Calacanis says Mahalo, but will consumers say thank you?

Grab your ukulele, we’re off to Hawaii. As most of the community is aware, the alpha test of, the long-rumored search engine, launched last week. Founded by Jason Calacanis of Weblogs fame, the effort is described on the homepage as “the world’s first human-powered search engine.” Mahalo, the site explains, means “thank you” in Hawaiian, a promise to deliver consumers better search engine results.

Like most, I have mixed feelings about this trip to the islands. For the search engine optimization crew, it’s a bit hard to swallow any effort founded by a man most recently known for scathing remarks such as “90 percent of the SEO market is made up of snake oil salesman. These are guys in really bad suits trying to get really naive people to sign long-term contracts. These clients typically make horrible products and don’t deserve traffic – that’s why they’re not getting it organically so they hire the slimebuckets to game the system for them.”

Of course, when one digs beneath the surface, it is clear that semantics are at play. Mr. Calacanis’ statement is in reference to black hat tactics and has dubbed white hat tactics “good Web design.” Fair enough. I have always wondered why solid SEO firms were not gobbled up by interactive agencies years ago.

Perhaps what irks me the most about this launch is the use of the term “human-powered search engine.” I don’t know about you, but it sounds a bit like a euphemism for the now word “directory,” a word scarred by the association with a big, fat Yellow Pages book.

What was so wrong with the directory? For starters, the nomenclature was extremely stiff, requiring car buyers to search for “automotive dealers” and shoppers to seek “retail stores.” These poor editorial decisions followed directories in their slow move online, allowing search engines to evolve their algorithms and rise in popularity.

So now for the mixed feelings part: as much as I love technology, perhaps a little human intervention is not a bad thing. Humans have built great things in the past (including algorithms) and are well suited to identify subtleties that make the difference.

Google’s own Universal Search is the product of a few humans thinking about what consumers want. And when many humans come together, as in the case of Wikipedia, there is also a self-policing nature that reduces the chances that bad editorial decisions be made. Mr. Calacanis has made it no secret that the free encyclopedia has served as muse. Mahalo users can even observe changes to the engine in real time via a special URL:

As the engine moves toward beta and full launch, it will be interesting to see how those in the both the technology and human camps react. And of course, the truth is that the success of Mahalo has much more to do with consumer adoption than it does with an SEO smackdown.

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