Wiki founder to launch search engine

Google and Wikipedia are two of my favored tools for finding quick information. Thus, I'm rather intrigued by the announcement from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales that he's stepping into the search arena, spearheading a new Google competitor called Wikisari.

For those of you who missed the news, which Wales first announced last Saturday, he is seeking volunteers to help develop Wikisari, "a new kind of search engine, which relies on human intelligence to do what algorithms cannot."

Slated to launch during the first quarter of 2007, the project, according to reports, will be funded Amazon.con and Silicon Valley financiers. The named Wikisari, by the way, is a melding of wiki and the Japanese word asari, which means "rummaging search.”

The reason for Wikisari, Wales writes, is that search as we know it is broken: "Why is it broken? It is broken for the same reason that proprietary software is always broken: lack of freedom, lack of community, lack of accountability, lack of transparency."

According to the aforelinked article in The Money Times, Wales said that "Google is very good at many types of search, but in many instances it produces nothing but spam and useless crap. Try searching for the term 'Tampa hotels,' for example, and you will not get any useful results."

He went on to say, "Essentially, if you consider one of the basic tasks of a search engine, it is to make a decision: 'this page is good, this page sucks.' Computers are notoriously bad at making such judgments."

Wales is certainly correct: There are times when algorithms may not provide you the links you need to find the information you're looking for. However, he's also not the first person out there to realize the shortcomings of purely computerized search results.

Consider what happened around the time Hurricane Katrina struck earlier this year. Anyone going to Google to search for katrina ended up with links to trivia about the name Katrina and to a Virginia-based company run by a Web designer named Katrina Blankenship. Not very helpful, and a certainly a ding against letting a search engine deliver links sans human intervention.

Meanwhile, Yahoo demonstrated that it was aware of potential shortcomings of strictly-computerized search. As the hurricane approached, Yahoo editors (i.e. human beings) had tweaked search results to generate pertinent news articles and hurricane information when people typed in katrina.

Other search companies are learning, too. A relatively new search engine called ChaCha, for example, calls on human expertise to deliver personalized results in real-time, via IM, to meet the needs of individual users. (I haven't used it enough to assess just how good it is.)

So the big question is, will Wikisari be a success? Well, Wales certainly has Wikipedia's notoriety working in his favor. Also, some people who accuse commercial sites like Google and Yahoo of bias in its rankings might be lure to the (somewhat vague) promises of openness the Wales is offerings.

But on the other hand, it's bound to be an uphill battle for Wikisari. Google remains the king of search, despite the hiccups we saw during Katrina. The company presumably has learned from the experience and continues to adjust accordingly. Meanwhile, Yahoo and other engines have demonstrated that they can and do use human power to supplement algorithmic drawbacks.

Really, though, we'll have to wait and see how the business and search model of Wikisari shape up. Stay tuned. I know I will.