What SEO Practitioners Can Learn from Wikipedia

Wikipedia seems to have a achieved a minor SEO miracle: its pages are often at the top of Google’s search engine results for a huge diversity of topics. How did they do it? More importantly, what techniques is Wikipedia using that you can use on your own website for effective SEO and website promotion?

Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia. It is still one of the leading online information resources, with over 77,300,000 indexed pages in Google. Wikipedia also earned more than 680 million visitors annually by April 2008, according to this source: http://news.softpedia.com/news/Wikipedia-Traffic-Mostly-from-Google-85703.shtml

Also, according to this study, 96.6% of Wikipedia’s pages are ranking on the first page of Google. What is great about Wikipedia is that it is community-generated content, and a non-profit website consisting of writers from all around the world. The massive traffic and page views provided by Google to Wikipedia are a success in terms of search engine optimization. So what can SEO practitioners learn from this success?

Wikipedia’s Onsite Factors

Let’s characterize how Wikipedia presents its content, outlines it, and thus implements the most common SEO onsite factors.

Keywords in Title tag — This is a little surprising. Wikipedia title tags can be either be extremely broad or extremely specific. For example, if you do a Google search for “guitar,” the top result is a Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guitar.

The title tag is “Guitar – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.” The total number of characters is around 41. This title is broad. On the other hand, if you do a search for “List of musicians who play left-handed,” Wikipedia again tops the search results, with this page:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_musicians_who_play_left-handed.

The title tag is a bit specific. Two things are worth observing. First, with the guitar page, a very broad title tag requires very broad content. For example, if you read the page, the content outline is further divided into:

1) History

2)Types

3) Acoustic guitars

4) Renaissance and Baroque Guitars

5) Classical Guitars

6) Extended-range classical guitars

7) Flamenco Guitars

The list is very long, and if you scroll down, you will see an enormous amount of content covering different guitar-related topics.

On the other hand, if you visit the second page, with the list of musicians who play left-handed, you will see that it is more focused and specifically about musicians who play guitar only with the left hand. A more specific title tag requires specific content. This page is obviously shorter than the original guitar page.

This lesson is common sense, but a lot of SEOs attempt to use a broader title tag to attract a much broader traffic base. The main problem with this approach is that the content is not detailed enough to justify the relevance they’re claiming for the page.

One effective technique worth observing is the use of “Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia” in all of the website’s title tags. For example: Fingerstyle guitar – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

This makes it very easy for Google to rank Wikipedia pages if the user wants to search for a Wiki entry for Fingerstyle guitar. For example, if the user types this entry in the Google search box: Fingerstyle guitar wiki, Google can instantly tell that Wikipedia’s entry is highly relevant.

Use of Internal Links – Wikipedia is a champion at using internal links. Try visiting any Wikipedia page, and you will observe that its content is interlinked heavily. There are three purposes for internal links in SEO:

  1. Increase relevance to other pages by means of interlinking related content.

  2. Improve and increase the visitor’s time on the website. Readers will often click on different internal links in an attempt to read more information.

  3. Improve the indexing of newer pages. The use of internal links can help search engine bots find new information on the site.

Wikipedia accomplishes the above three internal linking objectives. It is not yet certain how Wikipedia manages to maintain a powerful internal links structure, but two things are worth observing. First, the internal link’s anchor text will always contain an exact match for the target page’s title tag. For example, if you click on a link with the anchor text “Polycarbonate,” it will lead you to an exactly matching “Polycarbonate” page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polycarbonate. And the title tag is "Polycarbonate – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia."

Another example of this point uses much more specific anchor text in the internal links: “Plucked string instrument.” The target page will have the title tag "Plucked string instrument – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia." The anchor text will always have an exact match in the title tag.

The second point worth observing is that the primary reason for having an exact match in the anchor text in the title tag is to optimize content relevance. Search engines evaluate the anchor text, and will examine the target content. If title tag, anchor text and content are well aligned, the the page will earn the maximum relevance score. This leads to easier ranking on the Google search engine results pages,  especially with the long tail aspect.

Effective content structure using Header tags – Wikipedia effectively uses header tags in arranging broad topics with broad title tags. Looking back to the Wikipedia guitar page mentioned previously, those topics are emphasized using H3 tags. More specifically, Wikipedia organizes its content as follows (this example is the headers from top to bottom of the guitar page):

Title tag: Guitar – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
–H1 tag: Guitar
–H2 tag: History
–H2 tag: Types
———-H3 tag: Acoustic guitar
———-H4 tag: Renaissance and Baroque guitars
———-H4 tag: Flamenco guitars
–H2 tag: Tuning
–H2 tag: Guitar Accessories
———-H3 tag: Capotasto
———-H3 tag: Slides
———-H3 tag: Plectrum

The H1 tag contains an exact match in the title tag. The H2 tags are the important topics, while the H3 tags are the sub-topics of important topics. H4 tags are subset topics of the H3 tags.

The above outline applies to much broader content. For much more specific content, H3 or H4 tags may not be necessary. In the page that gives a list of musicians who play left-handed, there is no active use of H4 in grouping the content.

Substantial and Original Content – Wikipedia requires its contributors to write only original content and disallows copying of content from other websites. The average Wikipedia article is very long. For a very broad topic, such as the guitar page example, it contains around 9500 words, excluding the footnotes.

For very specific content, such as this page, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Center_for_Biotechnology_Information, which talks only about the “National Center for Biotechnology Information,” a Wikipedia page might contain around 500 words.

The rate at which Wikipedia adds content is almost impossible to believe. Wikipedia itself reports (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Wikipedia_is_being_flooded) that it sees 18,222 new articles added each day! This explains why it is such a massive website, with lots of long tail traffic. Currently in 2011, the English Wikipedia has around 3,640,000 articles. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Wikipedia

Using relevant content snippets for best search engine clickthrough — Wikipedia does not use meta description tags, or even the meta keyword tag. Instead, it relies on its substantial content to let the search engines decide what relevant snippets are to be shown in Google’s search engine results.

Providing more importance on the accuracy of content — Wikipedia has been criticized for the accuracy of its content. Currently, in an effort to improve content accuracy, it will remove articles that fail to add citations to trusted resources.

Natural links are not a problem for Wikipedia at all. The following are the important offsite/marketing lessons that can be learned:

First, there is a big advantage to earning lots of long tail traffic, because substantial and quality content are naturally given links, and these links are often "editorial links." Some Wikipedia pages have existed for more than three years, and have earned a lot of natural links.

Let’s look at an example. Suppose you are interested in examining the link profile of this page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Health_effects_of_tea. It ranks number 1 in Google for “Health effects of tea.” When you check the backlink using Yahoo site explorer here:

http://siteexplorer.search.yahoo.com/search?p=en.wikipedia.org%2Fwiki%2FHealth_effects_of_tea&bwm=i&bwmo=d

You see that there are 194 backlinks from domains other than Wikipedia’s. These links, when you check on them, are freely given by readers of that article in Wikipedia.

Second, Wikipedia has grown so rapidly in popularity because of its “free” concept. Knowledge is power, and everyone that is willing to be powerful simply by possessing the right knowledge, does not have to spend a dime. So they read any topics in which they are interested in Wikipedia, and start to gain more knowledge. This is why most of the successful website projects ever released focus on the “free” and “open source” concept.

Facebook is free to use, and allows users to share photos and interact socially. Google is free, and allows users to search for information very easily. The same thing is true with other big successes online, such as YouTube, Yahoo Mail and other content-based websites.

So one great tip is to offer something of value and quality for “free.” If you use this method, instead of letting users pay for your content or services, you will find that it is easier to build popularity with a large audience. 

Third, Wikipedia takes the risk of granting more control to its publicly anonymous users. Any user can write content, and they might increase the risk of spam — an issue with which Wikipedia has had to deal  over the years, and still works on today. Yet this risk has a lot of benefits. Granting more control to those anonymous users attracts more users to the site, who write their own Wikipedia contributions. They feel much accomplished at the end of the day by having a Wikipedia contribution. Additionally, some of these writers are proud of their achievement, and start to link to the entry from their own blogs, or share via word of mouth (or on a social network such as Facebook). 

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