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Human-powered search by Mahalo

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Man vs. Machine

  • September 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine, an article titled Man vs. Machine
    • Of course, hiring humans to do a machine's work may seem more Web minus 1 than Web 2.0. But people know what other people want in a way a math equation can never intuit, like getting a living, breathing voice instead of an automated call system when you dial tech support.
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[Calacanis's Mahalo] plan was devilishly clever: He would create a human-powered search engine that builds out prefab responses to the most popular search terms. He would shoot for the top 30%, or about 15,000 terms, to effectively skim the cream from the entire search business. Mahalo would deliver results for searches like "Paris Hilton," "iPod," and "Bill Gates," but not for your local high-school football team or childhood sweetheart. And because those results would be prepared by humans, sifted and sorted and condensed for maximum relevance, users would no longer be faced with 10 million hits, as they are with Google, but with a few dozen. Mahalo would be a search engine for people who don't like to search.

At the rate it's going, Mahalo will capture some 25,000 terms by the end of 2008--far more than the top 30%. And Calacanis is in no hurry to monetize his idea. He doesn't plan to sell advertising for at least a year or two, giving him plenty of time to establish a viable brand.

Google is powered by perhaps as many as 200,000 servers (the company won't say) and 10,000 employees. Mahalo, to date, has 20 of the first and fewer than 60 of the second. Each day, Mahalo staffers, who are called "guides," sit before two 24-inch monitors in a converted factory in Santa Monica, compiling search results one at a time. It can take several hours to do a single page of links, depending on the complexity of the topic. Most of Calacanis's employees are young out-of-work novelists, screenwriters, musicians, artists, and actors--info addicts happy to earn $35,000 a year plus health benefits by searching the Web rather than shelving books at Barnes & Noble or slinging chai lattes at Starbucks. Calacanis has promised them 15% of the company when and if it goes public, with the investors getting a third and Calacanis keeping the rest.

Over time, he plans to hire as many as 100 of these Netheads. And while it might be tempting to frame the battle as man versus machine, it cuts deeper than that: It's man using the machine against itself. Mahalo's searchers use Google to gather the raw material to build each page of results. But they also use Google to back up its lists. In other words, if you search Mahalo for a term that has yet to be tackled by the guides, you don't come up empty, you just get bumped to the standard results "from our friends at Google," as Calacanis, reluctant to antagonize the seductress of search, puts it. Mahalo grabs 65% of any revenue Google gleans from the referral. The symbiosis extends even further: Google also provides ads for Mahalo through AdSense.

To erode Google's advantage further, Calacanis has formed a team to monitor RSS feeds and breaking news stories. Google recently began folding Google News stories into its searches, but the vast majority of these results lag the news noticeably. Mahalo's news team can create a partial page (a "stub" in wiki-speak) in minutes and add to it as a story unfolds. That might not satisfy serious news junkies, but most people start looking for a story 10 hours later or the next day.

Not for Nerds

[Nerds] need things that take time to figure out and leverage. They like complex PC-based videos games that take five hours to learn, Mahalo's audience like Wii games that you figure out in 10 seconds. I like complex PC-based videos games too... but that's a small audience compared to the Wii. I'm not building for myself, I'm building for scale.

There are, however, the majority of internet users who are spending a couple of hours a day or week on the web and who don't know all the cool sites. They don't know how to find what their looking for quickly. They are frustrated by all the noise. These folks are you sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, and parents in many cases. They are your non-dotcom friends who you have drinks with.

Those folks get a LOT from human-created search.

For 'normal' people

Unlike the majority of people at Gnomedex, she’s not a heavy user of the web. She reads my blog, uses Twitter occasionally after reading my writings about it. She, and the rest of the family, use the net for email, as a tool to find and buy things, not as an essential part of their social network or as a creative source. As far as I know, none of them are on any [social network] site. There’s not necessarily the same web savviness and understanding of the crap that is out there as there is with someone who works in the space or uses it extensively. So having a search engine that provides good stuff helps in finding things.
  • Mahalo Follow - Firefox plugin
    • Compare Mahalo results to your current search engine's results, side-by-side.

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created by jr on Aug 20, 2007 at 02:27:11 am
updated by jr on Oct 02, 2007 at 02:22:59 pm
    Comments: 0

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tags: technology