Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Ten years ago, Wikia tried to fight Google Search

Remember when Wikia, Jimmy Wales’ (of Wikipedia fame) for-profit company, tried to build its own search engine and fight Google? Because neither do I.

There seems to be some confusion about what happened between December 2006 and February 2007. Quiet a lot of news outlets started reporting that Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, had allegedly announced a search engine project called “Wikisaria” on December 23, 2006, with the aim to rival Google Search. The name would be a combination of “wiki”, the hawaiian word for “quick”, and “asari”, a japanese term for “rummaging search” or “fishing”. Instead of solely relying on computers and algorithms, Wikisaria would let users to see how the search results were generated, and, in a Wiki-like fashion, allow them to modifiy the rankings based on their own knowledge.

If your brain is screaming “SEO spam!” right now: so did mine. If you’re trying to remember how big Google was back then: about ten billion dollars in cash. But back to the story.

The new search engine wouldn’t be part of Wikimedia Foundation, but would be run by Wikia, a for-profit company co-funded by Jimmy Wales in late 2004. Gil Penchan, Wikia CEO back then, later added that Wikia had already raised four million dollars in funding and received an “undisclosed and significant” cash investment by Amazon.com. A german news outlet reported that there would be a collaboration between Wikisaria and YaCy (the independent distributed search engine project). Since the distinction between Wikia and the Wikimedia Foundation wasn’t as clear as it is today, one commenter confused both in this statement:

Why are ads on Wikipedia unthinkable? Because Jimmy Wales is gathering authority and content, waiting for his search project to launch. Don’t be surprised if the Wikipedia contains ads soon after Wikisaria’s ad program launches.

Well, that obviously didn’t happen, and the whole story was a bit different, as the Wikipedia entry now correctly states. What had really happened was that Jimmy Wales had made a passing comment about the possibility of a wiki-based search engine, and The Times (article now paywalled) had published this as an official statement.

Everybody just copied it, often making the typo I hid in the second paragraph – did you notice I wrote “Wikisaria” instead of “Wikiasari”? Well, neither did half of the Internet. The part about Amazon’s support was inaccurate as well, while it is true that there had been a recent investment, it was not specific to the search engine. And the YaCy developers didn’t even know about their alleged cooperation with Wikisaria.

Instead of maybe clarifying the whole thing as just being an idea, Wikia decided to actually build the wiki-based search engine everyone was now talking about. On January 31, 2007, Wales formally announced “Wikia Search” at a talk at the New York University, stating that online search should be open, transparent, participatory, and democratic. The original target was to take over five percent of the search market. The mission statement was that online search was “broken for the same reason that proprietary software is always broken: lack of freedom, lack of community, lack of accountability, lack of transparency.”

What Wikia Search looked like in November 2008(© Pirate Praveen)

On Christmas Eve 2007, Jimmy Wales gave the world the gift of a “private pre-alpha”. In June 2008, the possibility to rate, edit, enhance and delete results was added. In March 2009 the project was dead. Just about 10,000 unique users per month had been using the search engine during the last couple of months of its existence. After its shutdown, the Wikia Search page redirected users to wikianswers.

Why did this happen? The following piece of a major rant, which was published just after the first news reports in January 2007, probably explains most of if:

(..) Wikipedia already manages links in its wiki entries but to get beyond just being a portal with a few carefully managed links (..) they’ve actually got to manage the entire web. Doing that takes a lot of people. Multiply users and you multiply disputes. Multiply disputes and you multiply mods and wikiwars and all the rest. And as a commercial project, Wikisaria may not be able to get away with living off the unpaid work of volunteers nearly as much. (..) Wikisaria may be a paradigm change (..) but it will still have to compete against a search engine market against the dominant Google, the ascending Microsoft Live Search and the increasingly puglistic Ask.com. (..) Your average user is not going to wait around for a search engine to work the way he or she wants it to. They’ll just go right back to the one they were using before and Wikisaria will become the Linux of internet search engine, a hobbyist’s fixation with limited real world value.

Together with Wikia Search, we didn’t only loose another search engine contender, but also a social network service called “foowi” and another Wiki called “mini articles”. Foowi allowed users to create a profile, share their information and status, upload pictures and manage a list of friends. Mini articles were short, user-editable Wiki pages about a single topic which were intergrated into the search engine. Some feared this could open the possibility of Wikia Search becoming something like a for-profit Wikipedia, but the Wikimedia Foundation never actually thought of it as a threat.

One last, interesting fact: despite Wikia being a for-profit company with its own budget and infrastructure, the Wikia Search default index was running on servers owned and operated by the Internet Systems Consortium, a non-profit corporation usually known for developing the BIND DNS server software and running the DNS “F” root server.

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