Mahalo: No Thank-You

MahaloIf you’re old enough, you may remember a little web directory called Yahoo. Yes, back before it was a search engine in the current sense of the word, and long before you could “google� anything besides your Math 1B T.A. Yahoo’s web directory was assembled by “surfers� who theoretically spent the day scouring the web for new and interesting web pages, and when they found them, they’d add them into an enormous taxonomy Yahoo created, so people could find them easily. It was great, and it made a lot of sense. Back then.

If you were paying attention to your history, you may remember that when Yahoo’s directory and its taxonomy became too big for human editors to maintain and human users to navigate, Yahoo’s search proved to be much more useful than their directory, so people stopped using the directory. Eventually, the directory even disappeared from Yahoo’s home page entirely. If directories were so great, we’d all be using dmoz instead of Google today.

The problem with directories is that they can’t live up to their promise if they’re only maintained by a small set of internal people. A Web Directory promises to be:

  • Comprehensive
  • Authoritative
  • Current

A small set of editors simply cannot keep on top of enough subjects on the web to keep this promise. They will either:

  • Not cover enough topics to satisfy users
  • Not have enough expertise to recommend the best links
  • Not be up-to-date

And most likely, all three of these will be true. It’s the nature of the beast.

And this makes me (and uncov) wonder why has been brought into existence. Despite describing itself as “human-powered search�, it really is just a directory, just like the old Yahoo directory, like Dmoz, like the old, like the old Looksmart, or a dozen other directories that failed. Note the similarities in the screenshots of Mahalo and Yahoo circa 1997 below. At least Yahoo works in Firefox…

Mahalo will never be really important because it will never be comprehensive enough, it will never be authoritative enough, and it will never be current enough. They claim that their editors will cover tens of thousands of topics in the coming years – 25,000 by 2008 — but what good will that do? How many unique search queries do you think Google gets in a day? I’d bet it’s in the millions, and there’s no way Mahalo will ever cover millions of search queries in an authoritative manner. The long tail is what has made Google successful, and anyone who tries to compete in the search space has to serve the long tail just as faithfully as the most popular search terms, or people just won’t rely on it.

Mahalo claims that they let users suggest links for inclusion in the directory, but unless those links get automatically processed and vetted by the masses, why should we trust their editors to choose which links are useful and which are not? Can their team of 40 editors really know what the best links are for tens of thousands of topics? Despite TechCrunch’s positive spin job, I don’t think so.

Where have the lessons of Web 2.0 gone? While many Web 2.0 sites are just Ajaxy hype, the really good things to come out of this generation of web development are sites that take advantage of collective wisdom, but Mahalo has ignored this lesson and is trying to re-hash a model that failed a decade ago.

I mean Mahalo no ill will, but good luck, guys. And very smart move partnering with Techcrunch on the TechCrunch20 conference.

Yahoo Directory


Mahalo directory


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