By Rebecca Sentance

If you’ve been following the news about Wikipedia over the past few weeks, you might have heard about ‘Knowledge Engine’, the secret search engine project that was supposedly going to take on Google.

The idea of a “transparent search engine” created by the Wikimedia Foundation has definitely been nixed, as we reported in our round-up of key SEM news stories last Friday week.

Contrary to repeated insistences by those at the top, however, there was such a project in development at one point. It served as a flashpoint in a crisis which is still taking place at the heart of Wikimedia, resulting in the resignation of its Executive Director, Lila Tretikov, last week.

But why has Wikimedia’s ‘Knowledge Engine’ been so controversial, and what bearing does the search project still have on the future of the Wikimedia Foundation?

Wikimedia in meltdown

It hasn’t been a good year for the Wikimedia Foundation – and it’s barely even March. In just a couple of months, the non-profit which hosts Wikipedia has seen numerous resignations from key staff members, a vote of no confidence in a recently-appointed Board member, and the resignation of its Executive Director.

Wikimedia has been seeing walk-outs from key staff members ever since late 2014, but things have undeniably accelerated over the past several weeks. Former Deputy Director of Wikimedia Erik Möller, who left in April 2015, described the recent situation as “very much out of control” and “a crisis.”

The Wikimedia Foundation’s internal crisis has resulted in the resignation of its Executive Director, Lila Tretikov, after less than two years in the position

Trust has been steadily eroding between Wikimedia’s community of volunteer editors and its Board of Directors, who are seen as moving too much towards a ‘Silicon-valley’-style focus on technological projects, and away from the organisation’s culture of transparency, integrity and openness.

Things came to a head with the secrecy and confusion surrounding the ‘Knowledge Engine’, a project which many of those in charge insisted was not and never had been a search engine, even when all evidence began to point to the contrary.

Jimmy Wales’ search history

Though we now know that the ‘Knowledge Engine’ project, officially called ‘Discovery’, is not going to be a search engine in its own right, it wouldn’t have been the first time that Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales had struck out into the world of search.

He has a history of two previous search engine ventures: ‘Wikiasari’, in 2006, and ‘Wikia Search’ in 2008. Neither project lasted very long, but Wales wrote in a blog post after Wikia Search folded that, “I will return again and again in my career to search, either as an investor, a contributor, a donor, or a cheerleader.”

So it isn’t that surprising that when details about Wikimedia’s ‘Knowledge Engine’ surfaced online, people jumped to the conclusion that Wikimedia and its founder were making another “return to search.”

Not least because in a September 2015 announcement, the Knight Foundation, which provided a grant of $250,000 to fund Wikimedia’s ‘Knowledge Engine’, described the project as “a system for discovering reliable and trustworthy public information on the Internet.”

Now, that might not necessarily mean a search engine, but it does sound a lot like one, and Wikimedia wasn’t awfully forthcoming with information to clarify what the project was, if not a search engine.

On 11th February, Jimmy Wales publicly refuted the notion that the Knight Foundation grant was “in any way related to or suggestive of a google-like search engine”, adding that, “no one in top positions has proposed or is proposing that WMF should get into the general ‘searching’… It’s a total lie.”

But that same day, Wikimedia Foundation published the original Knight Foundation grant agreement, containing its own description of the project as “the Internet’s first transparent search engine”. It also draws contrasts between Wikipedia’s approach to knowledge access and that of “commercial search engines”, setting out the intent to “create an open data engine that’s completely free of commercial interests.”

A series of conceptual designs for the Wikipedia front page, from a Discovery presentation in November 2015, greatly resemble a search engine in layout and focus.
By WMoran (WMF) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

On top of this, the Signpost – Wikipedia’s own community-written and edited newspaper – revealed details of three internal documents which had been leaked to the paper but not made public.

Dating back to April 2015, the documents delve deeper into the priorities of commercial search engines and how these skew the information which is presented to users, contrasting them with a “Wikipedia Search” which would be “Private and secure” with “Transparent results rankings”, “Locally relevant information” and “Global representation in all languages and cultures.”

They also feature mock-ups of what a Wikipedia search engine could look like, drawing results from across Wikimedia’s projects as well as external sources like Fox News.

The case for Wikipedia Search

You might be thinking, so what if Wikimedia does want to go into search? And there are definitely reasons why it would be an attractive idea. Wikipedia has seen a lot of traffic dropping off recently as Google instead displays key information from its articles directly on the results page.

A screenshot of Google search results for 'Isaac Newton', which show Wikipedia as the top search result, but also display a brief biography drawn from Wikipedia on the right hand side, giving information on his occupation, birth and death dates, and influences.

Wikipedia is still the authoritative source of information, but it’s being deprived of visitors to the encyclopaedia itself, making it even less likely that people will click through to other articles on the site, make edits to them, or see calls for donations from one of its funding drives.

So if Wikipedia is going to dominate the top results for any given Google search, why not create a search engine which sends users straight there? And it’s not just about Wikipedia, either – Wikimedia presides over a diverse range of knowledge projects covering e-books, travel, science, data and more. Any search system which properly interlinks its different projects would be a source to be reckoned with.

The grant agreement with the Knight Foundation poses the question, “Would users go to Wikipedia if it were an open channel beyond an encyclopedia?” By making Wikipedia (or Wikipedia’s ‘Knowledge Engine’) a one-stop-shop for the world’s knowledge, along with other incentives like ad-free and transparent search results, Wikipedia might have been able to reclaim the traffic it has been losing to Google and redirect it across its own various sites.

Source:: Search Engine Watch RSS