Mahalo and How We Search

Mahalo founder Jason Calacanis invited me to check out his new human-powered search engine. Specifically, I installed Mahalo Follow, a kind of ‘search buddy’ Firefox plug-in that pops open a sidebar when it thinks Mahalo has some content relevant to the page I’m on (mostly search engine results, but I think it’s opened on other pages as well). That content tends to be a list of the ‘best’ links associated with the content. Here’s an example.

Obviously this service is straight-out-of-alpha, and needs to be populated with much more carefully-selected content. But I don’t think it’s for me.

Like you, my dear readers, I’m a pretty sophisticated searcher. I’ve been doing it a long time, I understand how the search engines work, and so I usually have good intuition about where (and more importantly whether) I’m going to find a particular piece of information.

As an exercise in thinking about how I search, I made a little list of search queries I ran the other day. This isn’t complete, but it’s a pretty representative sampling:

  1. How many units did the Sony Walkman sell?
  2. What is the URL for iLife on Apple’s site?
  3. What is the URL for Google AdWords?
  4. When did Malta achieve independence?
  5. Are there any Bill Callahan videos on YouTube?
  6. What nationality is KT Tunstall?
  7. Verify the correct spelling of ‘tchotchke’.
  8. Where’s the trailer for ‘Atonement’?
  9. What, if anything, do Dennis Leary and the BC Lions have in common?
  10. What century was the Great Siege of Malta in?
  11. What’s the URL for a Malta Times article I read in the paper?
  12. What does the BlackBerry Curve 8310 Smartphone look like?
  13. Where’s the Wikipedia entry for Geocities?
  14. How wide is Sicily?
  15. Who is playing Johanna in Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd”?

General Knowledge About Plasma TVs

My searches are really specific. Mahalo seems to want to help me out most with general information (by providing links) on a topic.

I can imagine that, if I was seeking some general knowledge about a suject, Mahalo might be a decent resource. If, say, I wanted to know more about plasma TVs. But it’s quite rare that I want that kind of generalized information. And when I do, Wikipedia rarely fails me.

Speaking of Wikipedia, Mahalo will live and die on user-generated content. It pays contributors US $10 to $15 per page of search results they create. I might give it a try, but that money isn’t worth my time. If Mahalo agreed to share the revenue generated from that page with me, then it might eventually become a better deal.

Besides, I’d much rather contribute to the emerging collective knowledge of humanity that is Wikipedia. Mahalo, after all, is just a company.

UPDATE: In writing this article, I’d meant to cite a recent post by Seth Godin, in which he touches on the problem I gather Mahalo is trying to solve:

The fact is that search engines are very good at fairly simple searches, and very good at finding information about single products, services, people and ideas.

But they’re terrible at connections, at rankings, at horizontal results. They can’t help me find the 25 most important up and coming artists in the United States. They can’t help me find six products that are viable alternatives to something that was just discontinued. They can’t help me rank the service of four accounting firms.

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