Home Mahalo Launches Toolbar – Aims to Convert Google Users

Mahalo Launches Toolbar – Aims to Convert Google Users

Today ‘human-powered’ search engine Mahalo is launching a new Firefox toolbar, which has some unique functionality that could potentially convert users from Google Search, Yahoo, MSN, Ask.com and other major search engines. The new toolbar, once installed into Firefox (IE version is due in September), displays a sidebar every time you do a search on a popular query in Google and other major search engines. For example if I do a search on “digital camera” in Google, a sidebar will pop up with Mahalo results. Note that the sidebar only displays if Mahalo has a match for the search query – e.g. if I search for “richard macmanus” I get no sidebar.

Mahalo is also releasing a “synchronous search” feature called Mahalo Follow – which reads the keywords on the page. For example a search on “digital camera” displays these keywords: cameras, digital, models, new, camera, resolution, megapixels, small, zoom, electronics, ratings, take, health, our, few, range, buying, image, lens, slrs. Essentially the algorithm reads the density of page, giving headlines more weight etc – and Mahalo says it is constantly tweaking the algorithm to learn.

I spoke to Jason Calacanis, Mahalo CEO, yesterday to find out more about Mahalo’s goals. He made no bones about the fact they’re gunning for Google, Yahoo and the other major search players. Jason’s goal is that people will become so impressed by Mahalo results compared to the major search engines, that they will convert to Mahalo as their search engine of choice. What’s more, when you download the toolbar you are prompted to add Mahalo as a search engine in your Firefox toolbar.

Mahalo sidebar displays when I do a search in Google

Mahalo and The Fat Tail

So what is Mahalo? Basically it is a human-edited search engine that focuses only on popular search queries. Right now Mahalo has 8,800 pages, on what Jason calls “Fat Tail” search queries. It is a play on words of ‘Long Tail’, a theory which when applied to search engines means the millions of search queries that individually get little action – but combined they get millions of hits. While Google and the other major search engines focus on providing results for The Long Tail of search queries, Mahalo has decided that the “Fat Tail” (i.e. only the most popular queries) is where they’ll make money.

But The fat Tail is also the most competitive search area, for search engines as well as the hundreds of thousands of content creators who want to rank on the first page in Google for popular search queries. That has led to a huge amount of ‘content spam’ in Google and other major search engines. Indeed black hat tactics abound in the world of search and content creation, so Mahalo aims to provide quality search results that weed out the garbage and help people find useful content.

While Mahalo has only 8,800 search results pages now, 25,000 is their next aim – perhaps by the end of the year. Jason said they are growing at 650 search results per week. This is about double what they originally thought, because the Mahalo Greenhouse – a community of paid Mahalo search result writers – has exploded with activity according to Jason. There are over 800 people who are members of the Greenhouse and this is growing by a half-dozen a day.

Mahalo employs 40 people in editorial, but they’re now all focused on quality review of public submissions (via Greenhouse). Over the last few days they’ve accepted close to 100 search result submissions from the public – and note these are paid contributors.

There is also a “third phase” coming up, says Jason, whereby Mahalo will enable the public to help index its search results. The first phase was Mahalo employees writing results, the second (in progress now) is the public writing results and the third is the public rating results (i.e. involved with index). This essentially means that Mahalo will categorize all their searches. And Jason was scathing in his assessment of how others have fared with categorization. He said that Dmoz (an open source directory) is now “destroyed”, Yahoo doesn’t focus on their directory anymore because there’s too much information, and “About.com is a disaster”.

How does Mahalo compare to Google and Ask.com?

Jason said that Mahalo search results will always be better than Google and the others, because they are human-edited and they only provide links to “very good or excellent sites”. These are ultimately judgments by the editors, but Mahalo has criteria to judge this – e.g. it must be original content, the site has to have a good reputation, has been around for a while, etc. Jason says that they go through a “series of tests” before accepting a link.

The major search engine that Mahalo most resembles, in my opinion, is Ask.com. We’ve profiled Ask.com a few times before and always mention that it tries to present useful information on page one of its results. Ask.com has editors too, although their role is more to arrange content than to write the results. Jason was rather brutal in his assessment of Ask.com, however, claiming that they run “deceptive ads” and that much of their results could be considered spam (to be fair he made the same argument about Google, Yahoo and the other majors). He mentioned a search query for “paris hotels”, in which he says the first 8 results in Ask.com are spam or ads.

I tried a search for “digital camera” on Ask.com and the results were good. Although Mahalo’s were better, for that query. I also tried a search for “olympics” and Ask’s results were much better than Mahalo’s on that one.

Of course Ask.com would argue that they provide results for any search query, whereas Mahalo is very limited right now (to 8,800 results). So I’m not sure it’s fair to compare the two, because one thing I look for in a search engine is results consistency – i.e. for a default search engine, I want results for everything I type in. So for that reason alone, Ask.com could reasonably argue that they’re a better search engine than Mahalo.

Mahalo vs Ask with “olympics”

How will Mahalo be marketed?

I asked Jason who is Mahalo’s target audience? He said their target audience is the same as Google,Yahoo, etc – so they’re basically mainstream people who may not be as tech savvy as the people who use del.icio.us for example.

But the big question is: how will Mahalo get uptake for their toolbar? After all, mainstream people aren’t usually known to download third party toolbars from startups (they may use the Yahoo or Google toolbar, but that’s about it usually). Jason replied that “word of mouth is the greatest tool possible” and that they’ll be marketing it via the 800 Greenhouse members. There will be a Mahalo Follow contest, where Greenhouse users will get points and there will be monthly giveaways.


I admire what Mahalo is trying to do – I too am frustrated by the amount of spam and just downright poor results from the major search engines. I’m all for quality control when it comes to Web content. So in that respect, I would use Mahalo for certain popular queries. However I also think the major search engines are improving in regards to quality – e.g. Google Universal and personalization has to my mind improved their results. And as I mentioned above with Ask.com, to be a default search engine you need to provide much greater coverage than 8,800 results (try tacking another couple of zeros on and then we can talk about being my default SE).

Also I have to say that the Mahalo toolbar is kind of annoying from a UI perspective. Having the sidebar pop up every time I search for something (including in Gmail!) quickly got tiresome. I’ll be brutally honest myself and admit that I disabled it after an hour or so. This is a problem with any system that pops up a sidebar, it has a high probability of being annoying for users.

But all in all, Mahalo’s goals are admirable. I’d probably compare them more to About.com or even Wikipedia than Google at this point, but it is only Aplha and the promise is there. It’s a huge ask though (pardon the pun) to scale this to be a truly mainstream search engine.

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