Early this year, serial entrepreneur Jason Calacanis (of Weblogs fame) launched Mahalo, based in Santa Monica, Ca.  It's been in alpha since May, and I figured it was about time to give it a good rundown.

Mahalo is "a human powered search engine", which basically means they pay people to write custom search results pages. Think of it sort of as Google meets Yahoo Directory meets Wikipedia (in fact their technology is based off the Wikimedia engine). 

When using their site I did sample queries on everything from popular items like "ipod" to more obscure things like "Tech Coast Review". For the queries that did come up with custom results pages, I generally liked the format, its a nice cross between wiki informative and good links that you'd expect in search results. I personally also found the interface with a sort of soft Hawaiian theme quite attractive, although I'm not sure that it will have mass appeal.

But, I've got to say I don't think Mahalo will ever scale to the point of being valuable enough to displace a search engine.  I've seen Jason respond on some of the blogs that you get the best of both worlds, because Mahalo shows other search engine results if they don't have a custom page.  But my response is thats not good enough, I'm not going to waist my time using something other than Google unless its a heck of lot more useful to me.  If most of the time I'm just looking at Google results on Mahalo, then I might as well just stick with using the Google platform (to which we all are getting further and further ingrained with).  
And thats really the crux of it is that they have maybe 10,000 custom pages now and a goal 40,000 custom pages by the end of 2008, but compare this with stats that float around saying Google responds to a billion searches a day with over 25% being new keywords, and you have a startup the clearly is not trying to be a search engine.  So what is their real value, content?  Maybe, but they are currently employing 40 "guides" and paying something like 15 dollars per page written.  While I'm sure there are plenty of out of work screen play writers in Santa Monica that will try to make a few bucks, I still don't see the content getting to the place where it will have mass appeal.  Unless of course this whole exercise is a Search Engine Optomization play.  

Ultimately, for someone with such a "proven track record", I'm a bit disappointed.  Interestingly, Mahalo has gotten mostly favorable reviews.  The usually trustworthy TechCrunch gave a very flowery review, maybe as a results of Jasons partnership with them.  They even went so far as kicking a respected technologists off the TechCrunch 20 review panel for being too overly critical of Mahalo.  Even more interesting is that apparently the media is not the only one star struck by this venture.  Mahalo is so well funded apparently, that they can go 4 years without making a dime.  I have to wonder that unless Mahalo's business plan has some secret ace up the sleeve, the VCs might have been a bit too smitten with Jason's previous successes.