How Mahalo Works


The Mahalo homepage welcomes you to the site.
The Mahalo homepage welcomes you to the site.
Screenshot by HowStuffWorks

One of the most important navigational tools on the Internet is the search engine. Search engines have come and gone, but most of them followed the same strategy -- using a search algorithm to scan Web pages for the user's search terms. Web page publishers figured this out pretty quickly, and soon users were browsing through irrelevant sites just because the page's owner had hidden every search term imaginable in the page's html code.

Mahalo is revolutionizing search engines with a new mission -- to give users a hassle-free, informative and relevant experience. Instead of relying on a complex algorithm to generate search results, Mahalo uses human beings. Real, live people research each search term, seeking out the sites that best fit the user's request. While most search engines depend on complex algorithms developed by a small group of people, Mahalo searches are the result of hundreds of people working to sort out the absolute best of the Web.

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Even though people power the search engine, they aren't feverishly typing results as users send in requests. Instead, Mahalo contributors submit search results pages (SeRPs) to a centralized database, called the Mahalo Greenhouse. When the SeRP has a few great links in it, Mahalo publishes it to the Web, giving users access to the search results. Each SeRP includes a completion percentage, indicating how close Mahalo employees feel the results fit their ideal of 100 percent of the best links on the Web relating to that topic.

The easiest way to understand the philosophy behind the Mahalo search engine is to use it. When you search for a term like "Hawaii," for example, you'll see that links are organized into subcategories. The first subcategory is "The Mahalo Top 7," a list of seven sites Mahalo employees feel are the most relevant to the term. Other subcategories include Hawaii Vacations, Hawaii State Government, Hawaii State History and Hawaii State News, among others. You can scan a search result to look for the information you need and continue browsing other links, knowing that each one is the result of careful research.

In this article, we'll learn about Mahalo's internal structure and explore what the Mahalo search experience is like. We'll look at the Mahalo Greenhouse database, where employees build and tweak search results. And, we'll find out how to build a SeRP and work for Mahalo.

In the next section, we'll learn what happens when you enter a search into Mahalo.

Mahalo Searches

If you g­o to Mahalo and pull up a search, you might see some links with little symbols next to them. These symbols are used to tag links. There are three kinds of tags:

  • Warning tags: These tags tell the user that the link might be very good, but it has some things Mahalo usually tries to avoid, like pop-up ads and intrusive music, or parts of it are written in languages other than English. Moving your cursor over the warning icon generates a message that explains why the guide felt that warning was necessary.
  • What is? tags: Sometimes a guide will find a really great link relating to a search topic, but the link's source is obscure. If the guide feels that the user might not be familiar with the link's source, he or she can create a What is? tag, which will give a short description of the Web page when you run your mouse over the icon.
  • Guide's Choice tags: Mahalo guides use the shaka symbol to designate really cool links. If a guide feels that a particular link is better than others, he or she can mark it with a Guide's Choice tag. If you move your cursor over the icon, you'll see a short explanation that describes how this link is one of the best on the Internet.

If you find a dead link on Mahalo or a link that leads to a substandard Web site, you can report it by clicking on the "Report a problem" link. You can also discuss the page on Mahalo's forums by clicking on the "Discuss this Page" link.

Perhaps you know of a link that should be on the Mahalo page but isn't. In that case, you can click on the "Recommend a Link" option. Clicking on it opens a couple of fields. The first field is for the link's URL and the second is for a short description of why you feel the link belongs on Mahalo's search results page.

In the next section, we'll learn about the guides who generate Mahalo search results.

Mahalo Guides

Just a few of the Mahalo guides
Just a few of the Mahalo guides
Screenshot by HowStuffWorks

There are two types of Mahalo contributors: full time Guides (FTGs) and part time Guides (PTGs). Full time guides are Mahalo employees and are similar to a newspaper's staff of writers. Part time guides are more like freelancers. To become a part time guide, potential contributors must join the Mahalo community and send in the application found on Mahalo.com. Once the user is approved, he or she can work on creating search result pages (SeRPs).

Mahalo's culture thrives on a strong communication network among employees and contributors. Mahalo uses e-mail and a message board to bolster the exchange of ideas and also encourages guides to download an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) program and an instant messaging program to facilitate live conversations.

Full time guides peer-review one another's work. An FTG submits SeRPs to other FTGs and an editorial staff. They also serve as editors for PTG submissions and have the authority to reject a PTG submission, sending it back to the PTG for changes and corrections. Full time guides are the only guides who can create stubs -- search return pages that only have a few links, rather than a full SeRP with multiple sections.

There are several tiers in the part time guides hierarchy:

  • New part time guides are those who have recently applied to create SeRPs, or guides who have only created a few SeRPs. Mahalo allows new PTGs to work on only one SeRP at a time. Full time guides decide when a new PTG can move on to becoming a full PTG. There's no standard benchmark; FTGs consider new PTGs on a case-by-case basis.
  • Part time guides can work on up to five SeRPs at once. They concentrate on creating SeRPs, sometimes specializing in a particular subject. Especially skilled PTGs can move up to the next level.
  • PTG plus guides demonstrate a real knack for creating helpful, interesting SeRPs. A PTG plus can work on up to 10 SeRPs at once.
  • Mentor PTGs are dedicated to creating high quality SeRPs and really know the Mahalo system inside and out. Mentor PTGs provide guidance to less experienced PTGs and may work on up to 20 SeRPs at one time. Mahalo mentors have to be available online to other PTGs. As of November 1, 2007, Mahalo pays mentor PTGs $10 for every SeRP they quality-check.

Mahalo pays part time guides based on the number of SeRPs accepted, by check or through PayPal.

Mahalo pays employees by check or through PayPal.

Mahalo gets the money to pay guides from investors. The site has secured enough funding to operate for up to five years. Mahalo's long-term business plan is to generate revenue by selling advertising space on SeRPs [source: Associated Press].

In the next section, we'll examine the Mahalo Greenhouse, where guides build search results.

Mahalo Greenhouse

The Mahalo Greenhouse webpage
The Mahalo Greenhouse webpage
Screenshot by HowStuffWorks

Mahalo guides build search results pages (SeRPs) in the Mahalo Greenhouse. The Greenhouse uses MediaWiki software, which allows multiple users to create and modify wikis.

Each results page must conform to Mahalo's standards, including the appearance and layout of the page. Mahalo provides guides the code they need to generate a SeRP, complete with generic headings that the employee must replace with the appropriate search topic.

The most important standard for any SeRP is that the results have to be the best content on the Internet regarding that search topic. Mahalo's standards mean that certain kinds of sites are not acceptable as search returns, including:

  • Spam sites
  • Sites with intrusive or distracting advertising
  • Malicious sites (Web pages that include phishing scams, computer viruses or other harmful content)
  • Sites that contain plagiarized material or that simply mirror other sites
  • Sites with unknown owners or content managers, meaning there's no way to see who controls the site
  • Sites that contain adult content or hate speech
  • Sites that aren't in English, or are in English but don't follow rules of grammar

Mahalo strives to include only sites that are sources of expert information and provide the user with a pleasant, helpful experience. If a site doesn't meet those criteria, it's not likely that Mahalo will feature it on a SeRP. In cases of copyright infringement, Mahalo places the site on a list of banned sites and will never feature it on any SeRP.

Other search categories, called verticals, have different layouts. Mahalo aims to group search results together by relevance and focus. For example, in travel searches, all hotel search results appear under one section, while sites dealing with air travel appear in another. The goal is to create a SeRP the user can scan quickly to find exactly what he or she is looking for, but to include plenty of other great links so that he or she can browse around to other related pages.

In the next section, we'll learn about the steps a Mahalo guide follows to create a SeRP.

Building Mahalo Search Results

This SeRP for the search term "Hawaii" illustrates a guide's selection of the best links possible.
This SeRP for the search term "Hawaii" illustrates a guide's selection of the best links possible.
Screenshot by HowStuffWorks

Mahalo depends on contributions from two different sources: the in-house FTGs and the remote contributions from PTGs. The FTGs primarily edit the SeRPs that PTGs build. Building a SeRP requires several steps to ensure that only the best links are displayed on Mahalo. 

The PTG begins building a SeRP by searching Mahalo's Most Wanted page to find a topic. Some of the topics on the Most Wanted page come from user requests or threads on Mahalo's message board. Others are gaps in Mahalo's coverage or breaking news stories. Mahalo divides the Most Wanted page into verticals, or broad topics. Verticals are very general categories, like food, business or travel. Verticals are then broken down into subcategories. For example, the food vertical has the subcategory beverages. Each subcategory has a specific template guides must use when creating a SeRP. Most Wanted topics are color coded -- red items are unclaimed search topics, while green items are already claimed by another contributor.

A guide should choose a vertical and topic that he or she is familiar with but that isn't a conflict of interest. Once a guide finds a good topic, he or she claims it by clicking on the topic's link. Guides have seven days to complete a SeRP. If they don't work on it for two days in a row, Mahalo automatically sends them a reminder e-mail about the SeRP's completion due date.

The next step is in the SeRP creation process is building the SeRP template. Mahalo assigns a shortcut code to each template, which the guide copies and pastes into the editor window. The template makes creating SeRPs easier, and it also ensures that guides follow Mahalo's style and formatting standards. The guide builds the SeRP from the generic template, replacing the pre-existing template terms, such as "beverage," with the Most Wanted search term, like "Coca-Cola."

Once the guide has a SeRP template ready to go, he or she can start searching for great links. Mahalo guides search for links the same way most Internet users do -- they start with big search engines like Yahoo! and Google. They may also use other search methods, referring to sites like del.icio.us and Digg. When a guide finds a really good link that meets Mahalo's standards, he or she activates the Greenhouse tool.

The Greenhouse tool generates a toolbox with the appropriate SeRP name. A dropdown menu including the titles of all the subsections of the SeRP allows a guide to designate where the link belongs. Guides must fill out these other fields as well:

  • A pre-text field, usually the name of the linked Web page.
  • A title field, text that will become the link's hypertext.
  • A description field, including information that will appear after the hypertext, such as the year of publication for an article or the length of a linked video.

Once the guide follows these steps, he or she can click on Add URL in the Greenhouse toolbox. The tool automatically adds the link into the corresponding SeRP. After the guide has added all the links that he or she feels are necessary for the SeRP, the newly built page is ready for an editorial review.

In the next section, we'll look at the steps a guide takes to ensure that Mahalo's editors accept his or her SeRP.

Fine-Tuning Mahalo SeRPs

After a guide has found three to five great links for each section of the SeRP, he or she includes a guide note before submitting the SeRP for quality control. A guide note is a short description of the search term and a short list of facts about the search term. These facts are designed to be brief and verifiable, presenting relevant information in a user-friendly way.

Next, the guide should fill out the related searches field. This field is for search topics related to the SeRP. Mahalo encourages guides to list topics in order of relevance. Guides can even include search terms that don't have their own SeRP yet.

Another important field is the redirect box. Users can type just about any combination of words or phrases into a search bar while looking for information on a specific topic. It's up to the guide to anticipate user word choice. The guide should list every variation for the search term he or she can think of, including common typos and misspellings, to ensure that a user will find the right page.

Guides can also fill out a category field. This is a list of all the categories in which the search topic belongs. Mahalo asks that guides limit themselves to no more than 10 categories. Mahalo designates all category names -- guides should not try to create their own.

Once the guide has finished the SeRP, it's time to submit it to quality control. FTGs and Mahalo mentors -- expert users who help other guides -- review all SeRP submissions, checking them for errors, content quality, dead links, relevance and organization. If a SeRP meets Mahalo's standards, a Mahalo representative will inform the guide that Mahalo accepts the SeRP and will feature it in searches. The guide receives payment for the SeRP and can move on to developing a new SeRP for a different topic.

If for some reason Mahalo doesn't accept the SeRP, an FTG or mentor will send it back to the guide for edits. Even if Mahalo accepts a SeRP without requiring its guide to make revisions, editors may make changes to it before publishing it.

To learn more about Mahalo and related topics, follow the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Mahalo.com
  • Liedtke, Michael. "People Power Fuels New Search Engine." Associated Press. May 30, 2007. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/n/a/2007/05/30/financial/f150126D41.DTL&type=business