Mahalo, the expected people-powered search engine backed by Jason Calacanis, has now gone live in an early "Alpha" test release. In Mahalo, human editors have crafted the top search results for popular queries.
For example, search for [paris hotels], and human editors at Mahalo have assembled a page that lists actual hotels in Paris rather than hotel aggregation/booking sites that you see at Google.
I ran a few queries when talking with Jason about the service last week. Often, the results were impressive. In some other cases, the humans had gone into overkill, listing so many related categories of information that I felt like I was using Yahoo back in 1999.
History: Humans & Search
Human-crafted search results aren’t a new idea, of course. This is precisely how Ask Jeeves used to work. In fact, it was this human element that was crucial to the early success that Ask had back when it initially became popular as an up-and-coming search engine in 1998, alongside Google. Ask’s editors would — as Mahalo editors do now — look at the most popular searches and create search results that editors hoped would be answer the information need.
Ask’s problem was scaling. Having so many editors cost money. In contrast, Google’s link-based automated approach provided good relevancy for both popular and unusual (or long-tail) queries.
Over time, the machine has reigned supreme when it comes to the major search engines. Yahoo’s human-powered directory has been buried in various ways over the years, while Microsoft once heavy-reliance on human editing of top results was long-abandoned in the technological chase after Google.
Cost-wise, Calacanis is optimistic he has things covered.
"We have 40 people working on it in Santa Monica and will have 100 by the end of the year. We think we can control the costs," he said. "We can actually make enough money to keep this going."
In particular, Jason talked about his experience in keeping 300 bloggers going though the Weblogs network he used to run as useful.
"It’s not hard for me to keep them [so many editors] focused on a goal." As for funding, if the Google AdSense units currently on the site don’t cover costs, Calacanis says investors ranging from News Corp. to AOL’s Ted Leonsis have given him enough money to run the company for at least five years.
In terms of searches targeted, Jason said the focus remains firmly on the most popular queries that are performed by many people, rather than trying to have a human-crafted answer for everything.
"The goal of the site is not to be a comprehensive search engine. We’re very comprehensive for the most popular search terms. After that, we give the others over to Google or Yahoo," Calacanis said.
Alternative, But Not Replacement, To Google
Give over to Google or Yahoo? Two explanations here. First, Jason doesn’t expect that Mahalo will be used instead of a major search engine like Google or Yahoo. Instead, he hopes it will become a tool people selectively tap into when they want answers for a common, popular subject. He expects those looking to do hard-core research or a hunt after unusual information to turn to a traditional search engine.
"I don’t think it’s possible for people to abandon them," he said, giving the example of someone looking for information about a specific cell phone battery as being too specific for Mahalo to cover.
"It’s not the goal to wipe out Google or be the first choice. Google is the new ocean. You are much better to work with them. We don’t see them as competitive. We’ve got 4,000 search terms, we’re not going to replace them, we know that. But if you compare any of these terms, it’s better to start with us," he said, his "Google as ocean" comment echoing Topix’s Rich Skrenta’s "Google is the environment" observation from earlier this year.
Of course, some people will search for things at Mahalo without knowing it has no answers of its own. In that case, Mahalo will provide Google-powered results, so as not to disappoint. Google’s not a formal partner in doing this, by the way. Instead, Mahalo is simply using the AdSense For Search service that any publisher can tap into. And no — Mahalo doesn’t plan its own ad system, Calacanis said.
While the goal might not be to replace Google, Calacanis clearly wants his service to get used. How does he plan to grow share? There’s no spending millions on ads similar to what Microsoft and Ask.com have done. Instead, he’s looking to follow the Google model, word-of-mouth.
Plenty of search start-ups have assumed word-of-mouth about their hot new idea or twist on search would be enough to make their companies thrive then been disappointed as they disappeared into obscurity. Why does Calacanis think Mahalo will be different from these others?
"I don’t think they delivered a good product. Compare any of our [human-crafted] search results to Google search results head-to-head. We will be five-to-ten times better," he explained.
What if Maholo somehow beat all the odds and seriously threatened Google? Doesn’t that potentially weaken Mahalo, which is depending on Google to do the hard work of crawling the web and providing relevant results for all those tail terms that Mahalo won’t target?
Calacanis sees this as unlikely — but that’s also where Search Wikia – project backed by Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales — might come in. Wales is focused more on building an open-source crawling of the web that anyone could use (see Q&A With Jimmy Wales On Search Wikia for more on this). For that reason, Calacanis doesn’t necessarily see himself as "beating" Wales to the punch with a new human-powered service and in fact sees the two projects as perhaps complimentary.
"If his open source results are good and unique and better than Google’s, we’ll use them. We’re defaulting to Google for long tail [query results] because they are the best search out there. I hope that he comes up with something great, because if it is open source, we’d have a great solution," Calacanis said.
Crafting Queries; Avoiding The Destination Trap
Mahalo isn’t just relying on human editors. There’s the ability for users of the site to submit content that should be included on a page, if the editors have overlooked it. But unlike human-powered Wikipedia, these suggestions don’t go live automatically. An editor has to agree to a change and implement it.
"We basically spend four to eight hours on a search term, and that gets us to what I’d consider 60 to 70 percent compete [information for that term]. We’ll rely on the audience to do the rest, though we won’t let them edit the page," Calacanis said.
Pages will link not just to web sites but also to video content, news stories (right now from Google News) and other information. It’s impressive, especially some of the categorical groupings the humans do, though Hakia does some pretty similar and impressive work using technology rather than humans (try a search for iphone, for example — and I hope to finally make time to do my planned write-up on Hakia later in June).
Some Mahalo pages, such as for iPhone, will have "Fast Facts" sections to provide direct answers — though Calacanis said this type of information will purposely be kept to a minimum, so as to avoid the problem that About.com fell into.
In particular, About.com originally launched as the Mining Co. back in 1997, billed as a human-powered alternative to finding stuff on the web — human guides would "mine" the best information out there, hence the site’s original name.
I never viewed the Mining Co. as a search engine but rather a destination site. Calacanis had the same view, when I asked why he thought Mahalo would be a successful search engine when the Mining Co. — About.com — failed to find success in that particular role.
"They strayed from being a guide to the web to being a landing page," Calacanis explained. "We are not going to do that….one of the rules we have is ‘Don’t compete with the destination’," he said. Internally, Mahalo heavily debated having Fast Facts but decided including three or four would be helpful.
Overall, Mahalo aims to cover 25,000 top search terms. About 4,000 have been created already, and the goal is to do 500 per week scaling up to 1,000 per week. This includes revisiting and updating existing terms
Humans Versus Machines
That revisiting is important. I recently talked with Tim Mayer, vice president of product management at Yahoo, about the idea of Yahoo doing more hand-crafting of results. It seems like a no-brainer idea, but Mayer reminded that what’s relevant for a query can often change over time. Google’s Udi Manber, vice president of engineering, made similar remarks when I spoke with him about human-crafted results when I was visiting at Google yesterday.
One example he pointed out was how Google’s human quality reviewers — people that Google pays to provide a human double-check on the quality of its results, so they can then better tune the search algorithm — started to downgrade results for [cars] when information about the movie Cars started turning up. The algorithm had picked up that the movie was important to that term before some of the human reviewers were aware of it.
Overall, the best solution probably isn’t all human or all machine but some combination of the two.
"Humans Are Better" was literally the motto of the Open Directory Project when it launched back in 1998, but that human model hasn’t scaled well. That, along with other human-powered failures, are enough to make Mahalo seem interesting but ultimately not likely to succeed.
Then again, Wikipedia stands so far at a shining example of how humans can indeed come together and produce a quality resource. It’s not perfect, obviously, but it has lots of great information. As I said about Wales’ project at the end of December, so I think about Mahalo — it’s good to see humans getting more of a role in search, and perhaps both projects will ultimately find a way to better blend the best of both words, human and machine.