Wikipedia creator Jimmy Wales has opened the curtain on an early version of his for-profit search engine, Wikia. The quality of search results is low, say reviewers — very low. That's because Wales want you, the user, to build the search engine for him. That strategy may have worked with Wikipedia. But building the complex algorithms that power a search engine is not the kind of service I want performed by volunteers.
For certain types of searches, search engines are very good. But I still see major failures, where they aren't delivering useful results. I think at a deeper almost political level, I think it's important that we as a global society have some transparency in search. What are the algorithms involved? What are the reasons why one site comes up over another one?
That political motivation may doom Wikia as a business. While it's true that search algorithms are frustratingly obscure — especially to the seamy marketers who would like to manipulate them more easily — I can't imagine that many users care what's inside the box. Search is a complex business. Revealing the guts of the algorithms won't guarantee that those willing to tinker with the code will actually produce improvements over today's offerings. Those most keen on learning how search algorithms operate are mostly interested in gaming the system. They don't want to improve it; they want to abuse it.
While Wikipedia has successfully harnessed the crowd for editing encyclopedic entries on specialized topics, developing a better search engine is hardly the same as correcting an entry on the latest Harry Potter book. If you have the skills to improve search results, why would you volunteer for Wales when you could earn a six-figure salary at Google, Yahoo, or Microsoft?