Everyone loves a good storyline

So, Wikia, the company started by Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, is launching a search engine, called Wikisari. I like Wikia — its CEO, Gil Penchina, spoke at Supernova earlier this year. Leveraging the collective knowledge of users for what my friend and colleague Yochai Benkler calls “peer production” is a powerful technique, as Wikipedia, Digg, and other sites have shown. And I’m completely on board with the claim that there is plenty of room left for innovation and commercial success in Internet search. (One of the other panels at this year’s Supernova was called, “The Future of Search.”)

But why, oh why, do so many of the press reports on the Wikia story have to lead with something like, “Wikipedia founder challenges Google?”

Give me a break. Microsoft is challenging Google, and Yahoo! is challenging Google, because those are big companies that recognize the strategic importance of search to their businesses. Wikia isn’t going to challenge Google. It’s going to offer a service that competes for traffic against Google, and probably 50 other venture-backed search companies. Whether or not it succeeds will depend on quite a few things, few of which have anything to do with Google.

Search isn’t an all or nothing game, and the sites with the best results aren’t necessarily the most successful. Casting this as a battle over which search technique will “win” is just silly. If Jimmy Wales had opened a retail store, no one would be writing, “Wikipedia founder challenges Wal-Mart.”

These mano-a-mano storylines are fun, but they aren’t all that helpful for understanding the market. Back in the dotcom boom, there was a tremendous overemphasis on “business models.” A great business model would get you funding, and maybe even an IPO. Well, guess what? An innovative model helps, but it still needs good execution and the right timing, among other things. That’s the reality of business. The coverage of Wikisari suggests that lesson is being forgotten once again.