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Wikimedia says it's not building a search engine to take on Google

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But it does want to improve its search functionality

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

The Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit organization that runs Wikipedia, has denied reports that it's building a search engine to compete with Google. Recently leaked documents from a grant proposal submitted by Wikimedia last year show the company asking for preliminary funding of $250,000 to develop "the Knowledge Engine," a "system for discovering reliable and trustworthy public information on the internet." However, a recent blog post from Wikimedia suggests that these plans have changed over time.

"We’re not building a global crawler search engine."

"These grant terms — and our plans — are straightforward. We intend to research how Wikimedia users seek, find, and engage with content," write the organization's executive director Lila Tretikov, and vice president of product Wes Moran. "What are we not doing? We’re not building a global crawler search engine. We’re not building another, separate Wikimedia project."

But the confusion is understandable given the language used in the grant proposal and earlier documents about the project. The proposal states that the Knowledge Engine will "democratize the discovery of media, news, and information," and act as a counterweight to "commercial search engines that dominate [the internet]." The proposal also notes that competition from "Google, Yahoo, or another big commercial search engine" could "reduce the success of the project." Elsewhere though, it does state that one of the key steps in developing the Knowledge Engine would be to create a prototype for "evolving Wikipedia.org, which will become the home [of the project]."

wikimedia search engine
A slide from an April 2015 presentation for "Wikipedia Search" (Image credit: Wikipedia Signpost)

It's been suggested that Wikimedia might have originally proposed a more ambitious iteration of the Knowledge Engine, but changed their plans after objections from the community. Usually, large-scale Wikimedia projects such as this would be discussed openly with Wikipedia's volunteers and editors, but reports from Motherboard and The Register say this wasn't the case with the Knowledge Engine.

"unpaid hamsters"

William Beutler, a Wikipedia editor and author of The Wikipedian blog told Motherboard that there was a disconnect between the encyclopedia's community and its leadership. "It seems like there’s been a culture clash," he said. "And this is the most destructive manifestation of that culture clash." Andreas Kolbe, a Wikipedia contributor who helped uncover the proposals, wrote on the encyclopedia's own internal news site that the Knowledge Engine raised "the ongoing issue of transparency" at Wikimedia and noted that a successful search engine could turn volunteers into "unpaid hamsters."

Whether Wikimedia's plans just naturally evolved or whether it was responding to the community's response is difficult to say, but the organization is now, at least, claiming it does not want to square up to Google, but just improve its own product. "At the Wikimedia Foundation, we see a clear need to improve search and discovery," write Tretikov and Moran. "Improvements will help our users access and share in the knowledge they seek, and in doing so, bring us closer to reaching our mission and helping open knowledge stay accessible and relevant."