August 30, 2007

You Can't Pronounce "Mahalo" Without "Hollow"

You may have heard about Mahalo, the new and loudly touted "human-powered search engine" being launched by serial entrepreneur Jason Calacanis. You can pretty easily find (ahem... on Google) various claims made on Mahalo's behalf, as well as some in-depth criticisms, but there was a tiff at Gnomedex with Dave Winer, some breathlessness from Robert Scoble, and some skepticism in response.

After playing with Mahalo for a while, on the theory that anything Dave Winer hates is worth checking into, I have to side with the skeptics. After the jump, the Top Five most glaring things Mahalo is missing.

1. Searchiness

First and foremost, Mahalo is not a search engine in any meaningful sense. It's a finite set of discrete pages. Of course, this drastically limits what you can use it to find. But it also means you can't modify your "query" by adding or subtracting terms. The goal, evidently, is to make Boolean logic moot by hand-crafting such wonderfully useful lists of links about sundry topics that you'd never need to winnow them down. So let's look at a few.

2. Geography

OK, Los Angeles Hotels. Not bad, although the site's obsession with brevity in its listings presents a problem when it comes to things like travel and shopping. There are really only five moderate hotels I should consider in LA? No? Then where can I click to see more?

Google's results for Los Angeles hotels do demonstrate to some extent what Mahalo-boosters are going on about: plenty of links for discount vendors and shady portals that have managed to SEO themselves into the top few SERPs.

But now let's say LA proved too much for me, and I want to go visit someone in scenic Watertown, Massachusetts. Not that many accommodations there, as it turns out. Luckily, Google gives me exactly what I want: a map of lodgings that are near, if not in, the town I'm aiming for. Mahalo gives me "related" pages that include "Eliza Dushku" and "How to Speak French." Plus results from Google... without the map.

3. Ambiguity

SEO is an acronym most commonly used to mean "search engine optimization." To Mahalo, that's exactly what it means. That's the page it takes you to when you type in the term. If you're looking for Sponsors for Educational Opportunity or the stock price for Stora Enso, you're SOL.

4. Brevity Where Appropriate

Let's look at "How to Speak German," a page the site's founder has touted. It starts with some advice on "Speaking German: Before You Begin":

  1. First look at why you're learning German and how much time you have. If it's for a vacation, a few key phrases you study for ten minutes a day may suffice. Even knowing just a few words will help you communicate, and understand what others are saying to you.
  2. To speak, read, or write on a higher level, lessons with audio and written elements are necessary. And to get the best return on these lessons, studying regularly is important.
  3. No matter what your level of German is, take advantage of any chance you get to practice your German, however the occasion arises. Speaking (and understanding what is said to you) may be hard at first, but it will get easier with every word.

Really? One can communicate more easily in a foreign language by knowing a few words than by knowing no words at all? And it will get easier with practice? Thanks, Mahalo! I think I'm ready to speak German now.

From there, the page descends into a deeply bizarre mixture of links, tips, vacuous truisms, and disconcerting semi-outlines that unnecessarily attempt to gloss a bunch of sites that contain actual German lessons. For example:

Is all of this—the image, with five out of seven links circled; the cheerful exclamation points; the inconsistent use of an outline format; the grammatical errors—really more useful to anyone than a simple link to the BBC course in question, with a one-line description ("An intermediate-level online course, with audio and video of 10 topics")? Part of what's cool about the web is that it generally doesn't cost you anything to follow a link. And as you'll see if you do visit that site, it's pretty darn self-explanatory. I want a "search engine" to direct me to useful content, not clumsily attempt to walk me through that content.

5. Verbosity Where Appropriate

Of course, there is a place for annotation. This is where a human-authored portal like About.com or Mahalo could really provide some value: not just by picking out the "top N" links about a topic, but by giving you some idea what's behind each link. Not the "Once you go to this site, you'll be able to click on some buttons in order to navigate to other parts of the site" silliness found in the "How-to" pages, but simply a concise summary that gives you some guidance about why you'd want to click on one "result" versus another.

For example, here is what a useful human-curated set of links about President Andrew Jackson looks like.

Now look at this one.

Tim Spalding, who created the former, is just one guy (I went to high school with him); and in his spare time, in addition to starting LibraryThing, he's managed to build and maintain 40+ similarly detailed mini-sites, most of them on historical topics. What could a salaried team of humans create along these lines, if that were their assignment? Based on what I've seen of Mahalo, I don't think we're going to find out there.

Thankfully, though, we can content ourselves with the Karl Rove's Car Vandalized page.

Posted by Kevin Shay

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