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Wikipedia Founder Plans to Take On Google

Occasionally I get interviewed. And when I get interviewed a question I often get is “Do you think anyone will ever be able to displace Google as the #1 search engine?” My answer to that is always “Of course!” and here’s why.

It’s not because Google is an inherently bad company or uses bad technology or has a bad strategy. It’s because of what it is. It’s a very good search engine. It’s a tool that facilitates that aggregation and expansion of a pool of knowledge. It makes this pool freely available to anybody who wants it. If you look at it in that way — that Google’s gathering up knowledge and helping keep people better informed, you can see that every improvement it makes could be considered a tiny seed of its own destruction — a better Google means a broader pool of knowledge for its public which includes potential competitors which could include potential Google-leapfroggers.

Does this mean that I see Google as inherently doomed? Not at all. Google after all can just keep leapfrogging itself. But it does mean I don’t automatically discount companies wanting to take on Google. I like to watch and see what they’ll try.

And sometimes I like to be bemused by their quotes and disagree wholeheartedly. Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, has recently announced that he plans to take on Google with a new project called Wikiasari, which is expected to launch this quarter. There’s a brief article on the new project at Forbes.

I found myself talking back to the article.

Wales, a former options trader, says his new search engine will be better than Google’s because it relies on human judgment rather than algorithms to choose relevant websites.

Oh yes, because this has worked so well for DMOZ and The Yahoo Directory. And Zeal. Though to be fair those were more about picking pages than ranking them.

“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’,” Mr. Wales was quoted by a British newspaper as saying. “Computers are notoriously bad at making such judgments.”

I thought the computer was deciding “this page is relevant, this page isn’t”. Suckage is too subjective a factor for a computer to take into account. Isn’t sucktivity far too arbitrary a factor to base a ranking on, even for a group of people? Or are we hoping that if there’s enough people, a common denominator filter — which will include some judgement of relevance — will become apparent?

Wikiasari will work in a similar fashion. It will order query results using a Google-like page rank system, ranking Web sites according to how often they are linked to or accessed. But users will also be able to reorder the results they get using an additional edit function. The new order will be saved by Wikiasari and amalgamated with the preferences of other users.

So ranking will depend on users. So if you end up doing some very deep searching, it’s entirely possible that you’ll get just Google-like page ranking, because there won’t BE any other people generating the results lists that you’re ending up with.

(This is my problem with “user ranked results” systems — Wikiasari for one, Jatalla for another .. if you’re running general searches you’re in gravy, benefiting from the experience of many people. If you’re running complex deep searches, you might not be getting the benefits of everybody else’s search wisdom.)

Creating, editing, and maintaining a body of knowledge ala Wikipedia is an entirely different problem than finding, ranking, and making searchable a body of knowledge like a full-text search engine; it’ll be interesting and probably educational to see how Mr. Wales applies the experience of one to the challenge of the other. Having Amazon as an investor isn’t going to hurt either. Jimmy Wales has been talking to several folks in the blogosophere about his plans. Monkey Bites has a followup to a Wired interview (and a pointer to the original interview.) Danny Sullivan has another interview with Mr. Wales (Hey! Wikiasari is starting development with Nutch!) A Times of London interview is available at http://business.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,9075-2517026,00.html .

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