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Bessed, Mahalo and Human-Powered Search

July 18, 2007

I’ve been asked about it several times, but have been tardy in writing about Mahalo, the new human-powered search engine that Jason Calacanis is spearheading. I did get a chance to talk about it a bit with the New York Times‘ Randall Stross, who wrote this piece on Bessed, Mahalo and other search competitors a few weeks back.

I’m grateful to Stross for including Bessed in his piece, as my initial fear about Mahalo was that people would think that Calacanis had thought this up all on his own, and had thought of it first, when in fact Bessed was launched in October of 2006, long before Mahalo. I was afraid people would think that we were the copycats.

To his credit, Stross did his homework. He realized that Bessed had launched this concept of a “human-powered search engine” before Calacanis came out beating his chest and talking up the VC money he has backing him up.

I’m not upset about Mahalo launching almost a carbon copy of what Bessed is doing—or, as a friend e-mailed to me, “Dude, they stole your idea!” (Although it was a litte disheartening to see them tout themselves as the “first human-powered search engine.”) That’s the nature of competition. Frankly, I’m jealous of the money Calacanis has behind Mahalo. It will be interesting to see what it gets them.

However, there are some differences between Mahalo’s game plan and that of Bessed, and I think those differences are what will ultimately doom Mahalo, or at the very least force it to change course from it’s currently-stated plan. I’m also afraid Mahalo might kill the idea that human-powered search can work, because its current offering doesn’t offer a ton of value. And if that happens, it could hurt Bessed over the long run. So, while I would not be unhappy to see Mahalo fail, how it fails matters to me 🙂

First, here’s what is good about Mahalo. (Generally it’s the same as what I think is good about Bessed.) Mahalo is having human editors find results, which is eliminating spam from its results. The site looks attractive. It’s allowing visitors to suggest new sites to add. And I think it offers good results for the topics it’s covering.

But Mahalo makes one big mistake. It is attempting to create results for only the most searched-for terms. The problem is, most people are perfectly happy with Google results for the more common searches. They aren’t looking for an alternative. Where Google and other engines often fall flat and and are susceptible to spam is in the “long tail” of searches—searches for specific people, products, facts, etc. These are the searches in which searchers come away dissatisfed and are open to an alternative that can solve their problem and save them time.

I don’t know if any human-powered effort can adequately cover the millions of potential searches that take place each day, but by simply ignoring them Mahalo has no compelling reason to exist. It does not solve a searcher’s problem, so beyond what Calacanis can drum up traffic-wise based on his own personal celebrity, it will fall flat.

Our goal with Bessed is to fill the holes in the long tail, sifting out the junk on those specific searches that so often are maddening—when you find one site selling the same thing on four different domains or you are lured to a site on false pretenses because the site has pasted your keyword (and a hundred others) on a page that is completely irrelevant. Those searches drive you crazy, and Google’s algorithm, which puts so much stock in the links between sites, has a hard time sifting the junk because there are so few links between sites in the long tail, thus making it hard to give any of the pages credibility over others. This is where the humans can and should be; this is where we can make a difference.

This doesn’t mean Bessed will ignore the “short tail,” but it means we know that we can create more value in attacking searches that robots have not yet mastered. If I had Calacanis’ money, this is where I would be spending it. Maybe he’d like to give it to us?

e-mail me: adam@bessed.com

Adam Jusko is founder and CEO of Bessed, a Web site promising “search without spam”, thanks to human-edited search results and ongoing visitor feedback. Do a search, offer your comments, submit your site–help create the “bessed” search site in the world.

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6 comments

  1. Mahalo for thinking about Mahalo.

    I wouldn’t say Mahalo is a carbon copy of Bessed at all. You guys are a blog and we’re doing a search metaphor (backed up by a Wiki). Also, we do sections, guide notes, fast facts, etc. and Bessed does site reviews (which are cool). They coulnd’t look and feel more different in my mind.

    Regarding who came up with the idea first I think you have to give the hat-tip to Scott Kurnit at About.com for his first version (the mining company).

    Regardless, every good idea has 3-4 people go after it at a time…. seems like ChaCha, Wikia, Bessed, and a number of others see the connection between humans and search, and even Google has been promoting their human touch. So, none of us own the idea.

    One correction: In terms of the long-tail we’re doing in a very big way. In the press I do talk about the fat tail of search a lot, but if you look at the 500+ terms we’re doing each week (with 40-50 highquality links on average) they are spread across the tail. So, I’m not thinking that we have to stay at the top of the tail.

    Also, our research (in the form of over 50 hours of user labs) says you are very, very wrong about users being happy about the popular searches. In fact, it was the EXACT opposite… the most popular searches were the ones with the MOST spam (makes sense since SEOs make the most money when they get listed on a top search term).

    Go do a search for travel, health, or a popular product and you will see that those results are the most screwed up.

    In fact, you’ve got it backwards: the long-tail stuff is where Google does REALLY WELL because the blackhat SEOs don’t care about those searches. I’d recommend that you do some research labs where you watch folks actually search… it was very eye opening for me.

    So, fear not… we are doing the long tail too. 🙂

    Mahalo for the feedback and “bessed” of luck!

    Jason


  2. Jason,

    I think the Mahalo launch is what rubbed the wrong way from our perspective—as if Mahalo had created a new model, which you yourself admit you did not.

    While our platforms may be different, Mahalo’s strategy is much the same as Bessed—use humans to find the best sites, sifting out the spam. You are right; there are differences—we write short site descriptions with our links and using blog software allows for direct user commenting. But you are doing something similar; the reason Bessed was included in the NYT article is because Randy Goss saw the many similarities—and for that we owe you thanks. Mahalo has actually raised our profile.

    As for which searches need the human touch more, I guess we’ll agree to disagree. Whatever your labs tell you, we don’t believe that’s where the greatest user frustration lies. If you’ve got more extensive market research on your side, then it may play out as you suggest. For now, I’m skeptical.

    Thanks for your comment. As I said, Mahalo has raised our profile, and your own high profile keeps eyes (and writers’ pens/keyboards) focused on the human search space. From our perspective those can only be good things.


  3. Adam,

    In terms of Mahalo’s launch rubbing you the wrong way, well, that’s all in your mind. We did create the model of using a Wiki to make a directory that users a search metaphor…. as such I think we’re the first human-based search engine. Bessed is more of a blog in my mind…. and i do think that is an interesting approach. In fact, I thought about using a blog to do what we’re doing. It does have advantages.

    in terms of the press what am I supposed to say when we launch: “Mahalo is a human powered search engine and I’d like to stop for a moment and list the 50 other folks out there who have had similar ideas before.” When folks ask you about Bessed do you stop them and say “let me tell you about Mahalo and Wikia.” Journalists know the history of this and they all made the connection to things like DMOZ and Yahoo’s directory which have… umm…. 10 years on Bessed and Mahalo. This is not a new idea, it’s just new people going after it with new process.

    Mahalo is not your competition… your competition is yourself. How big can Bessed get? How many features can it have? That’s how I would think if i was you.

    In terms of who’s right about where help is needed in the long tail I’ll take what 50-75 folks in labs did (and said) over anyone’s gut… but who knows, maybe you’re right and the people we tested are all wrong. It is possible.

    Good luck with it… I think you’re off to a solid start. See you at the finish line.

    bessed,

    j


  4. […] month I blogged about Mahalo, its similarities to Bessed, and my jealousy of its venture capital backing. Aside from my sour […]


  5. […] the relevant web site. Addressing the Head and Tail of Travel Having read the discussion between Adam @ Bessed and Jason @ Mahalo, we’d have to say “yes, we agree”. Yes, the consumer […]


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