Search Wikia, the widely awaited search engine from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, is slated to make its official debut on Monday, with the bet that an open-source, community-driven effort can disrupt and reshape this Google-dominated market.
However, people who give the search engine a test drive on Monday shouldn’t expect a Google killer, because they will be looking at a project that is at a very early stage and will need participation from volunteers to grow and be refined, Wales said.
In that sense, Search Wikia is expected to develop in a similar fashion to Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia written and edited by a community of volunteer collaborators who have expanded it and improved it organically over the years.
“Search Wikia is an extremely alpha project. It’s a project to build a search engine and not a full-fledged competitor to Google yet. We want to make sure people understand that it’s in its very early days,” Wales said.
Still, Wales fully expects Search Wikia to eventually be a better alternative to commercial search engines from the likes of Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL and Ask.com.
“I don’t know how long it will take to reach industry-standard quality search results, but I’d say at least two years,” he said.
People interested in volunteering will find a variety of options at Search Wikia, including working with the software to improve and extend it, as well as suggesting pages for the index and evaluating and rating search results.
Those who register to participate in the project will join a social networking environment where they can have a list of friends, upload photos, build profiles and be notified of friends’ actions.
Users of the search engine will be presented with what Wales calls a “mini article” at the top of the results list. This can be a photo, a text definition, an external link or whatever else has been determined is the best answer to that particular query.
Below the “mini article” will be the list of results, picked from the Search Wikia index, which on Monday will have anywhere between 50 million and 100 million Web pages. Wales concedes that number is small, but said it will continue to grow over time.
Users will be able to rank the quality of individual search results, and Search Wikia will factor in that feedback when solving future queries. “That way, people will be able to influence the algorithmic search results,” he said.
Those who try to abuse the system for, say, search engine spamming purposes, are bound to be quickly noticed by administrators and other community members, and they will swiftly be blocked and banned, Wales said.
Initially, people will only be able to do general Web searches, but the plan is to add tabs for image and news searches later. Likewise, Search Wikia’s index will only contain links to English-language Web sites at first, but more languages will be supported progressively. “The goal is to be in as many languages as possible as fast as possible,” Wales said.
Improvements to Search Wikia will be added on a rolling basis. “It’s release early, release often. We want to be constantly updating the software every day,” he said. Search Wikia will be supported by advertising revenue, but it hasn’t yet been determined how.
Search Wikia’s software and data, including its Web crawl index, will be freely available to anyone wishing to use them to create their own engine or search application, Wales said.
“With an open-source search engine, lots of people will download and use our software to compete with the major players. We think we have a chance of actually restructuring the industry to be much more competitive,” Wales said.
In the past, Wales has said that search isn’t a “defensible business” because it’s easy for users to switch among providers, so democratizing search is a good thing for all companies in this market. What is a defensible business is the ad brokerage that rides on top of the search engine activity, and that’s where a company such as Google should focus, according to Wales.
Search Wikia and Wikipedia operate under two organizations that were both founded by Wales: Wikia Inc. is a commercial, for-profit company with about 40 full-time employees. Wales is its board chairman. The Wikimedia Foundation, which oversees Wikipedia, is a nonprofit entity, and Wales is its chairman emeritus.
Wikia Inc. and Wikimedia operate independently. Search Wikia is one of several projects and services at Wikia Inc.