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Some thoughts on Mahalo

I was surprised (along with many others) that Jason chose to launch a "human powered search engine" as his next venture. More so at the reported funding of $20M.

I'm a fan of Jason's antics and his promotional ability, but at first glance making this spruce goose fly looks like it would need David Copperfield plus a reduction in the universe's gravitational constant.

Is it really possible to do dmoz/about 2.0 and have a go of it?

Having founded the biggest human-powered search site on the web (600,000 pages) and more recently running a content startup with substantial SEO distribution I have a few comments and suggestions for Mahalo.

To be fair there have been some notable SEO successes. About.com is probably the biggest seo win ever, with a $410M sale to NY Times in 2005. About has been huge into SEO since they they were known as The Mining Company. About guides got an SEO manual when they joined and were directed to author high-value seo content, as Mahalo is doing with its staff. About now has approx 3-6M pages indexed in Google.

dmoz wasn't seo driven itself but was a huge presence in the early seo industry. Because we gave the dmoz data away and so many other sites put it up, getting a link in dmoz meant that you instantly had thousands of links from across the web. Plus dmoz.org was PR10 for a while which was nice. You had to have a link in dmoz just to get to the "base" level of pagerank a normal website should have. Google had to adjust some of their algs because the pagerank warping effect of this was so huge.

But the most succesful SEO site currently is Wikipedia. They get a full 2% of Google's outbound traffic. I don't expect that to last at the current level, Wikipedia is showing up in too many searches and it's gone over the line. But Google's quirky aesthetics are OK with Wikipedia being there because it is on the non-commercial side of the fence and is hugely open.

At this point though I'm thinking SEO has gotta be dead as a startup business model. It was kind of unknown stuff in 2003 but now the cat's out of the bag. It seems like the last attempt of web 2.0 sites that aren't able to get social adoption is to start flooding the Google index with tag landing page spam or a crappy template page for every restaurant in the country.

We know this from experience: No one will ever go to Mahalo directly, just as no one ever went to About.com, dmoz, Tripadvisor, Nextag, IMDB or any other vertical or broad-but-shallow site. Google is where everyone starts and Mahalo's distribution strategy has to be SEO. Its traffic is going to live or die based on SEO skill and Google's continued favor.

If Mahalo doesn't get SEO traffic it's gonna have to morph into something else. In the past a site like Looksmart that had lots of editorial generated directory content could sell that to other portals. Those days are over though with content being commoditized so I doubt there is big licensing revenue in Mahalo's future. But Jason is smart and wily and I'm sure he'll keep twisting the cube until he finds a solution.

The other structural challenge with human powered directories has always been maintenance. It's not just the labor effort to create the pages in the first place, you also have to revise them regularly to keep them up to date. Otherwise they rot. So there is an ongoing cost to keeping a site with N links to periodically revisit and re-evaluate each every M days. Wikipedia is more resiliant against rot because it is substantially a historical/reference site. But the topical/commercial queries Mahalo is targetting will require periodic review, or they will start looking dated in a year or two. Links rot, spammers take them over, or they simply point to out-of-date resources. So you have to re-author all your pages every 3mo-2years depending on how topical the subject is. We crawled dir.yahoo way back and they were 8% dead links, some categories hadn't been visited by yahoo editors in years. This was the inspiration for dmoz but even it succumbed to a similar fate, just on a bigger scale. :)

In the meantime here are some tactical comments for the Mahalo site itself:

  • Hyphens instead of underscores Jason! You too outside.in. C'mon guys, this is basic stuff.

  • Put the guide note under the <h1> and call it <h2>, it'll do better. Mahalo needs lots of guide notes. Without the contiguous block of text from the guide note, the links aren't enough to validate a landing. 250 words is ideal but anything is better than nothing.

  • <title> should match <h1> should match url. Don't forget to add <meta name="description">, this should match the <h2>

  • Not really seo but a general idea ... Reference pages in general are boring. Jason is the supreme master of linkbait... Could each mahalo page be turned into a controversy of its own? When someone biases a wikipedia page, it gets more attention and traffic, not less...

  • Marshall Simmonds was the SEO expert at TheMiningCo/About. He MADE that site. I bet he singlehandedly enabled 90% of the $410M of value.

    "$410 million for SEO? I'll bet they could hire marshall simmonds, About's director of search, for a fraction of that." [1]

    Marshall gave a talk at WebmasterWorld Pubcon 2004 where he laid out About's whole seo strategy that had made them so successful. The ppt was on the conference CD. Unfortunately I've lost mine but I'm sure you can track down the talk. You need to see that deck.

  • Minor but if you are concerned with speed, then: 1) remove urchin, 2) 15% of mahalo's pages are whitespace, that may compress or not but eliminating that before sending the page out is hygienic. 3) Don't forget the 14 rules.

YMMV. Good luck.

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» Great post on Mahalo from Rich Skrenta from Sifry's Alerts
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Comments (27)

I hope you send Calacanis a six-figure bill for the consulting job you just performed. ;)

great post

now lets hope a commentor can dig up a link
to that old powerpoint deck from Marshall Simmonds.

cheers

I wonder how many searches it takes to make their Top 50 searches list.

The top 10 now are:
1. How To Speak German
2. How To Save On Your Energy Bill
3. Demi Cuccia
4. How To Download Free Music
5. How To Write A Cover Letter
6. Michael Vick Dogfighting Indictment
7. Learning Japanese With Akira Kurosawa
8. How To Speak French
9. How To Write A Resume
10. Sexsomnia

Few of these would make the top searches on a major search engine.

Amazing feedback... mahalo for taking the time!

From where we sit we think that we can make a great service that is not driven by SEO. If we rank high because some of our pages are one of the BEST pages for a keyword on the internet we are honored to be considered. However, it's not our focus. Our focus is on building the best pages and we think that we can capture a significant audience who will either come to Mahalo first, or side by side, Google/Yahoo/Ask.

Word of mouth is our concern over SEO. If we can make the pages easier for a search engine to understand great... but the focus is on the user's experience for us.

Now, we are much different from DMOZ as you know. For the record DMOZ is/was an amazing product and certainly a piece of the inspiration for Mahalo (about, wikipedia, and weblogs,inc. being the other major inspirations).

We are much different than DMOZ in a couple of ways:

1. we are presenting results in a search metaphor.

2. we are not going as wide, but being much more editorially selective on the pages we do write.

3. We have a three-level editorial process that is done by paid staff. This cost more, but does result in much higher quality. Sadly, DMOZ has been taken over by SEOs these days. From what i can see it's fairly easy to buy your way in. Such is the problem when you don't pay folks--they find a way to get paid. Many folks are being paid to edit the wikipedia too it seems.

4. DMOZ's big problem, from where I sit, is that they were/become way to inclusive. Do you agree? Not sure if this happened under your watch, but going to a DMOZ page today and you'll find that the link quality is very hit or miss, and there are HUNDREDS of links on some pages/subcategories. That is a bad combination and it creates a huge problem for DMOZ in terms of maintaining the index. Our goal is to curate a DMOZ list like that down to the best 5-10 across the most important 8-12 sections. We only list very good to amazing sites... we don't even want to link to OK to good sites (if we can avoid it).

5. If we have a staff of 100 at Mahalo and those folk update 15 pages a day (i.e. 30 minutes per page) we can do 1,500 updates a day or update the entire 25,000 page index in ~20 days/one month. If we had the public (i.e. Greenhouse help) with the 1,000 folks in the Greenhouse we could update everything in 10-15 days. So, we can handle updating 25,000. 600,000 pages? No.... that would be a problem. :-)

From where I sit quality wins, and if we give folks an amazing experience on the top searches a group of folks are going to respond to that. Also, we believe in adding 10-20% editorial on top of the search (i.e. the guidenote, fast facts, etc). so, that makes it a lot different than DMOZ I think.

That being said, we are in month three of a five year process and where we wind up is going to be radically different than where start I'm sure. Right now we've completed 5-10% of the product.... it's going to get interesting when we have 35% done next year. :-)

Really appreciate the guidance... we hold DMOZ in very high regard here at Mahalo and we have many DMOZers in the Mahalo Greenhouse already. They are an amazing source of wisdom, and in fact what you guys did at DMOZ is not only inspiration for us, it is clearly the inspiration for Wikipedia from what I can see.

Many road lead back to DMOZ... you should be very proud of that fact. You're a pioneer and you along with the DMOZ team, have our respect.

best j

We know this from experience: No one will ever go to Mahalo directly

A key part of successful innovation is to figure out which of the things that "we know" to be true are in fact wrong. I have no idea whether Mahalo will succeed, but I think it has a shot. It's a worthwhile experiment, and I'm glad some VCs stepped up to back Jason's vision with enough money for a fair test.

Mariano:

Nice post! I found it funny though that you recommend the use of hyphens instead of underscores (basic stuff as you put it!), when your own site doesn't do it! :)

re: "No one will ever go to Mahalo directly"

We're seeing something different actually. Folks are coming to Mahalo and they are browsing... I think that because our content is SO high-quality and spam free folks like to browse through it.

We only link to very good to amazing sites. We don't like to OK sites, and we really try and avoid the "good" sites. Every "average" or "good" site we put in takes away a slot for something AMAZING or at least VERY GOOD. The web has tons of very good and amazing sites/pages, so if you work really hard you can create an EXCEPTIONAL world--that's our goal.

It's going to take some time, but already you can see the index is AMAZINGLY clean. In fact, I believe we have the cleanest, highest quality index of links on the planet *already*. That's 10 weeks in... in three years it will be even better.

In fact, I'd challenge anyone to find a "bad" or "spam" link on Mahalo. I keep trying to find them and I haven't been able to. Sometimes I find an average site... but it's rare.

My suggestion is people dive into the pages we do have and compare them to Google, DMOZ, Yahoo, delicious, and About. Apples to Apples I think we win hands down almost every single time.

The real question is how big can it get in my mind.

best jason

Matt:

"Folks are coming to Mahalo and they are browsing..."

Jason, doesn't this suggest to you that what you're building isn't a search engine. I don't go to Google to "browse".

This isn't to say Mahalo isn't a worthwhile project. I'll be watching it with interest. I just think it's more of a directory than a search engine, and the behaviour you're talking about suggests the same.

Of course, you'll get more publicity if you call it a search engine and tell journalists it's "Man vs Machine". ;)

A site isn't "big" until my wife goes there.

That's how I knew Yelp.com was working!

Greg Lindahl:
The real question is how big can it get in my mind.

That's not a question at all -- we can see it's REALLY BIG in your mind.

-- greg

Mark:

"A site isn't 'big' until my wife goes there." (Jeff)

For me, it's when my mom (75 years old) starts contributing content (12 Yelp reviews so far). Last month I took her to a restaurant she liked, and showed her later how I found it on Yelp. She dove in.

Dropout:

From the description in the comments above, Mahalo sounds like the old 4anything.com (that's from the late 20th century, students).

The problem for Jason's Mahalo is that the links results are not amazing or even very good. At least in areas where I can evaluate their quality, they appear to be mediocre. Some are good, some are wretched.

If Jason can improve the quality within budgetary contraint's Mahalo may be manage as a search engine. If not, he'll have to change focus (and it looks like he's doing that with the "how to" pages.)

No-one ever went to IMDB directly? Sorry, that's just not true. IMDB early on managed to build the best linked index of movies & the people involved in them, why wouldn't you go there to track down an actor and see what else they'd been in? Where else would you go?

>> title should match h1 should match url. Don't forget to add meta name="description", this should match the h2

Maybe a few years ago, but I think mixing in a bit of variety is a much better way if you want to rank for a wide array of keywords in Google. Overall great post! :)

Jeff - A site isn't "big" until my wife goes there.
Matt - For me, it's when my mom (75 years old) starts contributing content.

Reminds me of an old blog post where I said "how to explain delicious to your mom" and a 59 year old mom took real offense:

She said - "Next time, how about a self-help article on teaching your ignorant male grandchildren how to avoid sexist language (and thinking)"?

I actually searched for that Simmonds presentation a bit but found this instead:

http://www.webmasterradio.fm/episodes/index.php?action=&showId=6&year=2005

For me it seems Mahalo is best served by focusing on the generic query that outside of navigational queries makes up the majority of user searches. This is obviously the most difficult query for Google to draw user intention out of to provide relevance so a human edited reference page with levels of refinement has a chance to be helpful to the user. If it is helpful I think it should generate good natural rankings and Mahalo can be a success.

This has to be the model in my mind because I agree with Rich that few will do direct searches from Mahalo. The reasons:

1) Not being a vertical play its doubtful users will look to it directly for generic queries
2) On specific queries Mahalo will not have the breadth of relevant results
3) It is unlikely for general search that a user would pick one engine for specific and navigational queries and another for generic ones

Of course all of this puts you in the firing line of Google�s personalized results and universal search so while I love the human element, the amount of data being crunched to deliver SERP relevance to more generic queries based on �what we know� will be changing the search landscape dramatically over the next few years. I am afraid that Mahalo may be building to compete against something that will not exist in a year or two.

For now though, I think people are likely coming to Mahalo to browse because it is new and interesting. Still, the success metric for Maholo should not be unlike Google and that is how fast people find relevance off Maholo pages and how often the use Maholo. Best of luck Jason.

One of the changes I think Mahalo will make (that fits into your SEO predictions) is to do what we have done at Bessed and not just throw up a link but provide a short review of that link so that people actually know what to expect if they click through.

Machine search engines just pull random text, which often makes it unclear what the page is about that corresponds to the link---this makes us have to click through to a greater number of sites in order to find what we want. A human-powered search engine like Bessed or Mahalo should be working to make the link meaningful so the searcher knows if a click-through is worth their time or not. This is one way humans can do a better job than machines, and I think you'll see Mahalo go that route in the future.

i saw this name and i was like.. where do i... ohh.. ODP... the beginning.. hola!

Adam: We've debated the short review thing (you've probably seen pages with sample review on them), but in user testing we found as long as people knew what site they were going to they preferred the more organized list of links with less noise around them.

I think it depends on the subject, the user, and even the mode the user is in. Sometimes users just want the seven best links, but sometimes they want to know about the site we're linking to. So, we have that bubble with the ? in it for times when we feel that a site is going to be very new to large group of users.

It's an interesting issue in terms of building as well, because if you do reviews of sites that takes 2-3x as long to make each result and you need people who can write reviews (which is a smaller group of people obviously). Many folks can tell you a good site, but a smaller portion can write really good, short, snappy site reviews. So, maybe on our third or forth pass across our 10,000 SERPs (we broken 10k this week!) we will do some more reviews/details. For now we're going to march to 20,000 pages.

Jonathan: I really like your final point "Still, the success metric for Maholo should not be unlike Google and that is how fast people find relevance off Maholo pages and how often the use Maholo."

I think that is exactly correct. If we can help people in certain verticals to consistently get to better sites quicker (i.e. travel, cars, products, health, how to), then we will draw a nice audience.

Thanks again for all the feedback, and I agree with Rich 100% that you shouldn't build a business based on SEO. That being said, I disagree that sites like IMDB and Wikipedia would not be as popular if it wasn't for SEO traffic. The core audiences for those sites do go directly to them, and they would continue to go directly to them even if they were not ranked so high in Google and Yahoo. SEO traffic is a nice gift for quality sites--heck, Engadget and Autoblog got 5-20% of their traffic from search engines--however it isn't the make or break issue for a site in my mind.

The make or break issue for sites is how much value do they provide to the user. If they provide great value users will remember the name and if they provide a LOT of value users will tell their friend and family. That's my optimization strategy: build a product so good you tell your friends and family.

That's always been my test.

Mahalo again for all the feedback... we're in month three of a five year project and we're really thankful that so many intelligent folks are giving the project so much consideration.

I've gotten more feedback in

It really helps... so again, thanks for all the brain cycles everyone.

all the best,

Jason

Jason,
Thanks for fixing the five dead links on the climate change page I described in Dear Jason, You Have a Problem with Link Rot NOW.

They were pesky. More to the point, it's a shame your human reviewers didn't catch them in this mornings early update and only caught them when I blogged.

That said, I think the fact that your human reviewers don't catch the deadlink when they update pages suggests Mahalo will need increase the budget for the work involved in m manually deleting link rot.

Gustav Will:

I tried to find those PPT slides that you mentioned at the end of your post, but only came up with a short"ish" transcription of the talk:

http://www.allbusiness.com/marketing-advertising/internet-marketing-search-engines/3874967-1.html

Still, it's worth the read

Number 6, thanks for the link!

"Hyphens instead of underscores Jason! You too outside.in. C'mon guys, this is basic stuff."

SO basic that you yourself have forgotten to do it for the title of this blog post!!!

http://www.skrenta.com/2007/08/some_thoughts_on_mahalo.html

Hippocrite :-)

What if Mahalo's distribution strategy is focussed within Facebook's Social Graph? Surely this renders Google irrelevant.

Let's face it...It IS possible to succeed online without ranking in Google (what so ever).

I'm impressed by what the guys over at http://socialmedia.com have accomplished (although I don't know how successful these guys have been commercially.

But I can say for sure that the following example was commercially sound.

See here: http://tinyurl.com/yuf9k3 (208th on Alexa in 24 hours)

... then it pumped it's users into autoshipment products and recurring billing services and dissappeared. :) All without a spider in sight.

I'm personally keeping an open mind simply because...

Things change.

Otherwise we'd all be reading news groups still.

When's the last time you used a news group reader?

:)

Paul Reilly
http://facebump.com

Prediction: Mahalo and ChaCha will suffer the same fate as expert systems... unless they do some real AI algorithm work. Otherwise it's just old wine in new bottles.

Details here

One of the changes I think Mahalo will make (that fits into your SEO predictions) is to do what we have done at Bessed and not just throw up a link but provide a short review of that link so that people actually know what to expect if they click through.

Machine search engines just pull random text, which often makes it unclear what the page is about that corresponds to the link---this makes us have to click through to a greater number of sites in order to find what we want. A human-powered search engine like Bessed or Mahalo should be working to make the link meaningful so the searcher knows if a click-through is worth their time or not. This is one way humans can do a better job than machines, and I think you'll see Mahalo go that route in the future.

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