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The future of search: Do you ask Google or the gaggle?

To improve results, new search engines rely on users instead of computers.

By Matthew ShaerStaff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / December 10, 2008

Lisa Haney


New York

Late last month, media giant Google launched an online featured called SearchWiki, which allows users to rate, annotate, and store results they’ve found particularly useful. The notes have no direct bearing on public rankings, although individual comments are visible to all users.

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On the company’s blog, Google said SearchWiki moved search one more step toward a “dynamic” search experience – one in which a community will be able to shape, refine, and organize the raw matter of the World Wide Web.

The concept has a considerable amount of ballast in Silicon Valley, where developers have long predicted that the future of search lies not in proprietary algorithms, such as Yahoo or Google, but in the power of the hive mind.

Over the past few years, a score of so-called “people-powered” search tools have entered the fray, including Stumpedia, Mahalo, Sproose, and Gravee. Most of these sites couple the raw processing power of an algorithmic engine with the functionality of Digg, the community-controlled news aggregator.

“There are a lot of smart people who have looked at Google and Yahoo and said the fundamental way of searching has not changed in nine or 10 years,” says Bob Pack, a founder and CEO of Sproose, which allows users to influence search results with a simple voting mechanism. “You’ve got algorithmic search results, organized into a set of blue links going down the page. Search needs to become richer and more intuitive.”

This community-based approach to search will likely never replace traditional engines when it comes to simple searches, such as checking sports scores or the state of the stock market. But more complex tasks are still handled more effectively by a human.

“Let’s say you’re looking for a hotel room. What you find on Google is endless realms of affiliate marketing sites, selling you the same rooms,” says Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia and Wikia Search, an “open-sourced” search tool launched earlier this year. (Unlike Google’s SearchWiki, which is a feature within Google’s traditional search function, Wikia Search is a stand-alone site.)

“It’s hard to get the hotel site itself,” he says.

A people-powered engine, on the other hand, would take into account the experiences of other users and steer you directly to the best-rated hotels in the area.

Battle of philosophies: Democratic or efficient?
Proponents of community-assisted search also point to the essentially undemocratic nature of the top three traditional portals: Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft.

Each company zealously guards its internal algorithms, and search results can be subject to internal editorial control. In an industry with huge profit margins – search is a multibillion-dollar industry – the lack of transparency can be unsettling, Mr. Wales argues.

“I like to make the analogy between search and journalism,” he says. “Search in a certain sense is reporting on the world. Now, for most high-quality papers, there’s a certain amount of transparency. You understand that advertising might influence the paper. But you also have a reporter’s byline, for instance. Because search is so secretive, and so propriety, there are fewer checks and balances.”

Furthermore, Wales continues, most users rarely stray from the top 10 results coughed up by their favorite search engine.

Since Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google respond to each query in similar ways, there remains a vast swath of relatively pristine Internet wilderness waiting to be discovered. A search tool that effectively utilized human input could open up the Web in a startling way, and allow users easy access to information that once languished on the 475th page of Google results.