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Saturday, June 02, 2007

And the Pay is What? On Mahalo, or Weblogs, Inc. Act II

Peter Hershberg offers a nice reminder to Jason Calacanis' Mahalo that there might have been a few other search plays in history that used an "energetic group of Guides." In addition to About.com and Ask Jeeves (nice catch there, Peter and Danny), I'd cite, er, Go Guides, this list of mostly-defunct "Expert Sites," and of course the former Zeal community. Not to mention Squidoo. Yahoo Answers. Digg, et al. People, people, everywhere; and in some cases, unique technology to leverage their contributions.

Humans do scale, of course, in the sense that there are billions of user behavior decisions every month, and a smaller universe of editorial judgments being made. From PageRank to Wikipedia to Usenet to Slashdot to the Yahoo Directory, search engines, vertical communities, and widely-based human-edited web plays [see Traffick article "Are These Verticals Too Horizontal? The Slow Death of Mega-Guide Sites] have always tried to leverage editorial judgments, communities of meaning, and the value of expertise and passions.

I think a really good question for any startup to ask today has to be: in spirit, how much more sophisticated or useful is your plan than Jerry Yang's collection of favorite links in 1994?

Mahalo will become part of a huge trend that's been ongoing since the dawn of web search tools and web directories. Is it any better or even as good as the many mentioned above? If it turns out to be, it'll be because it reached a critical mass of users, and found better ways to ferret out the problem of "smuggled spam" -- the gradual deterioration in editorial standards that happens to unrigorously-edited web properties in a world that respects editorial integrity so little that Pay-Per-Post is seen as mainstream. If all goes well, it will succeed in some verticals only because of their uncommon quality.

And that's no different than many that have come before. An open web platform allows quality stuff to get out there, whether or not it's found on a particular secondary layer that purports to do a better job of sorting it. Mahalo might become as well known as LookSmart, or The Drudge Report. Either way, as Hershberg argues, it's going to be scrapping hard over 1% market share.

If there's any takeaway from the launch of Mahalo, it's a reminder that without any humans at all exercising editorial judgments but also judgments on how to structure the look and feel of results pages, you get a jumbled mess in response to a search query. Google and other leading search engines a combination of user experience producers and algorithmic methods of determining query intent. One of the best things about companies like AOL and MSN (and in its unique way, Yahoo) for the mainstream user, was always the sense of "consumer editorial responsibility" on common queries. Mahalo is a reminder to these companies that they should be actively recruiting editorial personnel, and continuing to heavily produce the portions of useful search query result pages on popular queries that are family friendly, consumer friendly, educational, useful, etc. More packaged answer sets, less jumble and clutter, is a great way to stand out in the subset of society that prefers these.

Huge opportunity: such results sets are also mobile-friendly. More on this later...

Perhaps then, when Ask allowed the "algorithm to kill Jeeves," it zigged when it should have zagged. If you're going to be scrapping over 1% market share, with the potential for growth if you hit a real nerve out there, why not go out in style? If I were Mahalo, in addition to working on technological innovation and community-building, I'd use at least some of the lavish funding to attract marquee writers and journalists for high-profile editorial oversight. This would give them a chance to beat the NYT-owned About.com at its own game.

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