“We have a lot of things developing in parallel, and some of our projects are actually competing with each other, so we’ll have to see what the outcome is,” says Penchina. That will take patience, but Wikia is in no hurry to finalize a solution, he says. “We have this saying internally: ‘No a priori thinking.’ Communities evolve in their own special way, and anyone who thinks they know where the crowd is going to go generally doesn’t understand crowd psychology.”
Only a few matters are settled, according to Penchina. One is the basic premise: that Wikia Search will combine the strengths of software and people. “Computers are useful for large-scale problem solving like building an index, but machine judgment is usually never as good as human judgment, so you need a blend of the two,” he says.
Another settled matter is that Wikia Search’s developers won’t attempt to reinvent the wheel: the purely algorithmic components of Wikia Search will be built on top of the existing open-source search engines Nutch and Lucene, both initiated by independent software developer Doug Cutting.
Reaction to the news of Wikia’s ambitions is mixed. Some in the technical community say that Internet users deserve a search engine whose workings are open for all to examine, in contrast to the closely guarded ranking algorithms used by Google and its peers.
Others have underscored the huge challenges in going up against the likes of Google, which employs many of the world’s best brains in information-retrieval technology, owns a vast global infrastructure of servers, and dishes up results good enough that more than one in four Internet users make a stop at the search engine every day. “Google and Yahoo and MSN and Ask do a pretty damned good job,” remarked search-industry veteran Stavros Macrakis in a late February post to the Wikia Search mailing list. “It’s not as though the competition was a $2,000 Encyclopaedia Britannica which is always years out of date.”
Penchina acknowledges the scale of the challenges but says Wikia is in the search business for the long haul. “I don’t know that we expect massively impressive results from day one,” he says. “Wikipedia has taken six years to get where it is.”
Wikia Search has a somewhat confusing genealogy. Wikipedia, which melded the idea of an online encyclopedia with the collaborative-editing technology of wikis, has been controlled since 2003 by the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, which also operates Wiktionary, Wikinews, Wikiquote, and other collaborative projects.
Wikia, on the other hand, is a for-profit company cofounded in 2004 by Wales and British Internet entrepreneur Angela Beeseley under the original name Wikicities. It hosts hundreds of special-interest wikis, including wikis for genealogy buffs. Wikia has no direct connection to Wikipedia; however, several of Wikipedia’s most dedicated contributors are now employees at Wikia, including Beeseley.
Wikia raised at least $4 million in venture capital in 2006 from a group including Bessemer Venture Partners, Omidyar Network, Amazon.com, and angel investors.