Could the search engine of the future be free and collaborative like Wikipedia?

There’s been a lot of talk in the media recently about a new Wikimedia Foundation project to create a search engine, a move that would put it on a collision course with Google, now the world’s most valuable company.

The foundation reportedly received $250,000 in September from the Knight Foundation, a privately run charity that supports innovation in the media, quality journalism, the arts, and citizen reporting. According to The Register, the money is just the first tranche of a project worth $2.5 million aimed at “making the internet’s most relevant information more accessible and open, and to create an open search engine totally free of commercial interests.”

Jimmy Wales might insist “we are not building Google”, but it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the foundation could be thinking of reviving Wikia Search, a short-lived project launched by Wales in September 2008 that closed in 2009 after failing to generate traction. Wikia Search was a response to the fact that many Wikipedia pages came top of the list of many Google searches, which is hardly surprising, given its neutral status and that many other pages cite it. If the world’s experts are prepared to provide, free of charge, information to Wikipedia, providing their sources as well, then the result is going to look pretty much like a search engine page, without any commercial interests. Writing on his blog, when Wales announced the closure of Wikia Search, he said:

“In a different economy, we would continue to fund Wikia Search indefinitely. It’s something I care about deeply. I will return to again and again in my career to search, either as an investor, a contributor, a donor, or a cheerleader.”

Wales’ plans for Wikimedia can be seen as part of a broader shift toward a free-services internet. What would happen if the illustration above became reality and became what the foundation itself has called “the internet’s first transparent search engine”?

Prior to 2001, when Wikipedia was launched, the world’s major encyclopedias would have laughed at the idea of their business being killed off by a free encyclopedia, one that has grown to be the most up to date and complete in the world. As late as 2006 I had a series of conversations with Planeta, Spain’s leading publisher, during which I tried unsuccessfully to warn them that Wikipedia would do away with their business.

Could the same thing happen with search engines? Imagine a world where the leading search engine were free in all senses of the world, with no advertising and run by a not-for-profit organization funded through donations?

Google’s success in creating the best search engine to date means there has been little discussion about alternatives to the domination it enjoys. To all intents and purposes, competing with Google seems pretty much impossible: simply managing all those pages has so far proved a big enough entry barrier to any potential challenger. Google has developed a huge range of technologies aimed at improving the efficiency of its data bases. At the same time, it is constantly updating its search algorithms.

A number of companies with the resources have tried competing by doing something similar to what Google does, using social relevance algorithms, all of which have failed. But a search engine that produces pages edited by volunteers working to a series of guidelines similar to Wikipedia’s could be attractive, and managed properly, could be a serious problem for Google.

Google describes its mission as, “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” The need to convert that activity into a profitable business has led us to accept not just more and more advertising on its pages, but also that the results of searches are increasingly subject to editorialization: a lot of Google search lead not to results, but to a page on which the company’s products and services are also on offer. There is something attractive and provocative about the idea of pitting the intelligence of volunteers (as with Wikipedia) against Google’s algorithms.

Increasingly under pressure from the authorities, Google also faces competition from other search engines. In short, searching online has become so important to our societies that growing numbers of people are now asking if it wouldn’t be better if the field wasn’t dominated by a single company. What’s more, they ask, rather than competition coming from another business, why not from a collaborative project? One of the most important characteristics of the internet is its ability to reduce transaction costs. Could this mean collaborative alternatives that require intensive coordination could end up having the edge over traditional corporate competitors?

(En español, aquí)

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