Mahalo – New Search or Doomed Model?

There’s a great post on Apogee Search Marketing Blog dissecting the reasons they believe that Mahalo won’t work. I’ve been following Mahalo for a while and I’ve got to admit, there are some rather pointed criticisms there.

First, this from the FAQ at Mahalo – a user vetted search service brought to us by Jason Calacanis:

  • Mahalo is the world’s first human-powered search engine powered by an enthusiastic and energetic group of Guides. Our Guides spend their days searching, filtering out spam, and hand-crafting the best search results possible. If they haven’t yet built a search result, you can request that search result. You can also suggest links for any of our search results.
  • Mahalo. We’re here to help.

I’ll admit the idea of human-powered search is something I’ve said was needed for some time. Maybe it’s as simple as having Google put in a “user feedback” button, or a way in which we can report inappropriate results, but the basic point is, search can’t progress appreciably further without adding a human factor.

Brian Coombs of Apogee had this list of reasons they aren’t likely to beat Google:

  1. Scaling – You can only scale the service by throwing people at it. If you’ve not built results for a particular query, it’s either going to be blank, they’re going to have to syndicate results from a true search engine, or they’re going to have to build their own true search engine. There are nearly infinite query possibilities; Mahalo can’t possibly cover them all. Today’s major search engines are probably going to provide better results on average than Mahalo. This is unlikely to change in the near future, if it can even change at all.
  2. Momentum – Here’s the dirty little secret: Providing better query results than Google is not sufficient. All Google has to do is to be good enough to convince people not to change. Mahalo might have the best three results as the top three, and Google might just have them on the first page. That’s probably enough to maintain loyalty. Yahoo and MSN face this same problem, by the way.
  3. Bias – People are biased. With a small number of reviewers, you can possibly maintain quality control, but as it scales, bias (and outright corruption) will creep into the system. This is part of what happened with Open Directory. If you could find them, there were editors that would add your site to a category for an under-the-table fee.
  4. New Sites – How are new sites supposed to be found? It’s bad enough with the search engines, but at least with them you can optimize your pages and build links to your site to crawl up the rankings. Other than a major PR campaign to get the editors’ attention, it’s not clear how you do this with Mahalo.

You should really read his full post, entitled “Why a Blacksmith can never be an Algorithm

I’m still pulling for Mahalo, but Brian’s post sure has given me something to consider.

(Disclosure: I signed up with Mahalo some time ago to help provide search results in my spare time. I am still waiting for that “spare time” to materialize.)

Here are links to two past posts on Search I did. Look at Mahalo and see if you think they’ve answered most of my points on search…

Where’s My Adaptive Search? – February, 2007
The Future of Search  – January 2007

2 Replies to “Mahalo – New Search or Doomed Model?”

  1. Thanks for taking the time to think about Mahalo! here are my thoughts on the four issues which I posted over at Apogee.

    “Great post… you’ve nailed four of the most important issues we face–and we face many more than just four issues!

    Let’s me work backwards….

    4. New Sites: We find new sites two main ways:

    a) Proactive: We have 50 filltime folks and 800 part-time Guides right now. Each of them specializes in a particular area or two. So, in sports we have 30-40 folks, and in food or science we have 20-30 for example. These folks are reading all the top blogs, news sources, delicious, reddit, digg, Netscape, etc. for their particular topics–DAILY! When new sites come up they find out about them. These folks also talk to each other constantly.

    b) Reactive: It is very clear how to get our attention: submit you site for any search term! Thousands of folks are doing this every month already. Users can submit sites to us all day long…. in fact, we’ll see one site owner submit their pages for 20 different related search engines. Getting our attention is, in fact, EASY!

    In fact, it is much easier to get our attention than Google or Yahoo’s. Those folks don’t talk to you about your position on the SERP–we will!

    3. Bias: This is a big issue, but like Wikipedia or a newspaper we have an NPOV rule and we enforce it and police it religiously. Take a look at a page like George Bush or abortion and you’ll see what I mean. In fact, I would challenge you to find one piece of bias on the site…. if you do I’ll buy you a beer for each one!

    Second, our site is 100% transparent. You can see the history of each page and every edit is done a by a real person with a real name getting paid real money. If someone does something biased we will find out and they will be fired. It’s that simple. We have an easier time with this than say Wikipedia because we have a paid relationship with our Guides/editors–and they don’t want to lose the paid relationship.

    Third, every page has a message board where we will publicly debate any bias.

    So, again, find me one example of bias in the 9,200 pages we have right now and the beer(s) are on me!

    2. Momentum: This is actually probably wrong. In the end the better product usually wins on Internet. In fact, Google is the prefect example of this. They were 10-30% better than other search engines and they slowly took marketshare away from folks. So, in fact, if you are better you should get people to move. Remember there is zero lockin on the Internet. People can switch from search engine to search engine easily with no cost (switching social networks? ok, there is a cost there… you have to rebuild your network).

    1. We actually do syndicate machine search already… so, we really don’t have to have everything…. we need to have enough so that you consider using us in addition to Google or Yahoo. In fact, if we can get just 1% of searches that is, as folks have pointed out, a very significant business. Additionally, we have 9,200 pages right now that service 20+ searches each… we did 700 pages last week. We are in our third month…. do the math, this could get big quick!

    Anyway, I totally think you nailed the key issues and in fact your key issues are EXACTLY what the VCs said to me when we were raising money for the company… so, at the very least a) you’ve got a career ahead of you in venture capital and b) I’ve got a lot of work to do!

    Mahalo for thinking of us and come back to the site every 60 days I suggest… it seems to change radically at that pace.

    Also, I might suggest trying out Mahalo Follow… our toolbar/sidebar for Firefox that only opens when we have a human crafted result: http://greenhouse.mahalo.com/Special:FollowDownload?id=9

  2. Thanks Jason for the quick and well thought out response!

    As I mentioned previously, I am convince that the next generation of search will have to have a human component, and I believe that Mahalo can be the system that provides that service.

    Kudos, and I’ll try to get in a do my first SERP soon!

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