New Search Engine Blekko Is a Great Concept, But ...

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Try Googling for something general like mortgages or health or cancer. What you want are credible sources. What you get is a bunch of SEO'd up websites that are just this side of spam. The intense competition to capture high-value keywords means that the good sites just can't keep up with the constant tweaking of the content farms.

Blekko, a new search engine, hit beta status today. It's goal, according to the Wall Street Journal, is to solve this problem by using human curators. Here's how the company put it:

As the number of Web pages reaches one trillion, "there is an acceleration of spam," said Rich Skrenta, Blekko's chief executive. "We're cleaning this up ... using large-scale human curation" that promotes "trusted" content.

Queries that Blekko identifies as being health-related, for example, are limited to 76 authoritative information sources. So searching "cure for cold," for example, generates links to sites such as MedicineNet.com, WebMD.com and MedlinePlus, a site affiliated to the National Institutes of Health. On Google, the top 10 search results include links to lesser-known sites such as essortment.com, manageyourlifenow.com and home-remedies-for-you.com.

In a way, this is a return to the web of yore, when big lists of site directories were nominally handpicked. It worked for a while. My own UCLA basketball page used to come up first on Yahoo in the mid-'90s -- a clear indication the site knew quality. But as the number of web pages proliferated, it became absolutely impossible to keep up. The humans lost and the bots won, etc. But now, even the bots are losing to scale. Blekko suggests that it's only a combined human and robot force that has a chance of maintaining a healthy information ecosystem.

So ... does it work? It's hard to tell in the early going. I'd want my grandmother searching this site for medical advice before Google. Take a hot-button topic like vaccination. Blekko serves up lots of scientific and medical information. Google gives you lots of pseudoscience and discredited conspiracy theories. I can't help but think that's a good thing.

But there's a problem: the site's design is, to me, unusable. All the little tags and colors on the page make me crosseyed.

It may just be that I'm so used to Google that any other site feels strange, but I think the problem might be embedded in the system. They are trying to do two things: provide search results and elicit human input. And that means the UI has to be more complicated than Google's.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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