Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Human Powered Search

I've been toying with Mahalo.com for the last few days, and specifically with the web site's special feature: Mahalo Answers. It's a very interesting concept. According to the Mahalo site, "Mahalo is a human-powered search engine that creates organized, comprehensive, and spam free search results for the most popular search terms. Our search results only include great links." The idea is that a staff of folks at Mahalo manage the search index to filter out the garbage. It works as advertised.

With Mahalo Answers, folks like you provide the answers to the other visitors questions. I found this much more intriguing than the standard Mahalo search function. Essentially, Mahalo has harnessed the expertise of the public so that they can assist each other with questions that range from hum drum to hypothetical to genuinely very, very interesting.

People who answer questions are rewarded with points, with the opportunity to earn bonuses for having the best answer. Those who take the task seriously can actually earn enough credits to get paid a small amount of cash.

At first I was skeptical, but after reviewing a sample of the questions and answers over the course of a few days I have been left rather impressed. For every question, there is a handful of experts out there in the ether who can provide an accurate response much quicker than what it would take to find the answer through independent research. Most questions appear to get answered in a matter of several minutes; even some of the more complex technical queries (e.g. "How can I modify my wife's 2005 Prius so that the accessory plugs remain live when the engine is off?").

The beauty is that people like you and I often have expertise in something. Mahalo offers us all the opportunity to share that expertise with the rest of the world. Often with people who share similar interests (e.g. "Where can I download/view the Star Wars graphic novels?")

A couple of issues are apparent. One, not all of the people answering questions appear to be bona fide experts, so you must be able to maintain a healthy level of awareness to ascertain if the answer is reasonable; and two, a lot of the questions are kind of goofy (e.g. "Who will give me the best rate on car insurance?"). Mahalo monitors the questions and answers, providing a kind of moderator role. However, they do seem to allow many of the rather silly questions remain. Maybe I expect people to have a bit more common sense than what they possibly are capable of having.

The clever folks at Mahalo have also tapped into the power of Twitter and Facebook to make it even easier to post questions to Mahalo Answers from these popular social media services. They also categorize the questions into a rather lengthy list of useful groups. It has all been well designed up to this point.

Of course there is more than one way to ask questions on line. I have seen Twitter used in this manner (posting questions to the Twitter public for a response), but the vast majority of Twitter users are not monitoring the public timeline waiting for questions that they may be qualified to answer. You can also seek out a forum of experts who may be able to assist, but that in itself can be challenging, especially if you are not certain what type of expert may be qualified to answer your question. Mahalo has solved that problem by providing a web site where questions are consolidated, making it easier for experts of many kind to provide helpful assistance.

There will always be a place for the universal power of an index powered search service like Google, but I believe that Mahalo has found a niche that will hold its own for some time to come. The ultimate power of the "Human Powered Search." I recommend that you give it a try.

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