Friday, June 01, 2007

A new web directory?

The web is all abuzz about Mahalo which is actually quite exciting. It got me to crawl out of the post drought that has overtaken me since getting a non-Web job (I've since come back to the sweet, sweet glory of the web. Oh how I've missed you, Internet.)

Mahalo isn't really a search engine, and I wish it wasn't being called that. It's not a directory, exactly, either. It's supposedly the top 10,000 queries made into coherent result sets by human hands. I'm basically intrigued by the idea, which is exactly what I was involved with at LookSmart for years.

Mahalo presents the results in a neat, organized page. Here's the thing, though: there's too much that's already been sold out on the page. Check out this set for Nike. Under Information, I see but not Wikipedia, which provides Answers with most of its meaningful content.

I see a batch of comparison shopping sites, which I know are quite generous with sharing the love with those who link to them. These sites can be really annoying to a searcher who knows where he wants to go. One user was so annoyed that he started a site that runs a custom search which strips out all of the huge price comparison sites from Google results. I spent a lot of time trying to shove a never-ending flood of those sites into the LS directory - they can take over very quickly if you have a zealous sales force who think more sites = gooder salesperson. This assumption is not always true in the search campaign optimization game, as anyone who has mocked an ad reading "Buy ANTIDISESTABLISHMENTARIANISM on eBay" can attest.

Another page shows all of the food searches. Visually, though, there's no differentiation between a category and a results set. That means that when you get all the way to the Dairy category, you see two CHEESE categories that look identical. A little plus sign next to the category with subcategories would be much appreciated here. Once you get to the Dairy category, the presentation of meaning is much clearer, to the point of redundancy. I don't really understand the point of "Everything in Dairy" and "Cheese" as separate groupings at this point, although I suppose eventually they might have a long list of subcategories like they have under food. The category facets under Cheddar feel forced to me. If you're only organizing 9 sites, are three categories needed? And why functional categorization (news & tips, blogs & forums) instead of further subject categories? They've already got disambiguation problems with a cheddar recipe in the Blogs category. Too many mutually non-exclusive categories spoil the taxonomy, I tell you this for free.

Anyway, this is an Alpha release, and therefore these nitpicks are probably not entirely fair. I think that the niche that Mahalo should fill is as a less-corrupt and more open ODP. I've always felt that directories are more useful than people give them credit for, although they are not exactly search engines. They are more search engine symbiotes. A well-built directory can teach a search engine what an apple site looks like as compared to an Apple, Inc. site. The attrition and churn of the Web can take them over very quickly, though, and some of the psychology of directory building (hey, let's add every wikipedia page to every category regardless of the quality of the wikipedia page! Look! A web directory!) can harm the quality and make the directory no better than a slightly informed web search.

But, if they get a chance to continue their experiment, I have some comments about their top level. Why Entertainment and then Music and Television on the same level? What's up with the orphan geographic locations? How come you don't have Austria or California categories? Surely those are top searches? How come when I search for History I end up on the Mozilla page? So many questions.


At 9:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think we'll start seeing Mahalo results in SERPs, kind of like pages. For some broad concepts this may be useful, but I think for many concepts it won't be that useful.

But it is LookSmart all over again.


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