Why Wikia will change search

This morning Jimbo Wales’ Wikia launched their search effort, Wikia Search. Wales & co. have been getting a lot of heat for this launch, most notably from Mike Arrington at Techcrunch who calls Wikia Search “an inexcusable waste of time” and “a complete letdown”.

I have to be honest that my first reaction to Wikia Search was lukewarm, and I fully support Arrington in his assessment that Wikia Search is no viable replacement for Google, Yahoo!, Ask.com, or any of the other established search players. But Wales takes out the air of Arrington’s choler by commenting that “it’s a project to *build* a search engine, not a search engine”, recalling that

When I launched Wikipedia, I wrote at the top of the first page “Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia”. On that day, anyone reviewing it would have laughed. What’s this? There’s nothing here! This is not an encyclopedia, it is an empty website with some funny editing syntax!

Were Wales goes wrong is that Wikia has released a search engine on a limited index with no opportunity for users to contribute. In terms of Wikipedia, it would be the equivalent of launching an out-of-copyright dictionary but giving users no ability to edit the erroneous articles or adding new. Wikia should not have launched without, and that is a mistake.

Yet Wikia will change search. They may very well be run overend by Google, Yahoo!, or Facebook (who eventually will turn towards search like their fraternal predecessor AOL) in the process of doing so, but they’ll change a few rules of the game.

First, values
AOL’s search log blunder was notorious, and generally people are slowly starting to question the potential privacy invasion from our online data trails.
A Wikia employee told me today that people were already asking what the most popular search terms were. He said there was no way of finding out as no logs are kept.

Second, they’ll open search. Really.
Wikia claims that they’ll make their index freely available. If they haven’t already, we’ll almost certainly see Wikia’s index in Amazon’s S3 (Amazon is a major investor), making it effortless to create custom search engines using a couple EC2 instances. Think vertical search engines with custom algorithms for anything from gaming to Japanese manga cartoons. Talk about giving Google’s 16K employee brute-force machine competition.

Go play with Wikia Search. Then come back here and read the above again. Tell me what you see: a bluff or a ripple of change?

Disclosure: Fellow Radar blogger Artur Bergman is Director of Engineering at Wikia, and I’m posting this just a few hundred meters down the road from their Poznan (Poland) office.