The future of search: Do you ask Google or the gaggle?
To improve results, new search engines rely on users instead of computers.
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Major obstacles remain before users will switch away from their current portal, says Brad Bostic, founder and CEO of ChaCha, a community search tool for mobile phones. Google, for instance, has already won the allegiance of a majority of Web users, and the company name is synonymous in mainstream culture with online search.Skip to next paragraph
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“Google is Coke,” he says, “and Yahoo is Pepsi, and then you’ve got all the other flavors. Google’s so well-branded.”
It’s a Catch-22, Mr. Pack adds: If people-powered sites could attract millions of users, the quality of rankings could be more dynamic and democratic than anything yielded by a traditional algorithmic engine. Many Google aficionados, however, would be loath to jump to another engine unless the results were already top-notch.
More practically, there is a concern among some developers that handing over control to a community could engender a flood of spam, or devolve into a mess of internecine backbiting among users. (This is the case on the Yahoo Answers site, where queries are answered haphazardly, or with a string of pejoratives, or – less frequently – not at all.)
Finally, the “richness of information” on a people-powered site is often much more unwieldy than the data provided by Google, says James Segil, the president of EdgeCast Networks, an Internet infrastructure company that helps power Mahalo. A major challenge for people-powered search companies is how to juggle the flow of user input, and keep results consistently updated.
There are signs that the search paradigm is already shifting. Google’s SearchWiki has received some good notices – and some bad – from tech reviewers, and brought the community-search debate to center stage.
Some progress for smaller sites
ChaCha, which uses an army of more than 55,000 amateur “guides” to help relay information via SMS text, has enjoyed what Mr. Bostic calls an extraordinary leap in growth. According to information provided by ChaCha, the company has logged more than 56 million queries to date, up 53 percent from January to November of 2008. Thousands of new users experiment with the service every day.
“There’s a feeling of information pollution out there,” says Melek Pulatkonak, president and chief operating officer of a search site called Hakia. “Millions and millions of results [on Google] terrorize the searcher, preventing them from moving forward. People want something different.”
Hakia is not exactly a people-powered engine. Instead, it uses a homegrown algorithm to analyze the wording of a query, thus delivering results more contextually accurate that than of Google. (If a user were looking to “treat” a cold, for example, Hakia would understand that the word “treat” did not refer to candy.)
The site, now in public beta testing, simultaneously maintains a growing network of “credible” sites, vetted by a network of librarians at hospitals and schools around the country.
This combination of algorithmic and human input, Ms. Pulatkonak says, is very attractive to the average user. She does not anticipate Hakia would ever replace Google, but hopes instead that it will be used alongside Google, as a supplementary tool.
“To me the question is not whether humans should be making decisions,” Wales says, pointing out that Google’s internal editorial control is people-power of a kind. “It’s how they should be making the decisions. Should search be democratic? Or should it continue to be a top-down system?”
[Editor's note: The original version of this article misstated Ms. Pulatkonak's first name.]