, however, acknowledged that Search Wikia is "pretty out there in terms of openness" but is confident that, far from leading to chaos, the broad participation of users will boost significantly the engine's index, which now contains about 30 million links, a relatively small number. "We wanted to let the community decide how to grow the index," Wales said.

Industry analyst Greg Sterling of Sterling Market Intelligence calls Wikia Search's approach "very interesting," but points out that the benefits of its human-powered approach will take years to materialize.

An open question is whether enough volunteers will participate, so that the index reaches the necessary size and is updated frequently enough, Sterling said.

In this sense, categories like news articles, blog postings and product listings will be a particular challenge because they are so timely and generated with such speed and frequency, he said.

In addition, as is the case with wiki-based products, there will be the question of whether the volunteers are trustworthy and how reliable their judgment and decisions are, Sterling said.

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Despite the challenges, it's hard to argue against Wales' focus on injecting openness and transparency into the operation of a search engine, he said.

Wikia Search also is in tune with the search trend of focusing on the quality of search results, and not so much, as in the past, on the size and comprehensiveness of the index, Sterling said.

"You have too much noise in search results these days," he said.

The belief is that by bringing human intelligence into the search equation, it will be possible to filter out a lot of the lower-quality pages indiscriminately spidered by automated Web crawlers.

The search engine's "alpha" launch in early January was met with a chorus of boos from bloggers and other industry observers, although Wales had warned people that the first version of Wikia Search would be very raw.

"It was that the initial results were quite bad and the initial product was extreme early alpha. Of course, it wasn't pleasant to see negative reviews but it was expected, because we were launching a project to build a search engine, not a full-on search engine at that point," Wales said.

He hopes people will give Wikia Search another try now, as well as take advantage of the ability to participate in the making of the index. "Now the search results are dramatically improved already, but the real story here isn't yet the quality of the search but the quality of the tools for the public to control the editorial process of the search," Wales said.

For now, Wikia Search will offer a single search box for all file and document types on its index, but later plans to allow people to search specifically for photos, videos, news articles and so on. Likewise, most of the index currently consists of English-language sites but Wales' goal is for the engine to be multilingual eventually.

Search Wikia and Wikipedia operate under two separate organizations that were both founded by Wales: Wikia Inc. is a commercial, for-profit company while The Wikimedia Foundation that oversees Wikipedia is a nonprofit entity. Wikia Inc. and Wikimedia operate independently of each other. Wikia Search is one of several projects and services at Wikia Inc.