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July 6, 2007

Finally, I get it! I get the Wikipedia!

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I’ve been pretty vocal about my criticism regarding Wikipedia in the past but Michael Motherwell’s post over at the Cre8ative Flow blog has me rethinking things. He offers an entirely new reason for why I haven’t taken to Wikipedia the way Wiki, Google and Matt Cutts would have hoped I would. [Oh this is gonna be good. I’m getting popcorn–Susan]

[stands up]

Hi, I’m Lisa, and I have a skewed notion of what an encyclopedia should be.

[sits down]

When I was little an encyclopedia was that really big book I used to purposely drop on my little brother’s foot. It was big and heavy and smelled funny (very much like my older brother, actually). It was filled with factual information I could trust, but because it was so cumbersome I never actually used it. It just sort of sat there, collecting more dust and odor. This to me is what an encyclopedia is supposed to be – a big useless fact-filled book that smells.

Fifteen years or so later (I am So. Old) along came Wikipedia. An online encyclopedia that is super accessible but isn’t entirely accurate. Instead of giving you everything you ever needed to know about a subject, it acts as a starting point for your research. If you’re looking for a biography for Bruce Clay, you’re not going to go Wikipedia and get mounds of information. Instead it will lead you to the real authoritative links. That is the strength of Wikipedia – its ability to serve as a link resource.

And if you think about it, maybe that’s what a modern encyclopedia is supposed to be. An article with citations to other works on the same topic, a resource.

Michael M. actually makes the argument that Wikipedia is more useful than an online encyclopedia because people actually use it. I think it’s the next few lines that really win me over:

"This, the links and resources, are the real gold of Wikipedia If one is older than about 8, an encyclopedia should never be the end of one’s research for anything but the most simple of questions. Wikipedia, unlike Britannica, sends you directly to sources that are authoritative and true experts on a specific subject, without any impediments or concerns."

(I can feel my SEO street cred leaving my body and Michael Gray disowning me as his SEO offspring.)

And we’re starting to see the concept of a modern encyclopedia develop as of late. Over at the Google Operating System blog, Ionut Alex Chitu links off to a new Greasemonkey script that ups Google’s Universal search offerings by replacing the ads on the right side with results from Image Search, Google Video, Wikipedia articles and Dictionary.com definitions. Essentially, it turns your search engine results page into an encyclopedia entry. With the search results acting as the authoritative links designed to lead you on your way to learning about a topic.

I’m scaring myself over here because maybe I’m starting to "get" Wikipedia. Or perhaps the Google brainwashing is finally starting to kick in. It must be the latter because I’m going to go ahead and pick on Michael Gray for a second.

Michael Gray had a post the other day regarding Wiki entitled Wikipedia I’m In Ur Index Rulin’ Ur Serpz. In the entry, Michael G. (not to be confused with the aforementioned Michael M.) alleges to have uncovered a Google bias when he noticed that Wikipedia ranks on the first page for nearly every single or double letter combination.

He’s right, they do. If you do a search for [cc], [gg] or [t], there is Wikipedia on the very first page. But what exactly does this prove? In these cases, I actually think Wikipedia is a pretty relevant answer. Especially considering these aren’t exactly competitive search terms. How many pages on your site do you have dedicated to the letter "T"? I don’t know about you, but we haven’t devoted much time to ranking for the letter ‘T’. We’ll let Wikipedia and its entry on the most commonly used consonant enjoy its third place Google ranking. It provides more information on that topic than we could ever hope to (or want to).

I think if you adapt your definition of what an online encyclopedia should be–a resource instead of a definitive answer–Wikipedia becomes far more tolerable and worthy of its rankings. As a child, you believe things because you’re told they’re true. You want to know what the capital of Finland is, you look up "Finland" in the smelly encyclopedia and it tells you its Helsinki. As an adult, you shouldn’t believe things just because someone tells you they’re true. You’re supposed to consult multiple sources. Wikipedia provides you with those sources.

I’m going to go hide from the rest of the search engine optimization community now.

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5 responses to “Finally, I get it! I get the Wikipedia!”

  1. graywolf writes:

    Correct no one is optimizing for single and most double letter combos, as well as practically any three digit number, however the wiki ranks for all of them. Why because with out any real anchor text data to go on the main factor google has to rank on is domain trust and authority, which the wiki has.

    Call me crazy but any reputable organization which says truth or accuracy isn’t important only being verifiable through and citation, has no cred in my book

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WP:V

    (sorry for the link drop)

    my encyclopedias smelled like my basement BTW

  2. Bob Weber writes:

    Verifiability is really the only test for truth or accuracy. None of us live in a vacuum, human knowledge is based on the work of others.

    I think the problem you, and many of us, have Lisa is that we were brought up with the concept that an encyclopedia is an infallable source of information. Any other credible resource (textbooks, essays, etc…) have citations and references included in them. This is what makes them credible – and is probably why our teachers told us we couldn’t use the encyclopedia as our only resource when we were eight.

    One other comment. How sad is it that a search for T doesn’t come up with any links to Mr. T? What else would you be searching for? Certainly not AT&T.

  3. Rhea Drysdale writes:

    Finally, she sees the light! Jk, nice post though.

    Thought I’d try to convince you even more though…

    Wikipedia has the potential to be more accurate than a traditional encyclopedia because it’s more timely. In the 6th grade I remember doing a report on China and using Britannica as my primary source of info. Unfortunately, I didn’t look up China in the revised books we got every year after the original subscription and a lot had happened since the three years prior. I got an A, but if I was the teacher I would have given me an F for not following up… what if I had grown up and sent a country to war over invisible WMDs because I was working off of out-dated or incorrect info?

    The point is, Wikipedia can document changes as they happen (given a motivated and informed editor), which returns more accurate information even if some of the details are wrong. Another fiery example… if I were to look up Ted Haggard in the encyclopedia he might still be the leader of the National Association of Evangelicals rather than a gay meth addict. On the other hand Wikipedia tells me about the scandal and even if a detail about how much meth he actually did is wrong, it’s much more timely than the encyclopedia, which could help sway where I choose to attend church when I move to the area.

    :)

  4. Stephanie writes:

    Wikipedia is fine for some lite information – reading up about a place, popular celebrity, or historical events – but it’s horrible when it comes to issues like health. I am disappointed that Google thinks that patients should consult a site that can be written/edited by anyone (aka marketers, people without medical training…) for their health information.

  5. Rhea Drysdale writes:

    Stephanie – That’s an interesting point…

    However, I doubt Google is encouraging anyone to take real healthcare advice or guidance from Wikipedia. I think this fits nicely into Lisa’s understanding that Wikipedia is just a portal to other sources of information, some qualified, some not. Do you have a specific example? I’d be interested in seeing if the results were really off or just a little. Knowing pharmaceutical companies though, I could see a whole team of spammers whose entire job is product placement or recommendation of aggressive treatments.



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