Log on to Wikia Search, a new competitor to Google (GOOG), Yahoo! (YHOO), and Ask.com (IACI), and you'll see a clean, no-frills page with a cartoonish logo and a simple search box. But Wikia Search is not just a Google clone. The new site takes a hybrid approach to search, combining technologies and features from a range of successful Web sites —search-related and non-search, including social-networking phenomenon Facebook. And when you look beyond the home page, Wikia Search's design is just as eclectic. Its open-source design process has produced a site built on proven Web-design standards—and not just those established by Google.
It's the latest project from Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales and his San Mateo (Calif.) company Wikia, fueled by some $14 million from investors that include Amazon (AMZN) and Bessemer Venture Partners. Wikia's long-term plan is to sell ad space on the site, although that business model is not in place yet because the technology and processes for selling and posting ads haven't been determined. Wikia Search, a year in the works, launched on Jan. 7 with a public alpha test after weeks of private pre-alpha testing.
As late as Sunday evening, and even on Monday morning, Wales was engaged in answering e-mail questions from a small group of invited pre-alpha testers who were reporting bugs in the site's design. The glitches included the listing of some highly rated search results below those of less popular ones—a problem that has been fixed, for now. Ironing out other problems will take more time.
Harnessing the Wisdom of Crowds
The design features a wide, blank rectangle beckoning you to type in a search word or phrase. The only text is the site's name and standard links such as "About Us"—and those that hint at the open-source nature of the project, such as "Report a Bug." The only graphic element visible is a cartoonish, smiling cloud, which is as goofy as Google's brightly-colored, ever-playful home page logo.
Despite the obvious similarities to the world's No. 1 search engine, what sets Wikia Search apart is its approach: Wikia Search uses Web-crawling software called Grub (purchased from LookSmart in July, 2007) and Lucene, an open-source search engine, but it adds humans to the search process. This hybrid offers software-powered search similar to Google's blended with the human-driven "social search" exemplified by Yahoo Answers, which lets people post questions and harness the wisdom of the crowd.
The idea is to have a "trust network" of users, á la Wikipedia to help the software determine how germane sites are to a search. This includes engaging in so-called disambiguation, a term popularized by Wikipedia. As Wikia defines it, disambiguation is the process of distinguishing between words with more than one potential reference, such as George Bush or George W. Bush. Further details of how such intelligence might accommodate voluminous search requests have not been released. But in addition, mini-articles, posted and edited Wikipedia-style, are meant to help visitors to the search engine find quick, additional information on chosen topics.
Hiding Its Uniqueness
Users can engage in online wiki discussions of the search results, emphasizing the community-centric approach to search and further distinguishing it from Google.
So far, hours after the site launched, the mini-articles don't seem too detailed—the entry for Google, for instance, features the company's stock ticker and extremely limited information, such as a list of services and links.
There is also a user rating feature—the same zero- to five-star graphic familiar to Netflix and Amazon users—for the searches. These ratings are fed back into the system and used to refine the search algorithm. Wikia will publish the source code for the search engine, making the tool completely open-source. Yet the design of the site, with its Google-like face, does little to emphasize Wikia's unique approach to search.
"The first thing people are going to think when they see this is, 'So what? Why I should I care, and why would I want to use this instead of Google?' When someone looks at this site, does it give them a reason to expect something different or better than what they're used to?" observes Jesse James Garrett, president and founder of Adaptive Path, a San Francisco user-experience design consultancy, via e-mail.
New Users Vs. Power Users
Wales acknowledges that while it seems he is copying some of Google's design strategies, he is also informed by what's wrong with Wikipedia's text-heavy, busy design.
"At Wikipedia, we let things get too cluttered," Wales admits. "Yes, [the design] is useful for power users" who want to create or add to complex entries with many different offerings, from photos to long timelines and many links. "But it's a tough challenge to figure out how to support power users without overwhelming new users" with such a text-heavy design, he says.
In fact, when you delve into Wikia Search, it's clear the site's design was shaped by more than either Wikipedia's clutter or Google's success. Search results are presented alongside links to a social-networking site on a complex page that looks a lot like Facebook. Wikia Search users who sign up for a free account can even post photos and add friends. Wales hopes such features will attract a regular audience.
If it seems as if the site's design has myriad influences, that might be because it is the result of an open-source process, says Wales. He didn't hire a graphic designer or user-interface consultant. Rather, a Wikia member who lives in Dubai volunteered some mock-up pages, and another in Portland came up with the happy cloud logo.
Up To the Challenge
"The design philosophy is the principle of least astonishment. You should intuitively know what to do when you come to the site," says Wales. "So I took cues from the design standards established by existing sites."
Wales is going head-to-head with the world's top search properties, and he insists Wikia Search is up to the challenge. While it remains to be seen whether the human-powered approach that worked so well for an online encyclopedia can expand to meet the demands of the search world—in November, 2007, Americans conducted 10 billion searches using the top five search engines, according to ComScore data—one thing is clear: The streamlined design of Wikia Search's user interface draws upon the proven approach of using simplicity to attract audiences to an alternative search engine. That, of course, was the strategy Google itself once used to lure people away from Yahoo.