Nowadays, with more than two million articles in English alone, Wikipedia is an important, if not always reliable, digital reference for millions of Internet users.
Mr. Wales expects his new Internet search engine, Wikia Search, an early version of which is being made available to the public Monday at www.wikia.com, to follow a similar trajectory.
"We want to make it really clear that when people arrive and do searches, they should not expect to find a Google killer," Mr. Wales said. Instead, people who use the Wikia search engine should understand that they are part of the early stages of a project to build a "Google-quality search engine," Mr. Wales said.
Like Wikipedia, Mr. Wales plans to rely on a "wiki" model, a voluntary collaboration of people, to fine-tune the Wikia search engine. When it starts up Monday, the service will rank pages based on a relatively simple algorithm. Users will be allowed and encouraged to rate search results for quality and relevance. Wikia will gradually incorporate that feedback in its rankings of Web pages to deliver increasingly useful answers to people's questions.
Like other search engines and sites that rely on the so-called "wisdom of crowds," the Wikia search engine is likely to be susceptible to people who try to game the system, by, for example, seeking to advance the ranking of their own site. Mr. Wales said Wikia would attempt to "block them, ban them, delete their stuff," just as other wiki projects do.
Wikia, a for-profit company independent of the Wikiamedia Foundation which runs Wikipedia, plans to make money selling ads. The company, which also runs wiki sites on thousands of topics, has received $14 million, $10 million of that from Amazon.
For Mr. Wales, a founder of Wikia, the project is as much a business as a cause. As more people rely on search engines, companies like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have become the gatekeepers of the world's information, Mr. Wales said. Yet little is known about how they select certain sites over others, he added.
"I think it is unhealthy for the citizens of the world that so much of our information is controlled by such a small number of players, behind closed doors," he said. "We really have no ability to understand and influence that process."
The Wikia search engine will be an open-source project, whose programming code and data will be available to anyone, he said.
Dozens of companies have tried to offer alternatives to the big search engines. None has managed to attract a sizable audience so far.
"We are only going to know after a certain period of time the power that Wikia can or cannot deliver," said Gary Price, head of online information at Ask.com, the No. 4 search engine behind Google, Yahoo and Microsoft. Wikia faces many tests, among them manipulation, he said, calling it "a real concern for Wikia."