Monday, August 20, 2007

Can Open Source Beat Google Search?

Among those looking for alternatives to Google, the Wikia search project might gain some traction, said analyst Greg Sterling, noting that the bottom line is that the Wikia search engine -- a collaborative project built on open-source software -- has to work as good or better than Google and Yahoo. "That's a pretty tall order," Sterling said.

On Friday at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, Wikia, a Web 2.0 company cofounded by Jimmy Wales, gave the world an update on its progress toward building a new search platform based on open-source software and human collaboration.

In a morning keynote address, Wales discussed his vision and business models for building search from a set of open-source software tools known collectively as LAMP. LAMP is an acronym for the Linux operating system, Apache Web server Relevant Products/Services, MySQL database management system, and PHP programming language.

"We've had a tremendous response from very interesting commercial players in the search space," Wales said in a statement. "The desire to collaborate and support a transparent and open platform for search is clearly deeply exciting to both open source and businesses."

Getting Grub

Wales promised new announcements in the months ahead as Wikia works to "free the judgment of information from invisible rules inside an algorithmic black box." Wikia's Grub acquisition is part of what will make that vision possible.

Grub is the first distributed-search project from LookSmart. It operates under a model of users donating their personal computing resources toward a common goal. Grub, which Wikia has released under an open-source license, is designed with modularity so developers can extend and add functionality to improve the quality and performance of the entire system.

Wikia executives said that by combining Grub with the power of a wiki to form social consensus, the Wikia search project has taken the next major step toward a future in which search is open and transparent.

"As the people's search engine, the Wikia project might have some traction with some segments of the user community," said Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence. "The opportunity may be political as much as anything else. Some people are uncomfortable with the power of Google and are interested in alternatives."

Google Power

The Search Wikia Project wouldn't be the only alternative. Beyond the big names with which most people are familiar, there are niche engines looking for a big breakthrough, including image-based search engines such as Sterling said that with more visual information making its way online, these efforts are gaining some attention.

Nevertheless, Google has been entrenched in the top position of search engine rankings for years. Microsoft Relevant Products/Services's Live Search recently registered some gains, but analysts believe its Live Search Club gaming site is behind the boost. Yahoo holds steady in second place, while continues to hover in fourth or fifth place, despite heavy investments in marketing and innovation.

"It's very hard to dislodge the top search engine," Sterling concluded. "To his credit, Wales succeeded against conventional wisdom with Wikipedia. Nobody would have predicted it would have succeeded. But the bottom line is that the Wikia search engine has to work as good or better than Google and Yahoo. That's a pretty tall order."