But founder Jimmy Wales is as optimistic as ever.
“We are aware that the quality of the search results is low,” Search Wikia points out in a bold-faced notice on its site, but the concession isn’t silencing many critics. The new search engine, an ambitious effort spearheaded by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, has been so long in the making — and so overhyped — that on seeing the product for the first time today, critics couldn’t contain their scorn.
TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington calls it “one of the biggest disappointments I’ve had the displeasure of reviewing.” And at Search Engine Land, Chris Sherman labels Search Wikia “essentially useless as a search engine,” and he wonders if the project can ever succeed, and, indeed, if it’s even necessary.
As Wales conceives it, Search Wikia is not just a new kind of search engine, it’s an entirely new kind of Web project.
Jimmy Wales wants people out on the Internet to help build something as complex and useful as Google, in much the same way that people took his desultory online encyclopedia and transformed it, over the years, into the world’s best reference source. In fact, this project is even more ambitious — here people are working not only to edit text but to edit computer algorithms and policies, the arcane set of systems that companies like Google need an army of developers to run.
Can such a thing ever work? Wales can be a big talker, but mainly he’s self-effacing. When I asked him, a few months ago, about the difficulties of his project, he admitted, “I could fail. I have no idea. But I’m going to have fun trying.”
He also noted that the first version of the search engine wouldn’t be very good at all. He was right. You can try it out here. I ran many searches and, like other testers, found that a great deal returned poor results.
As one example, type in Paul Greengrass. The first result is the Amazon entry for the “Bourne Ultimatum” DVD (which Greengrass directed), followed by several haphazardly ordered links to reviews, sketchy DVD stores, and questionable foreign sites. Search for the same term in Google and you find, first, a link to Greengrass’ filmography at the Internet Movie Database, and next a Wikipedia entry, which tells you Greengrass is a kick-ass movie director. The results page is superb.
Search Wikia’s spotty results are by design. The trouble with the sort of project Wales is building is that, even if it may one day succeed, it’s got to start off sucking.
At its birth, the Google search engine pretty much beat out every competitor — that’s what made it so successful so fast. Search Wikia, like Wikipedia, will improve only if people help it. The site allows you to rate the search engine’s results — you can do so by clicking on the stars that come up next to some links. You can also alter its white list (which tells the site which pages to include in its results), and, more generally, you can help create new policies determining how the whole thing will work.
Wales wants people, now, to start doing that work. In an interview a few minutes ago, he told me, “We have enough features there that people will find useful in their day-to-day work. They’ll find that a reason to stick around and use the product even while the search results are improving in quality.”
In time — a long time, at least two years, Wales says — Search Wikia will return results that are as good as those of the other engines.
But search quality is not his only goal. Wales says we need an open-source, transparent search engine — one that explains why it’s returning the results it is — because search determines how we understand the world. What we get on a Google results page is too consequential to keep the method behind those results hidden.
Really, then, the debate over Search Wikia is more about philosophy than functionality. I mentioned to Wales that he’s got a chicken-and-egg problem — he needs people to use the search engine in order to improve it, but people aren’t going to use a search engine that gives them lousy results.
Sherman suggests that Wales’ push for transparency and community may not be enough of an inducement for people to join the project:
But Wales believes people are yearning for transparency. He says that he has no worries that nobody will want to work on Search Wikia; what he worries about, in fact, is that he’ll get more volunteers than the project can effectively manage.
Wales was right about this for an online encyclopedia. Eventually we’ll know if he’s right about search, too. But not soon.
Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society. More Farhad Manjoo.
More Related Stories
- Ray Manzarek, founding member of The Doors, dies at 74
- Beware of book blurbs
- Did a Salon excerpt ruin Penn Jillette's chance to win "Celebrity Apprentice"?
- Zach Galifianakis to take formerly homeless woman to "Hangover 3" premiere
- Seth MacFarlane will not host Oscars again
- "SNL's" uncomfortable Garner/Affleck moment
- "Celebrity Apprentice" finale ratings hit a new low
- Worst National Anthem fails
- The truth in Kanye's anti-prison rap
- Stephen Colbert to UVA: "You must always make the path for yourself"
- "Game of Thrones," season 3, episode 8: A salon
- Bieber booed, Miguel falls on fan at Billboard Awards
- "Mad Men" recap: Love, acid and whores. Lots of whores
- Taylor Swift leads Billboard winners
- “Game of Thrones” recap: “We must do our duty”
- "The Unwinding": What's gone wrong with America
- Michael J. Fox wins: The best and worst of the new fall shows
- First look: The Coens' marvelous folk-music odyssey
- New York's most persecuted subway artist?
- James Franco: "I really felt I was in conversation with Faulkner"
- "Jodorowsky's Dune": The sci-fi classic that never was
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11