Posted June 25, 2007 2:54 pm by with 16 comments

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We’ve already mentioned Matt Cutts’s thoughts on humans’ role in enhancing search engine results today. A New York Times article, “The Human Touch That May Loosen Google’s Grip,” yesterday prompted Matt’s (and several others’, including Search Engine Watch and Search Engine Land) response(s) today.

The NY Times article details Google’s dominance of the search market (Google earns more in a single quarter than Yahoo does in an entire year) and business in general (Google’s 2006 net profit margin is 29% versus Amazon’s 1.8%). They state Ask’s long running argument (possibly soon to be NotWikiaSari’s): even 1% of the search industry is worth over $1B (citing, but not linking to, Don Dodge’s post of the same name).

But once you get past all that, the article is really about what seems to be the latest wave of Google killers: human-powered search engines like Sproose, Cha Cha and (of course, the meat of the article) Mahalo. And Randall Stross (author of the NY Times article) has been drinking the Mahalo Kool-aid. He states:

To those in the trade, outsmarting the algorithm is called “search engine optimization.” For the rest of us, it produces Web pages littered with spam.

Now I understand why SEO has such a bad reputation–one of the only ways we get mentioned in journalism is in a negative light. (Don’t think this happens? Where I grew up, the local TV news stations had actual bans on mentioning a particular city in the area unless the story had a negative slant. The anchors acknowledged and complained about the ban, but followed it.)

Anyway, to hear Stross tell it, Mahalo is the SEO/spam (they’re the same thing, right?) killer that will take down Google. After all, Stross says, they’re funded by the same people that funded Yahoo and Google, so those VCs must know something about search. No comment.

He even asked Matt Cutts about it (so Matt knew this was coming):

Google contends that its search engine relies on humans and machines. Matt Cutts, a software engineer who heads Google’s Webspam team, said users who place links on their own Web pages pointing to other sites provide the raw information about valued sites that is incorporated into Google’s PageRank algorithm. How best to utilize that information requires continuing work by human engineers. “Algorithms don’t leap out of Google like Athena from the head of Zeus,” Mr. Cutts said.

True, but one could argue that at Google the machine has the final say. Once the query is fed into the “engine,” the results are presented without manual adjustment.

Oh really? That’s not what the New York Times said three weeks ago: Udi Manber, Amit Singhal, Matt Cutts–are they not humans working on search at Google? The article went in depth about the people involved in Google’s search and how the engineers behind the algorithm work. From that article:

[Google] has hundreds of engineers, including leading experts in search lured from academia, loosely organized and working on projects that interest them. But when it comes to the search engine — which has many thousands of interlocking equations — it has to double-check the engineers’ independent work with objective, quantitative rigor to ensure that new formulas don’t do more harm than good. . . .

Some complaints involve simple flaws that need to be fixed right away. Recently, a search for “French Revolution” returned too many sites about the recent French presidential election campaign — in which candidates opined on various policy revolutions — rather than the ouster of King Louis XVI. A search-engine tweak gave more weight to pages with phrases like “French Revolution” rather than pages that simply had both words. . . .

The reticent Mr. Manber (he declines to give his age), would discuss his search-quality group only in the vaguest of terms. It operates in small teams of engineers.

“The machine has the final say,” Mr. Stross? The “machine” is all these engineers’ baby–and when it’s broken, all these engineers work to fix it. I gotta admit, Google’s model for using humans to return good results certainly scales better than Mahalo’s.

Let’s be honest: the only reason Google’s in the story is because Google gets people’s attention and Mahalo doesn’t.

  • I used to post on my blog every time big media outlets used to “try” to talk about SEO/SEM. I would review the article and point out how wrong it was, but lately it is just a waste of time. These types of articles comparing search engine marketing to SPAM don’t seem to want to stop.

    It would help if “journalists” would educate themselves before writing.

  • Okay, I saw “Mahalo” and “Search Savior” in the same sentence and I was totally prepared, prior to even reading your article, to make fun of you for saying that.

    I guess what I am saying is… my compliments on a compelling title.

    Wonderful article Jordan, matches your hair 🙂

  • Sigh, I think history has proven the equation: competitor + killer = total failure. If I were to launch a new service I would beg and plead to the media to not classify myself as an “anything” killer. At what point do we decide that no two services or products could exist in the same marketplace, but have to always supplant something or be deemed a failure?

    I think the real point is missed here, that the average Joe Searcher really doesn’t care if it’s machines, people or pigeons behind their results, they just want to use the engine that produces the fastest, easiest bestest results. Honestly, I find the idea of having humans hand craft my search results to be flawed and biased, and I most likely won’t use it.

  • I’m not sure that I would rather have human edited search results than algorithm controlled ones.

    The obvious flaw with a human edited search engine, is just that. It’s subject to human influences, and human error. Additionally, what if what I am searching for when I type something in, is not what you think I should be searching for. What if humans have personal relationships with others’ websites. What if there aren’t enough humans to list the millions of good websites out there, and properly put them in the correct categories.

    Looking at two human edited projects which I would consider both failures (dmoz, and wikipedia) I can’t possibly believe that a search engine could succeed where these have not.

    With a computer all of the sites are thrown into a basket, and an equation decides which sites are more deserving to be seen. The equation at any time may not be perfect, but it is fair. Humans could surely help remove Spam, but I don’t think that a human powered search engine is anything to marvel over.

    Human powered search is like the devolution of the internet. It would be comparable to watching humans invent clean technology that eliminates the need to use petroleum, and later someone suggesting that we should start using it again, just because.

  • Jordan McCollum

    @Jaan–You can certainly tell which of the two “journalists” spent actual time with Google, can’t you?

    @Pat–Thanks for both compliments!

    @Terry–I totally agree with your second point (and your first one, too) and I would have mentioned it, but I felt like I’d already made it long enough. (And I’m waiting to call out the “Algorithm” campaign.) I take it you remember PigeonRank?

    I’ve used Mahalo mostly out of curiosity–and I think that’s why most people will try it once or twice, then move on.

  • I really enjoyed your reading! sadly I have never heard of “Mahalo” like you mentioned. Ofcoure I would not want anybody control results but it is also not comfortable to work to fit the needs of machines. I blog your post. Thanks for the opinion.

  • Jordan, lol.

    Jestep good point. Remember LookSmart’s directory that everyone needed to be in to show up in MSN? It was rife with SPAM!

  • Jordan McCollum

    @Jestep: Every time I hear about Mahalo, I’m very tempted to request a guide (to, say, the name of one of my sites) and then serendipitously appear to get the pittance they’re offering for that very guide. And, of course, make myself #1.

  • LookSmart! Now there’s a good point! This has all been done before, think about GoGuides, DMOZ, Zeal, etc… If you recall, pretty much any spammer was sure to be an editor there. But so were ligit SEOs, and I think Calacanis needs to get that distinction straight. SEO is a function of marketing, and marketing is important in getting your product/service in front of its target audience. The idea that SEO is inherently insidious and this guy is some kind of savior from it just illustrates both his arrogance and failure to understand how capitalism and by extension, this great big world turns.

  • Very nice article. We already had a great discussion about Mahalo in our blog on Unfortunately, it is in German. Anyways, I’d like to mention a few things here.

    @Jaan Kanellis: Good point! SPAM – what’s that? People generally don’t think far enough concerning SPAM. Is it SPAM if somebody is annoying me with what he or she is saying? Or is advertising in print or TV media SPAM? Yes, of course, but it belongs to our lives. Getting things to read or hear we actually don’t like paying attention to – that’s all SPAM. Therefore we can’t judge SEO/SEM as bad SPAM. It’s all just about getting attention for subjects, products, services, etc.

    @Terry Howard:
    First point: I believe the Mahalo founder used the word “killer” in order to get more attention. It is pure PR or rather Marketing. How many people would be interested in Mahalo if he would have said: ‘Hey we recently launched a new web directory and since you won’t like our results – Google results are viewable as well’ 😉
    Second point: Yes, the average user doesn’t care about who or how the results were ‘created’. But I don’t agree with your ‘handcrafted’ point. Aren’t Google results handcrafted by thousands of users who linked to these websites, by SEOs and the people behind Google? Is it only handcrafted if one or a few people work on a certain product/result?

    @ Jestep: There aren’t enough employees available for categorising the Internet. But all users of the web together are able to do this. And I would consider Wikipedia as a huge success. It is very democratic. Even as it has serious disadvantages.

    @ Jordan McCollum: It’s always advantegeous to write about Mahalo – you’re always getting a lot of comments and discussions 🙂

    Mahalo is an old concept with a new costume. Let’s stop writing about it. It’s so boring. Let’s start writing about it, when it really has to offer something new and exciting. Or, for example, if the first 15$ part time guides have got money from other companies for manipulating search results pages 🙂

    Human Powered Search is the future:
    1. Google is human powered. If it wouldn’t be, how could SEOs then influence Googles results to 100%?
    2. Social Bookmarking Websites have already reached what companies like Mahalo try to achieve. Sites such as and Mister-Wong are Human or People Powered Search in its purest form.
    3. In my opinion, the SE of the future will be a mix of Google, Mister-Wong and StumbleUpon. A mix of algorithms, shared favorites and reviews, …

  • Good points Karl. A couple things I wanted to comment on:

    You mention that Google and backlinks are the same as user votes and result crafting, and then also mention Wikipedia as a huge success. I’d have to disagree, and the main thing is that what you get with that system, and what differs from an automated algorithm is a “rule of the technocracy”. You’ll get plenty of constructive and detailed analysis of video games and anime, but when you want to search Medicare supplement policies you’re not going to have the coverage. Same problem with Wikipedia. The attention is going to be paid on the areas that are of interest to those who have the time to contribute and unfortunately, that is always going to trend to the younger tech-centric audience. Wikipedia has page after page of information regarding sotware and companies they think are cool, but they’ll delete an article about a major industrial process control company because they won’t deem it “worthy of note”. That’s the problem, you’re going to get skewed results and incomplete coverage. At least with an automated crawler and algorithm it lets people find even uninteresting stuff (relatively) rather than just what the technocracy deems “cool”.

  • Search Brains is the number one source for keeping up to date with the Search … Google Is A Machine; Mahalo, Our Human Search Savior

  • The Mahalo site did seem to have a great deal of relevant information. The groupings was nice as well.

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  • SFWriter777

    Mahalo is doomed to failure for the same reason that DMOZ died and Yahoo Search is sliding into the abyss: Human Editors.
    Human editors have opinions about web sites. And their opinion may not be the same as yours. What’s one man’s meat is another man’s gravy.
    Case in point: No one (are you listening Mr Yang?) can figure out why Yahoo Search is dying.
    Here’s the reason: Many moons ago, the Yahoo Directory was the king of search. The Yahoo Directory’s editors wielded enormous power. If they didn’t like your title, they changed it. If they didn’t like your description, they changed. If they didn’t like your site or you didn’t adhere to Yahoo’s ridiculously long list of rules, you didn’t get listed.
    Then along comes Yahoo Search. Yahoo couldn’t care less about Yahoo Search and gives it to Google. Google’s algorithm didn’t employ any of the Yahoo Directory’s Draconian rules or editors and quickly built a much bigger (and much less censored) database. In a short time, Yahoo Search quickly overtook the Yahoo Directory in popularity and Yahoo dumped Google to do it themselves.
    Well, you would have thought Yahoo had learned their lesson, but they didn’t. They brought in the Inktomi algorithm and used the same Yahoo Directory editors to police the “new” Yahoo Search.

  • I think the main page is far too cluttered and the site has difficulty developing and managing the search community (there’s not many ways to connect with others). I wonder if it will last. I think Mahalo could only be used for SEM, I don’t see how it will become as powerful as Google for the end-searcher – There’s no technology to back it up.