At least Jason Calacanis puts his money where his mouth is. The Weblogs Inc founder who regularly unleashes his vitriol against search engine optimization has launched a new search engine, if you can call it that. Say aloha to Mahalo, a human-powered engine that is much more reminiscent of the search industry's past than a stepping stone to the future.
This story's much bigger than Calacanis (though not necessarily bigger than his ego). It gets to one of the fundamental debates about how far consumer-generated media will go. CGM has upended reference books with Wikipedia, news delivery with Digg, and video production with YouTube, to name just a few examples. Why wouldn't the trend, that tornado that's uprooting all of us, overtake the search industry too?
We'll get to those answers. First, though, where's Calacanis coming from? Here's what he had to say to Allen Stern, of the CenterNetworks blog, who raised doubts about Mahalo's viability: "My point about SEO is that it is gaming system and done by weak people who have sites that shouldn't rank high. We are not trying to SEO--we are trying to help people avoid bad sites and find good ones." Stern happened to point out that Mahalo will ultimately gain visibility by creating optimized pages of links, adding, "It is interesting to me that after all of Jason's talk about SEO being dead, he launches the master SEO play."
Mahalo uses human guides to create custom results pages for its ultimate target of the top 10,000 search terms, with the exception of adult content. Mahalo also builds pages for timely topics such as new movies, topics in the news, and, of course, Jason Calacanis. While the idea sounds nice in theory, there are problems both with how it's implemented and the entire concept of human-powered search results:
1) The results themselves are hard to scan. For any guide-authored page, there are links but no descriptions, so it's hard to quickly differentiate one link from another. The "Mahalo Top 7," the collection of the best links for a subject, is just a link-heavy hodgepodge, and the lack of context is frustrating. For instance, for the Sarah Silverman page, why is the sixth link "The New Yorker: Hostile Acts"? That's all you're given. Scrolling over the URL, you see that the page is in the magazine's television reviews and it's from July 2005 - but those are two more pieces of information than Mahalo gives you.
2) No one goes and says, "I'm going to search for a top 10,000 phrase or timely query today." When one searches for a page not specifically created for Mahalo, an "oops" message appears, which is disappointing, followed by related results pages from Mahalo. As of Monday, a search for Drudge Report scribe Matt Drudge returned related results for four other guys named Matt (including a NASCAR driver, baseball player, football player, and "Today Show" host - all of whom have more in common with Matt Drudge than I do with a certain other David Berkowitz). Quantcast says "Matt Drudge" ranks 50,472 among searches. Next time I'll remember to try such research tools before conducting a search on Mahalo.
3) Mahalo is all human-powered, which means it's entirely subjective. For the page on John McCain, Amazon and IMDB are the third and fourth links. Is this really what people want? And why do CBS News (with a news article) and Fox News (with a video link) get priority over other sites? As an aside, IMDB, an extremely well optimized site that tends to rank among the top few listings in Google for any entertainment celebrity's name, shows up on the sixth page of Google's results for a search on John McCain. Sorry, Mahalo writer Lon Harris -- I'm siding with the algorithm here.
4) Lon wrote the McCain page, Lelah wrote the cake page (about the food, not the band), and Jonathan wrote the page on apple, the fruit (disambiguated from Apple, the computer company and Apple, the record label). Who are you people? I wouldn't trust my friends to choose the most relevant search results for me. Why would I trust Lon, Lelah, and Jonathan? This also explains why social search, where friends' queries and clicks influence your results, has yet to catch on (social search pioneers like Eurekster and Wink.com have endured by evolving their businesses away from that model).
Diving into the trust issue, I trust my camera to work, but I wouldn't trust a friend to take pictures for me. I trust my TV to work, but I wouldn't trust a friend to program my digital video recorder. I trust my search engine to work, but I wouldn't trust anyone with ranking my search results. Yet I do trust Sony for my camera, JVC for my TV, and Google for my search engine.
As Techno//Marketer blogger Matt Dickman has commented, Mahalo is reminiscent of Yahoo when it was a directory, not a search engine. Mahalo has no search technology, so calling it a human-powered search engine is like calling the Flintstones' foot-powered vehicle a human-powered car. Let's leave the Stone Age behind us.