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Last Updated: Monday, 7 January 2008, 13:16 GMT
Open source search effort starts
By Chris Vallance
Reporter, BBC iPM

Jimmy Wales, Wikimedia Foundation
Wales: "I trust Google but I still think that there's a problem with secrecy..."

For many Google has solved the problem of searching the web. But not everyone is happy with the way it works and the results it gives. Here Jimmy Wales, founder of the Wikipedia encylopedia, talks to the BBC about his new venture - Wikia Search.

Billed as an open source search engine Wikia Search launched on 7 January backed by Wikia, the commercial wiki hosting company started in 2004 by Mr Wales.

Like its older sibling Wikipedia, the new service will be run by a community of users.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4's iPM programme, Jimmy Wales said Wikia Search would be, "completely controlled by the community of users. So it's going to be similar to any wiki except people will be able to participate in the creation of search results"

The new service is still in an early or "alpha" stage of development, relying as it does on user participation current results are not comparable to the established services.

An explanation of why not has been put on the Wikia Search site: "Of course, before we start, we have no user feedback data. So the results are pretty bad. But we expect them to improve rapidly in coming weeks."

With Google encroaching on Wikipedia's territory with the announcement of its new, user-generated encyclopaedia service, Knol, this might look like tit-for-tat but that's a view rejected by Mr Wales: "Everybody loves the story line but [...] none of us really think in that way."

But the new service does highlight contrasting approaches to the search business.

Screengrab of Search Wikia homepage, Wikimedia Foundation
Users will help tune Wikia Search results to make them more useful
Google employs proprietary technology and the details of its ranking algorithm, the process which determines what tops the list when search results are returned, is a closely guarded secret.

With Wikia Search, Wales is betting on a very different approach: transparency.

He said: "The proof will be in the puddingż I just believe that transparency is an important political issue on the web. One of the things I make an analogy to is openness in a free society, openness in a court system. I love Google, I trust Google but I still think that there's a problem with secrecy in that you never know who you really can trust."

So the way Wikia Search works is to be determined by the community of users, "Wherever there is an editorial decision we want to push that out into the community", said Mr Wales.

The new system will also allow users to rate search results according to their usefulness.

That approach is not without its risks. Because search results can be so important to website traffic, considerable effort is spent trying to manipulate search engine results, artificially moving a web page up the rankings.

Having an open system may make it easier for people to "game" the system, but Mr Wales thinks it also means abuse is dealt with sooner, "Sunlight is the best disinfectant," he said.

Allowing anyone to edit a service can create other ethical problems.

Google logo, AP
Google has long been king of the web search world
Conflicts of interest are a perennial area of controversy for Wikipedia where people are actively discouraged from editing Wikipedia entries in which they have a vested interest.

For the new service Mr Wales believes this is an issue left to users to resolve. "That will be for the community of editors to decide, I think in general it's going to be very similar to any wiki, if you do something bad people will get mad at you. Most people are good, you don't want to create some elaborate police state before you actually have the problems"

While there are clearly strong parallels between Wikipedia, and the new Wikia Search service, there is an important difference.

Wikia is a for-profit business. "We're planning to have an advertising supported model", said Mr Wales.

Whether the users who help shape Wikia Search will eventually be able to claim a share in the revenue in unclear.

"We have no plans and no ideas about that right now", said Mr Wales.

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