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Mahalo reboot: From human-powered search to education

January 25, 2011 |  9:18 pm

Mahalo has hit the reset button, leaving behind its attempt to compete with Google as a search engine and instead changing its focus to education.

On Tuesday, the Santa Monica company relaunched its website, dubbing it Mahalo 4.0.

Gone is the human-powered search engine -- Mahalo's past selling point -- and in its place are articles, videos and question-and-answer threads focused on teaching users various things, including languages, recipes, how to play the guitar and car repair.

"When it comes to education, there is no one site you can point to that you can say, 'They speak to the world and that is the site where you go to learn,' " said Jason Calacanis, Mahalo's founder and chief executive. "We want Mahalo to be that site. Anything you want to learn we want you to be able to go to Mahalo and learn it."

Mahalo_logo And, Calacanis said, Mahalo's approach to search never got the company anywhere close to a level that would threaten Google's throne as the Web search leader.

Mahalo, which got started in 2007, made its way into the top 200 websites as a human-powered search engine -- not using computer algorithms as Google and Bing do.

"To get people to switch from Google, you have to offer something twice as better," Calacanis said. "But the truth is, the world doesn't actually need better-quality search. I think we've got good enough search. The world needs more quality videos and content and teachers."

Realizing that Mahalo wasn't going to become the next great search engine any time soon, the company shifted its focus about a year ago to what it does do well -- and that was answering questions, he said.

"Our users told us that teaching people was what they wanted to see us do," Calacanis said. "Question-and-answers was our strongest feature and now we've expanded on that."

Jason Rapp, Mahalo's president, said the firm has gone from 40 employees to 104 over the last six months.

More than 50 of those new hires have been videographers to produce short educational videos, and another large chunk have been experts in various topics to write how-to articles, many of whom appear in the videos, Rapp said. And Mahalo plans to add about 100 more employees by the end of 2011, he said.

Each page on Mahalo that offers tutorials -- whether through video or an article -- will feature original content produced by the website itself, Rapp said.

The Mahalo pages will also include a bit of social media tech as well with real-time question and answers.

Other content, from outside sources, will be included as well -- such as the occasional Wikipedia article, a photo or image, or sometimes a movie trailer or music video, depending on the subject of the page,  he said.

"There's a million categories we could cover and it doesn't do the consumer any good to be an inch deep on everything, but we think we've chosen a good, broad base of categories and we're adding more content and categories every day," Rapp said.

Among the categories Mahalo is focusing on are cooking, music, finance, technology, video games, health, beauty and languages.

"We cover a lot of ground, and users are always welcome to post a question and the community or one of our experts can answer it," Rapp said.

The website, in its previous incarnation, brought in about 12 million unique visitors a month -- a number the company expects to rise with its new focus, he said.

"We looked across the landscape and we think we've got a composition that nobody else has," Rapp said. "For educational content we're competing a bit with Wikipedia on one hand, one end of the spectrum. There are some educational-course-work companies where people aren't getting accredited degrees but are getting in-depth course work, and we're competing with them as well. About.com does a great job on the article side and Yahoo Answers and Quora on the answers space, but nobody offers everything we do in one place."

Calacanis acknowledged that the shift in what Mahalo is could be a risk for the company, but he said he and his employees are sure it's the right move.

"As an entrepreneur you've got to know when to shift your focus, and sometimes making that pivot can be a hard thing to do," he said. "But pivoting doesn't mean you've failed. Pivoting just means you're listening."

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-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles

twitter.com/nateog

Video credit: Mahalo via Vimeo

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