What the Wikipedia Study Really Means for SEO

A study performed by Intelligent Positioning caused quite a stir recently among SEOs. It revealed that Wikipedia appears on the first page of Google searches 99 percent of the time, and in the first position more than half of the time. What, exactly, does this mean for SEO? A lot more – and a lot less – than you might think.

If you would like to peruse the study yourself, you can read Intelligent Positioning’s blog post. To really understand what we can learn from the study, we must first consider its methodology. The researchers conducted the entire study in English, using a random noun generator to compile a list of 1,000 words. They then searched for those words on Google’s UK site, through the Google Chrome Incognito browser to get around any personalization or customization.

On the surface, the results seem to speak for themselves. For fully 99 percent of the searches, a Wikipedia entry appeared on the first page. And for 56 percent of the searches, it appeared as the first result. In fact, Wikipedia appeared on the second or later page so rarely that the researchers could actually compile a very short list of the searches for which this happened: mail, news, trainers, national, sweets, wardrobe, phone, and flight. “All these words are obviously highly competitive or incorporate the word within major corporations and services (for example National),” Intelligent Positioning notes.

For most SEOs, the only surprise revealed by this research is the level of Wikipedia’s dominance. Who doesn’t know about Google’s apparent love affair with Wikipedia? Danny Goodwin of Search Engine Watch even pointed out that Google’s co-founder, Sergey Brin, “has called Wikipedia ‘one of the greatest triumphs of the Internet’ and ‘an invaluable resource to anyone who is online’ and has generously donated to Wikipedia.” How, exactly, does one compete with that?

To be honest, you don’t – at least, not in the way you’re probably thinking. Look over the study’s methodology again, and you’ll notice something very important. The searches performed used one-word nouns exclusively. For the most part, that’s not how people search today.

Chikita, an advertising data analytics company, recently did a study across five search engines (including Google) focused on users’ search habits. While the study only covered a few days – January 9 through the 12 – it included hundreds of millions of queries. Among other insights, the study  found that the average number of words per query was four.

Single-word queries, like the ones from Insight Positioning’s study, just aren’t used very often these days. In fact, back in November, Hitwise reported that single-word queries made up just a little more than a quarter of search engine queries. Granted, they made up the largest single percentage of searches, but that still left more than 70 percent of searches being two or more words long.

The point is, Intelligent Positioning’s methodology does not provide a true simulation of modern search behavior. That does not, however, mean that we can’t learn something meaningful from looking at Wikipedia and puzzling out how it achieved such a high position for so many nouns.

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While we know that Google gives a fair amount of prominence to Wikipedia, what gets discussed less often is why. Kevin Gibbons tackled the subject in relation to the study I discussed on the previous page. He honestly thinks that Wikipedia deserves to be ranking where it is, and that nothing sneaky and not related to Google’s algorithms is going on. I have to agree. So what, exactly, is Wikipedia doing right, and how can SEOs duplicate it on their own sites?

First, remember that Google likes lots of deep, rich content. Wikipedia provides that in spades, all user-generated. Gibbons notes that the online encyclopedia’s article on Turkey, for example, contains more than 12,000 words. And it’s only one page among 70 million on the site!

Each Wikipedia page focuses on one primary search term. That guarantees the page will be strongly relevant for that term – and with thousands of words on the page, it will also snag a ton of long-tail searches.

Also, if you’ve ever looked at a Wikipedia page, you know that each page includes a ton of links to other pages on the site. This internal linking structure makes it easy for Google to crawl the site and find new pages.

Finally, Wikipedia has been around for a long time, and building its content all the while. These two facts give its pages excellent authority. It constantly receives links and citations – and not just from casual bloggers, but from high quality sites. Gibbons notes that the Turkey page has collected more than 21,000 links, “many of which are from authority sites such as the BBC, Telegraph and NASA!”

How would you duplicate this on your own site? Make sure your pages offer deep, rich content. Cross-link relevant pages. You may write a lot of text on a topic, of course, but make sure it’s all relevant, so you’re attracting the long-tail searchers as well.

For example, if you’re writing an article on online marketing, you might talk about what  goes into it these days: on-page optimization, off-page optimization, pay-per-click campaigns, banner ads on other websites, social media marketing, guest blogging, etc. You might cover each of these in a paragraph or two in the article itself – but if you’ve been building your site for a while, and it’s all about online marketing, you’ve probably published articles on all of these topics. It makes sense to link back to them appropriately, within each section. Such linking helps Google find the articles; it also shows your readers where to go if and when they want more in-depth information on that topic.

It would be hard to beat Wikipedia at its own game. But you can use the online encyclopedia’s own tactics to improve your site’s standing in Google. Good luck!   

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