Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales thinks the masses can build a search engine that offers what Google does not.
"For developers, it would be kind of cool to say 'Google has 11 gazillion dollars, and we're going to get a bunch of people together on the Internet, and we're going to kick their butts,' " he said. "That's cool, right? I think it's cool."
Wales spoke publicly for the first time, at New York University last week, about his vision for an open source, for-profit search engine called Search Wikia. He said Monday that he believes the first beta will launch within a few months.
Wales described himself as a "free software religious zealot" and made it clear that his faith in free software, democracy, community, and transparency will drive the development of Search Wikia.
"Search is a fundamental part of the infrastructure of the Internet and therefore it is a fundamental part of culture and human society as a whole," Wales told a crowd hosted by Free Culture at NYU.
He said search should be open, transparent, participatory, and democratic. He said Search Wikia would be free, "as in speech, not as in beer." Though Wales said, "I love Google," at least three times during his talk at NYU, he hopes to create something more meaningful, more transparent, and ultimately better than Google.
"People want to know how these searches are being determined," he said. "I love Google. I love Yahoo. I don't think they're doing anything evil."
Wales said he also loves the court system because people can go in and watch the proceedings. He wants to deliver the same transparency to search. Contributors will publish, test, research, and modify the algorithms.
Beginning with Lucene and Nutch (two open source and Java search engines based on the Apache Jakarta Project), programmers will be able to copy, modify, and redistribute code. Others can provide feedback. A search for Ford should yield Ford Motor Co., as the correct first answer, Wales said.
"After that, it's pure, editorial decision-making," he said.
A "trust network" of users, similar to those who contribute to Wikipedia, will discuss and debate what should come next. As search heads toward greater personalization, Wales believes people can come up with smarter, more relevant searches than machines. He indicated a belief that collective wisdom will improve search more than knowing everything about an Internet user.
He characterized his description of the search plans as a "raw brain dump" and added that he has not figured many of the details, including how the project will protect privacy.
Though spammers will likely try to skew the system in their favor, Wales said the project would allow the "trust network" to overwhelm spammers, the same way people swarm around those who violate rules on Craigslist and Wikipedia.
"Flickr has almost no spam," he said. "When I first saw it, I thought there was going to be acres and acres of porn spam."
Wales said it is a mistake to obscure things for security.
"If you're relying on people not knowing how the system works, you've got a big problem," he said.
Already, Wales, who described himself in a recent Newsweek article as "pathologically optimistic," has an international following. Wikipedia, the not-for-profit venture he led, boasts more than 2 million articles in about 250 languages. While the 40-year-old says he still views himself as "that guy who was sitting around at home in his pajamas typing on the Internet," he has financial backing from venture capitalists and Amazon.com.
Wales said the search will use a traditional ad revenue model and rely on some hired staff but he declined to be more specific.
"It has to be fun," he said. "If it's not fun, people are not going to do it."
Still, don't expect any big launch parties when Search Wikia comes out in beta.
"As soon as we announce beta, people will chime in, 'It's going to suck,' " he said. "In order to get the media to calm down, we're going to say, 'We know it sucks. Just come try it. If you don't like it, come back in a year.' "