It was historic, in that it was the first public talk he's given on search. Why? Well, a little project that's been occupying the bulk of his attention - Wikia Search - has become quite public after an interview with the New York Times, and its resulting article.
The thrust of Mr. Wales' presentation surrounded his vision of Wika Search:
To build a free, democratic, transparent search engine.
Search is a fundamental part of the infrastructure of the Internet, therefore of society as a whole.
He believes that search should be three things: transparent, participatory, and free.
Referring to the theory of open source, which at the time of its suggestion, was deemed impossible. "It won't work!", insisted leading technology companies like (surprise) Microsoft, Sun, IBM, SAP, and Oracle. Enter: redhat, php, Ubuntu, and more. Guess what? It does work. It works because:
It's a virtuous (not a vicious) cycle.
More involvement --> fundamental improvement --> open code --> everyone can improve it. And so on.
Next comes open (free) content. "What?! That will never, ever work!", said such establishments as the New York Times, Financial Times, etc. Enter, for one, Wikipedia. You know, one of the world's most influential brands? 'Nuff said.
Back to search, and Wikia. Wika was described, as a whole, as:
Every other kind of book, work, or community that people might build.
Think: library (Wikia) vs. encyclopedia (Wikipedia). Wikia Search relies on three fundamental principles:
1. Transparency: all algorithms are published, testable and researchable. [Open]
2. Participatory: bringing the best elements of Wikipedia and trust networks to problems of search. This brings the power of human participation to the search process, and relies on the social structure: accountability. It, Mr. Wales believes, empowers people to contribute to something that is of very high quality. The community monitors itself, Wikipedia style. In other words, you have a stake in search. [Human-powered]
3. Free: to change the competitive landscape of search; to encourage global innovation; to disallow disambiguation. An example given was that of a search for Paris Hilton. Search engines of the now - no matter how often you travel and, let's say, search for and book a room in the Hilton Hotel in Paris - still offer up a slew of sites that link to the infamous "celebrity." Search of the future (human powered, that is) will at the very least be able to ask, 'did you mean the hotel, or the celebrity?' [Big idea]
Will Wikia Search be a viable threat to Google? You be the judge. (Or, the participant.)