1. Search Engine Marketing

Aloha, Mahalo – I'm Betting On the Algorithm

You’ve seen a first draft of this column if you’ve been reading the blog regularly, but there’s a lot more meat in this more formal edition, with some new ideas, some others that are more fleshed out, and some elimination of redundant phrases that I kept using when I banged out the blog post. Based on the early response, I’ve got a few quick tips for columnists who want to get a lot of mail. You should write about one of these subjects:

  • Major life events
  • Family members, especially grandparents
  • Video search
  • Jason Calacanis

And now, on to our regularly scheduled column, which also has some good comments on the MediaPost blog. It continues in the extended entry if you’re reading it over here (for those who do like to subscribe with their feed reader of choice, I include the full posts in the feed so you won’t miss anything that way).
Aloha, Mahalo – I’m Betting on the Algorithm
By David Berkowitz

AT LEAST Jason Calacanis puts his money where his mouth
is. The Weblogs Inc founder who regularly unleashes his vitriol against search
engine optimization has launched a new search engine, if you can call it that.
Say aloha to Mahalo, a human-powered engine that is much more reminiscent of the
search industry’s past than a stepping stone to the future.

This story’s much bigger than Calacanis (though not necessarily
bigger than his ego). It gets to one of the fundamental debates about how far
consumer-generated media will go. CGM has upended reference books with
Wikipedia, news delivery with Digg, and video production with YouTube, to name
just a few examples. Why wouldn’t the trend, that tornado that’s uprooting all
of us, overtake the search industry too?

We’ll get to those answers. First, though, where’s Calacanis
coming from? Here’s what he had to say to Allen
Stern, of the CenterNetworks blog, who raised doubts about Mahalo’s
viability: “My point about SEO is that it is gaming system and done by weak
people who have sites that shouldn’t rank high. We are not trying to SEO–we are
trying to help people avoid bad sites and find good ones.” Stern happened to
point out that Mahalo will ultimately gain visibility by creating optimized
pages of links, adding, “It is interesting to me that after all of Jason’s talk
about SEO being dead, he launches the master SEO play.”

Mahalo uses human guides to create custom results pages for its
ultimate target of the top 10,000 search terms, with the exception of adult
content. Mahalo also builds pages for timely topics such as new movies, topics
in the news, and, of course, Jason Calacanis. While the idea sounds nice in
theory, there are problems both with how it’s implemented and the entire concept
of human-powered search results:

1) The results themselves are hard to scan. For any guide-authored
page, there are links but no descriptions, so it’s hard to quickly differentiate
one link from another. The “Mahalo Top 7,” the collection of the best links for
a subject, is just a link-heavy hodgepodge, and the lack of context is
frustrating. For instance, for the Sarah Silverman page, why is
the sixth link “The New Yorker: Hostile Acts”? That’s all you’re given.
Scrolling over the URL, you see that the page is in the magazine’s television
reviews and it’s from July 2005 – but those are two more pieces of information
than Mahalo gives you.

2) No one goes and says, “I’m going to search for a top 10,000
phrase or timely query today.” When one searches for a page not specifically
created for Mahalo, an “oops” message appears, which is disappointing, followed
by related results pages from Mahalo. As of Monday, a search for Drudge Report
scribe Matt
Drudge
returned related results for four other guys named Matt (including a
NASCAR driver, baseball player, football player, and “Today Show” host – all of
whom have more in common with Matt Drudge than I do with a certain other David
Berkowitz). Quantcast says “Matt Drudge” ranks 50,472 among searches.
Next time I’ll remember to try such research tools before conducting a search on
Mahalo.

3) Mahalo is all human-powered, which means it’s entirely
subjective. For the page on John McCain, Amazon and IMDB are
the third and fourth links. Is this really what people want? And why do CBS News
(with a news article) and Fox News (with a video link) get priority over other
sites? As an aside, IMDB, an extremely well optimized site that tends to rank
among the top few listings in Google for any celebrity’s name,
shows up on the sixth page of Google’s results for a search on John McCain.
Sorry, Mahalo writer Lon Harris — I’m siding with the algorithm here.

4) Lon wrote the McCain page, Lelah wrote the cake page
(about the food, not the band), and Jonathan wrote
the page on apple, the fruit
(disambiguated from Apple, the computer company and Apple, the record label). Who are
you people? I wouldn’t trust my friends to choose the most relevant search
results for me. Why would I trust Lon, Lelah, and Jonathan? This also explains
why social search, where friends’ queries and clicks influence your results, has
yet to catch on (social search pioneers like Eurekster and Wink.com have endured
by evolving their businesses away from that model).

Diving into the trust issue, I trust my camera to work, but I
wouldn’t trust a friend to take pictures for me. I trust my TV to work, but I
wouldn’t trust a friend to program my digital video recorder. I trust my search
engine to work, but I wouldn’t trust anyone with ranking my search results. Yet
I do trust Sony for my camera, JVC for my TV, and Google for my search engine.

As Techno//Marketer blogger Matt
Dickman has commented
, Mahalo is reminiscent of Yahoo when it was a
directory, not a search engine. Mahalo has no search technology, so calling it a
human-powered search engine is like calling the Flintstones’ foot-powered
vehicle a human-powered car. Let’s leave the Stone Age behind us.

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