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Search engine David to charge at Goliath January 6, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Google, Internet, Internet Software.
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Jimmy Wales, a Pinellas County man who became a tech icon by co-founding the vast online encyclopedia called “Wikipedia,” has now launched another globally ambitious project. Wales wants to out-Google Google.

Wales is a former options trader who works out of a small office near BayWalk in St. Petersburg and on his laptop wherever else he happens to be. Financially speaking, he’s David to the Goliath of Google, a $148-billion corporation which owns the most popular Internet search engine and has won legions of fans by creating free products such as Google Maps and Google Earth.

So what can Wales arm himself with in his battle to create a better way of searching the Internet? The same thing that made Wikipedia a global phenomenon: Thousands of volunteers like you. He hopes.

Wales has co-founded Wikia, a for-profit company with offices in San Mateo, Calif., and also is chairman of the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation based in St. Petersburg, which was set up to support Wikipedia.

The for-profit Wikia already is in the business of setting up Internet communities for different groups. Now the company plans to create an Internet search engine that would challenge those of Google or Yahoo.

To many users, the knowledge that flows from simple searches on these sites works like magic. Wales himself uses Google all the time, and says “I think we’ve all loved Google so much because it’s so much better than what came before.”

But he and other Internet activists have complaints. Sometimes Google searches yield strange results, he says, and Google is not good about explaining them.

In a recent interview, a St. Petersburg Times reporter suggested Wales type the word “spears” into Google. The top 10 results: One Web site for California-based Spears Manufacturing, which makes plastic pipe fittings and valves; eight sites related to pop singer Britney Spears; and one Wikipedia article about the kind of spears that people throw.

It’s strange, Wales says, that the first result of this search was the plastic pipe company. He would like Google to not only explain results like this, but to go further and open up its software so others could see why seemingly strange results occur. “There’s a complete lack of transparency,” he says.

A Google spokeswoman wouldn’t directly address the “threat” of Wiki competition or criticisms. She only said that “search is at the core of everything Google does and we are always working tomake it better” by providing users with the Web’s “fastest and most relevant search experience.”

For Wales, this is about more than geeky curiosity; it’s about freedom of speech. If a few big companies control the world’s Internet searches – increasingly the gateway to knowledge in our society – it only seems fair to him that people should be able to know how searches work.

But asking Google to unveil its software is akin to asking Colonel Sanders and Coke to give out their secret recipes, so it’s not likely to happen soon. That’s where the new Wikia project comes in. Wikia is preparing to use volunteers to collectively write software for a brand new search engine. It’s an approach called open source development, and has been used effectively for other software projects.

In addition to creating software that makes computers search out Web pages and index them, Wikia hopes to create an online community similar to Wikipedia. Volunteers would pore over different search results and evaluate them.

Under this system, unlike Google or Yahoo, volunteers could actually change how the search engine works. They might decide the article on spears (the throwing kind) should get the top position and maybe the satirical Web site “Britney Spears on Semiconductor Physics” shouldn’t come in as ninth in the search.

The innovative part of Wikipedia is that it allows anyone to write or edit encyclopedia articles on any topic. But their writing is examined by thousands of other online users of the system, who debate and correct the mistakes. The encyclopedia has been praised for its breadth and ease of use, but also criticized for some embarrassing errors.

“Just as Wikipedia revolutionized how we think about knowledge and the encyclopedia, we have a chance now to revolutionize how we think about search,” Wales wrote recently on the Search Wikia Web site (http://search.wikia.com/wiki/Search_Wikia).

One stark difference stands between the Wikipedia project and the new search engine. In Wikipedia, the volunteers know they are collaborating in a non-profit effort to create the largest encyclopedia in human history. But Wikia is asking volunteers to help create a product owned by a for-profit company.

Wales said it was set up that way partly because organizers needed to raise money from investors to get the necessary computer hardware and engineering expertise.

Wales doesn’t think people will balk at volunteering for a for-profit company. He said the important thing is for members to know that they are creating a free software product which will be open to anyone. The company’s profits would likely come from advertising.

$149-billion Google’s market capitalization

$487.19 per share – Google’s closing stock price on Friday

$2.69-billion Google’s most recently reported quarterly revenues (third quarter 2006)

12th and 13th Rankings of Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, respectively, in most recent Forbes list of richest Americans. Forbes estimates they made in the area of $13-million per day over the last two years.

$1.65-billion Amount in stock that Google committed to buy popular Internet video-sharing site YouTube late last year

1 followed by 100 zeros Definition for the mathematical term “Googol”

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