In the latest of many attempts by a wide variety of players to improve search results beyond Google’s iconic 10 blue links, the community information service Wikia Inc. on Oct. 8 is launching what cofounder Jimmy Wales informally calls “Facebook apps for search.” Officially dubbed WISEApps, for Wikia Intelligent Search Extensions, the platform is a way for both individuals and businesses to create new kinds of search results for a particular keyword. Wales, who also cofounded the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia, launched Wikia Search last January as a project to create an open-source search engine.
How would WISEApps work? The Washington Post WISEApp, for instance, lets people who type in “Barack Obama” or “John McCain” get Post news stories directly on the Wikia Search results page. Or if you search “JFK to LAX,” the travel search service Kayak.com will provide a small search box near the top of the results that show a list of fares between New York City and Los Angeles. Other Web publisher partners include AccuWeather.com, the user-driven news aggregation site Digg, and news service Thomson Reuters, among others.
Initially, the publishing partners will be supplying dozens or even hundreds or thousands of keywords and keyword strings for which they’d like to serve their customized results. Those will appear at the top of the results page at first, though Wikia Search users will be able to vote them down the page over time if they deem them less relevant than others. (Erick Schonfeld at TechCrunch notes that they will be manually approved by Wales, at least for the time being.)
Eventually, there may be sponsored results—that is, advertisers would pay for various keywords—but not for now. Wales anticipates that users will be able to offer their input on ranking the sponsored results just the same as they rank natural results. But it remains to be seen how commercial Web sites will respond to this control by the masses.
As Wales himself has admitted, Wikia Search is nowhere near Google or other major search engines in its capabilities. But he’s hoping that over time, adding a more overtly human element to search will help improve results. “The more human thought we can apply to the product, the better search we’ll get,” he says.
Of course, you can imagine spammers could have a field day. But Wales thinks the Wikia Search community will help filter those as they do on Wikipedia. “We’ll need to adjust as we go along,” he says. No doubt. And Wikia Search surely will take years to develop into something as formidable in search as Wikipedia is as an online reference and even news source. But it’s a bold attempt to add the power of us to the algorithmic black magic of conventional search.