Wikipedia Conquering Google First, World Next?

If you’ve been using Google to search for just about anything lately, you’ve probably noticed a strange trend: entries from Wikipedia appear at or near the top of the first results page. What’s going on here? Is it something we should worry about? What, if anything, should you do about it for the sake of your web site?

The first thing you should know is that you’re not imagining this trend. Hitwise recently reported that Wikipedia’s share of Google downstream traffic has gone up 166 percent over the past 12 months. Wikipedia receives 70 percent of its traffic from the search engines. Google by far is the largest source of search engine traffic for the online encyclopedia anyone can edit; half of Wikipedia’s visitors show up as a result of being referred from Google.

Wikipedia’s rise is also being recorded by comScore. It entered the Internet ratings company’s top ten sites for most unique visitors for January 2007. This is the first time it has done so; it was number 13 the previous month. Here are the top sites in descending order, along with their number of unique visitors, rounded to the nearest million:

  • Yahoo sites, 129 million
  • Time Warner Network, 117 million
  • Microsoft sites, 115 million
  • Google sites, 113 million
  • eBay, 81 million
  • Fox Interactive Media, 75 million
  • Amazon sites, 51 million
  • Ask network, 49 million
  • Wikipedia sites, 43 million
  • New York Times Digital, 40 million

With all due respect, there’s more going on here than Stephen Colbert’s efforts to vandalize Wikipedia’s articles and encourage others to do the same. In one recent week, Wikipedia was the third most popular site in Google’s downstream, right after MySpace and Google Image Search. Some think that Wikipedia could be the next Internet giant, and a real challenger to Google’s throne.

Most of us are familiar with Wikipedia’s encyclopedic approach, and some of us have even edited articles ourselves (or know someone who has). Wikipedia takes advantage of the so-called "wisdom of crowds." This idea, popularized in a 2004 book by James Surowiecki, states that "the aggregation of information in groups" results in decisions that "are often better than could have been made by any single member of the group." Naturally, this information was collected from a Wikipedia entry.

The "wisdom of crowds" approach has its problems, which I will discuss later. For now, though, I’d like to point out that the online encyclopedia in a plethora of languages is not the only project being run by the Wikimedia Foundation. The non-profit charitable organization’s collaborative projects include Wiktionary, Wikiquote, Wikibooks, Wikisource, Wikimedia Commons, Wikispecies, Wikinews, Wikiversity, and Meta-Wiki.

So what are all these projects doing? Wiktionary is "a collaborative project to product a free, multilingual dictionary" with all the useful stuff you’d expect from a dictionary including etymologies, sample quotation, pronunciations and more. At the time of this writing it has more than 300,000 entries in 389 languages. I tried a favorite sample word, "juggling," against Wiktionary and my favorite online dictionary. The latter did a much better job of defining the term, both in terms of accuracy and completeness of the definition. It was kind of interesting to see that Wiktionary included an animation of a stick figure juggling, and, more importantly, a link to the Wikipedia article about juggling, which allows the user to explore the subject more deeply.

Wikibooks has the mission of creating a free collection of open-content textbooks that anyone can edit. It looks like an easy place to kill a lot of time, as the books cover a wide range of subjects, including the sciences and humanities. More practical areas are also covered, such as automobile maintenance. There is a guide for teachers who want to use wikibooks in class, and a selection of "good books" that the site says "met a minimum standard of criteria, and can be used as models for future books." As with other Wikimedia projects, at least some of the books/articles on Wikibooks refer back to Wikipedia articles.

Wikinews seems to be a huge experiment in citizen journalism. A look at the front page reveals a number of articles with topics covered elsewhere in the conventional media, as well as a number of mildly interesting items that hardly anyone has picked up yet. At least some of the writers are writing like serious reporters.

Wikiversity describes itself as "a community for the creation and use of free learning materials and activities." It boasts a series of portals that cover topics you would expect to study in a university, such as humanities, physical sciences, life sciences, etc. Each portal not only has a list of resources developed by volunteers, but a list of tasks that need doing, featured learning activities, and more.

One observer commented about these projects that "as more people rally around them they’ll undoubtedly become highly valuable resources, just like the Wikipedia itself." That’s certainly possible, at least for those looking for something new or a starting point for information.

Danny Sullivan takes it further; he seems to think that the search engines should emulate Wikipedia. "With search engines sending Wikipedia so much traffic, you’d think they’d consider doing even more to add direct answers or encyclopedia entries right in their results. They’ve done much more of this over the years. But clearly people want even more reference material, and Wikipedia seems to be getting the bulk of that traffic. That’s not so bad – Wikipedia has plenty of great resources. But as many feel Wikipedia turns up in practically every search result on Google, it suggests that perhaps tighter and more official integration into results might be helpful to searchers."

In fact, Wikipedia has been at the center of some search engine ideas itself. With permission from the Wikimedia Foundation, start up company SearchMe created WikiSeek, a search engine that indexes only Wikipedia sites, plus sites that are linked to from Wikipedia. Ideally, this should reduce the amount of spam that shows up in search results.

There’s also Wikia Search, formerly Wikisauri. This is a project sponsored by Wikia, a for-profit business corporation founded by Jimmy Wales, the same person who founded Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation. It is said to rely on people to deliver reliable search results instead of spam. It will use freely editable open source software to make it work.

These two search engines are trying to compete with Google. Looking at both of them in the early stages, it seems unlikely that either of them will succeed. Nevertheless, there are certain implications that anyone who has a product or service online should take from Wikipedia entries ranking highly in Google. You should be aware of what, if anything, the user-edited online encyclopedia is saying about your company.

This point was driven home recently by David Wilson in his Social Media Optimization blog. "If your brand is on Wikipedia, then you should be checking it on a regular basis to see whether the information presented there is correct. Checking your Wikipedia entry once is not enough as the site is constantly being updated…Wikipedia doesn’t impact just brands. It impacts market segments. Just as Internet users perceive that the top listings on Google are the top brands, users also perceive that the sites listed in Wikipedia for a search are the best and most relevant companies."

Wikipedia’s rise to the top of the SERPs can be explained in part by its institution of using the nofollow tag for all external links. This means that its pages don’t pass rank to outside sites. However, it gets valuable backlinks from everywhere, all over the web. Since Google’s algorithm is known to weigh links heavily to judge a site’s relevance, Wikipedia entries are likely to be considered highly relevant by Google on the weight of links alone.

Wikipedia does very well on the other factors that Google considers. It has a huge amount of content, and that content is being updated almost constantly by tens of thousands of volunteers. If you think about it, there’s almost no way it couldn’t do well.

That doesn’t mean it actually deserves to be at the top of Google for everything. The fact of the matter is that crowds aren’t experts. For every Wikipedia entry that hits the top of Google, you’re seeing non-expert information privileged above quite possibly superior information from experts.

Wikipedia’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Anybody can edit it, but that truly does mean anybody. It has always had a problem with spammers and others putting in inappropriate content or vandalizing entries. At least one college history department has quite rightly forbidden its students to cite Wikipedia as a source on papers.

It’s disturbing to think that a source known to be inaccurate in many areas consistently reaches the top of Google’s results. But it’s clear that Wikipedia has somehow hit on Google’s magic formula for reaching the top of the SERPs. We can learn from this, apply the knowledge to our own sites – and make sure what appears about our companies, products and services in Wikipedia reflects the truth. 

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