Experts speculate on prospects for Wikia Search

The recent debut of Wikia’s new user-powered search engine Wikia Search received a lot of boos from the blogosphere and tech critics, who generally slagged the release as premature and far inferior to Google. Search experts, however, on both sides of the border, say that the early release was a decent move and that the product might have a future in the enterprise—albeit in a much smaller scope than Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales might wish.

Boca Raton-based Internet marketing consultancy CEO (and Canadian) Jay Berkowitz thinks that the early release wasn’t a mistake at all. He said, “It’s great to be wrong and to test things out. If they had slaved away for three years to perfect it, by the time they released it, they would be so far out of the game.”

The strategy is a familiar one in the open-source community, according to Michael Churchill, CTO of the Dallas-based search engine marketing firm Key Relevance. He said, “They’ve already admitted that it’s not great yet—it’s not a proven search engine, but a starting-point for a community-driven search engine.”

The open-source aspect of the product could also result in rapid development.

However, the open-source has some troubling possible side effects that could also be compounded by the community-powered nature of Wikia Search.

“There could be the same issues there are with Wikipedia—the insider, Ivory Tower aspects. I’d worry that the same mentality and mindset would attract the same kinds of people,” said Churchill.

Another hazard is the ability for the community to index the searches in a bid to promote themselves or their company. For instance, Churchill said that he found plenty of profiles that already listed “Viagra” among their interests, in a bid for higher traffic.

The general populace might not really be all that interested, though. Said Andrea Gerard, CEO of the Toronto-based online marketing firm WebFeat: “For a supposedly community-based model, what’s funny is that there’s no context of what would compel users to actually use it.”

And the insularism could wreak havoc on anyone trying for unbiased search results, but it could also translate into a better market for the product, according to WebFeat’s information designer, Jane Motz Hayes. “As a generalist product, it probably won’t work—there needs to be a context. But if you’re able to see and add articles, for instance, and generate content based on common interests, you’ll automatically have content into it that is relevant to its users,” she said.

Wikia Search could thus turn more of a profit by licensing it as a branded solution to more niche users. This tactic would be supported by the mounting backlash against some of Facebook’s privacy infractions and widespread use and its former denizens on the look-out for more interest-specific groups, or the exclusivity of a different community-based application.

The internal nature of this model could also work within the enterprise—say, as part of an intranet search set-up. Said Churchill: “When hosted within a company, (the undue influence and the insularism) go out the window. Having people vote and influence which documents are the most important for each search is a good thing.”

Managing such a user-driven culture could be a challenge. Said Amanda Watlington, owner of the Charlestown, Massachusetts-based new media marketing firm “It would take a very savvy knowledge management team to know how to harness that.”

Gerard pointed out the corporate policy would go a long way to helping govern such activity, which the IT staff and management could work on together.

Whether it catches on in the enterprise or out, catching up to Google is a veritable impossibility, according to the search vendors. “It’s a huge uphill battle to get even five per cent of the market share. There’s Google, Yahoo, MSN, and AOL. has sunk millions into advertising and development and it’s barely scraped up to six per cent of searches,” Berkowitz said. As the Ajax, Ontario-based Search Engine People CEO Jeff Quipp said, “Not in our lifetime will they be able to compete with Google.”

The content is an issue—there isn’t much. Berkowitz said, “It’s a chick-and-the-egg scenario—it needs to be populated with good content, but to do that, there has to be awareness and interest. But there won’t be any interest if there’s no good content.”

In the end, even its somewhat unique user contributions won’t set Wikia Search apart enough. Quipp said that he’s already heard whispers about such user interaction in Yahoo and Google’s future. “And,” he said, “they have much better functionality.”

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