front logo Interview with Jimmy Wales: Quality search is a commodityAfter waiting for a year, it finally happened today: Jimmy Wales launched an alpha version of Wikia Search. After such a long wait, people have high expectations. Unfortunately, Wales didn’t manage to live up to them. TechCrunch’s Micheal Arrington called it ‘one of the biggest disappointments I’ve had the displeasure of reviewing’ and ‘an inexcusable waste of time’. Stan Schroeder from Mashable wasn’t very pleased either: “Wikia Search looks like something that was cooked by two guys in one month in a basement”.

“We’re not at all pretending this is Google-quality yet, it’s far from it.”

We interviewed Wales last weekend, and he sounded a bit like he knew what was coming. Wales: “The social network we’ll launch on Monday is just a project to build a search engine. We’re not at all pretending this is Google-quality yet, it’s far from it. This is just the beginning. We expect it will take at least two years before we have Google- and Yahoo quality.”

When that time comes, Wales expects people will switch to his engine: “It’s very easy for people to switch from one search engine to another. If we do a good job I’m not too worried that they will switch to ours.”

The positive attitude of Wales has been rewarded before, yet it’s still a huge challenge to compete with Google. Doesn’t it need some hash promotion techniques? When suggesting that Wikia Search could take advantage of the Wikipedia pages always showing up in the top results, Wales answers determined: “No no, Wikipedia has absolutely nothing to do with Wikia Search”.

“I’ll use the same marketing plan as I had for Wikipedia: do a good job and people will find you.”

With that in mind, it sounds even harder to reach the audience. Wales however, doesn’t seem to worry about it: “I’ll use the same marketing plan as I had for Wikipedia: do a good job and people will find you.”

I must admit though, that the plans of Wales and his team sound revolutionary. For instance, by keeping the code of Wikia Search open source, they give other search services and organizations the opportunity to create the perfect search engine together. This sounds logical when you take in account that Wales thinks search won’t be competitive element anymore. Wales: “Good quality search is becoming a commodity item. The search quality of Google, Yahoo and Ask are actually very similar. So the idea that Google is some kind of technological powerhouse, is actually not longer true.”

Bringing the social aspect into search successfully is something we haven’t seen yet. Though the social network they have on-line now isn’t very spectacular, the promises for the future sound good. “One of the weaknesses of current search engines is that their algorithms take a long time picking up new good sites. If you look at the way Google ranks sites, it all depends on the number of important sites that link to you. In our project, it takes only one community member that finds a good new site and lets the community know. That will affect the ranking immediately.”

But what happens if a large company tells its 500 employees to give their corporate site a ‘thumbs up’ on the Wikia search engine? Isn’t that a big threat for the validity of the search results? Wales: “That remark is very similar to questions that people would have about users doing bad things on Wikipedia. It’s very difficult to fool a community. Ranking a search result is a public act, so people can see what you’re doing and will rank the contribution very low.”

“We would be thrilled if we eventually have a market share of 5 percent”

Sounds like Wales is actually planning on competing with Google. “As with every open source project, we will have a high number of languages covered. We would be thrilled if we eventually have a market share of 5 percent.” Did he receive any reactions from Google HQ? Wales: “I see the Google guys socially from time to time and told them about the search plans. But they didn’t give a real reaction yet.”