Wikia founder Jimmy Wales, best known for co-founding Wikipedia,
didn’t impress
when he first launched his search venture, Wikia Search.

So he took a cue from Wikipedia and has turned Wikia Search into a Wikipedia-style search engine that enables its users to edit search results in the same fashion users edit pages on Wikipedia.

The idea is quite simple. If users aren’t satisfied with a particular set of search results, let them edit them and make them better – Web 2.0 idealism at its finest.

The way Wikia Search 2.0 has been implemented has some of Wikia Search’s previous critics more upbeat about its prospects.

I’m not one of them. When I took 10 minutes to test it out, I wasn’t impressed with the results, which I found to be quite limited and unsatisfactory for the searches I performed.

This aside, the big question for startups like Wikia Search is: does the average search user really have difficulty retrieving satisfactory search results from search engines like Google?

I don’t think so.

Personally, I’m no fan of Google as a company but I rarely use any other search engine. Why? Because I rarely get search results that don’t provide what I’m looking for in some form or another.

Apparently I’m not alone – the fact that Google continues to grow its market share is not exactly indicative of users flocking elsewhere in search of better results.

Given Google’s dominance, Wikia Search is tasked with convincing enough internet users that it can provide a superior search experience and vastly better results.

That’s a tough challenge and one that I don’t think is necessary. As it stands, I believe Wikia Search and other search startups like it are solutions looking for problems.

While some argue that just as Google successfully entered the search market at a time when the market was assumed to belong to more dominant players, so too can today’s upstarts.

But times have changed considerably and while that doesn’t preclude success for Wikia Search, in my opinion it does raise the barriers to success quite high.

When looking at Google’s rise, it’s important to note that Google’s simple user experience coupled with search results noticeably better than its larger competitors were the key differentiators at the time that enabled it to gain a foothold in the market.

Search has matured a lot since then. Google has grown into a powerful brand and most importantly, the technology it uses (as well as the technology of competitors like Yahoo) has also grown more sophisticated.

Wikia Search’s “technology” isn’t all that impressive and I believe the Wikia Search model itself is flawed for two primary reasons:

  • According to PARC researchers, a small percentage of the Wikipedia population makes around 50% of the edits. Without getting into a debate over Wikipedia’s value, it’s worth noting that by objective measurements, there’s far less diversity of opinion than one might expect.

    There is no shortage of discussion about Wikipedia’s shortcomings. One is that a considerable number of the edits made by that relatively small group of people are often self-interested. Jimmy Wales himself has not been immune to accusations that he has secretly leveraged his influence to have self-serving edits made.

    When it comes to a search engine, the same problems will only be exacerbated because there is a far greater potential profit motive for self-interested edits.

    An executive at a company, for instance, could edit certain search results to benefit his company’s listing or to harm the listing of a competitor. Search engine spammers could edit results in an attempt to drive traffic to their websites.

    While the “community” has the ability to deal with this type of behavior, just as it does with Wikipedia, the results a user receives may vary from minute to minute because of edits. In the world of search, this creates a level of unreliability that I would argue is unacceptable.

  • There’s little incentive for the average user who doesn’t have some sort of self-interest to help improve Wikia Search’s results. While Web 2.0 idealists would argue that this is not true and that digital altruism is alive and well, let’s look at this logically.

    If I am truly using Wikia Search because I am looking for information I haven’t yet been able to find, I will either find that information on Wikia Search or I won’t. If I don’t, I may find it elsewhere.

    In that case, what incentive do I have to come back to Wikia Search and add what I found elsewhere? The average search user has little reason do to so and additionally, it’s worth considering that even if I do, if I found my result through another search engine, I am in essence merely copying an existing result from elsewhere.

    In this case, I am not helping Wikia Search become superior to other search engines – I am helping it achieve parity.

In my opinion, applying the Wikipedia model to search simply doesn’t make practical sense and it won’t scale.

Again, not everything that can be “crowdsourced” should be and search is probably one of those things that shouldn’t be.

In short, I don’t think that Wikia Search has a very bright future and I doubt that the “wisdom of the crowd” as measured by market share is going to disagree with me.