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February 19, 2007

The Lisa’s Problem With Wikipedia Explained

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It’s fair to say that I’ve done some mild Wikipedia bashing lately. I may have even referred to it as "devil spawn Wikipedia" on more than one occasion. And because our loyal readers like to keep us/me in check (please don’t ever stop that), it’s possible I may have received an email or comment or two suggesting that perhaps I need to adopt a puppy, enjoy a good cup coffee and generally just lighten up. They assure me that Wikipedia is not as evil as I make it out to be and perhaps I’m being just a bit, as David Temple would say, whiny. [You are. --Susan] Please take this in the nicest possible way — I hate you.

Personally, I think you’re all wrong and you’ve been brainwashed by some Wikipedia government employee (oh yeah, they’re out there) who waved a flashing Wikipedia-is-pretty light in front of your face and took away your ability to reason. But in case I’m mistaken (which is totally different from being wrong), here are my three biggest problems with Wikipedia. You tell me if I’m just being moody. [You are. --Susan] — I’m keying your car tonight. Just a warning.

Complaint #1: It puts non-expert information at the top of the search engine’s results page.

This bothers me tremendously. As a searcher and as a member of the search engine optimization community, it irks me when non-expert sites achieve rankings they don’t deserve. I would never label Wikipedia as spamming, but pretend Wikipedia was Joe’s Encyclopedia and it ranked for every single-word query imaginable, despite that the information being less than expert and often misleading. Would people second guess those rankings? If the same information was showing up under someone else’s label, would users be suspicious about the information they’re receiving? I don’t know the answer, but I’m curious.

The search engines are supposed to reward authoritative, expert content. Wikipedia is not a subject matter expert. On anything. It’s an open ended encyclopedia where anyone can contribute to make the article on a given topic "better" and "more accurate". The best and worst thing about Wikipedia has always been that anyone can edit any entry. That fact may make it a fun project idea but it doesn’t lend itself to promoting quality information. If Stephen Colbert decides he’s an expert on elephants, then he’s an expert on elephants. We don’t even know for sure if Stephen Colbert can spell elephant.

There may be a high quantify of frequently updated information on the Wikipedia site, but the quality is equal to a middle school book report. Wikipedia is not the Encylopaedia Britannica.

Complaint #2: Wikipedia pushes expert information farther down the SERP.

By ranking first for everything under the sun, it pushes down information that actually is authoritative and worthy of rankings, thereby "hiding" expert information. Being a part of the search engine optimization population, I spend a good part of my day watching and reading about my colleagues’ experiences working tirelessly to help sites improve their rankings. I read about their exhaustive efforts to help them author excellent content, create stronger site theme, identify effective keywords and generally going through the tiring and laborious process that is search engine optimization. I see the quality of sites they create and it’s like nails on a chalkboard when I do a search and see the annoying Wikipedia page ranking in the number one position. This is even more infuriating when I actually read through the Wiki entry and realize the information is rubbish. All of it.

We’ve heard time and time again that the search engines reward expert content. That to get high rankings you have to establish yourself as a subject matter expert. That the search engines’ main goal is to provide users with the most relevant and authoritative information possible for any given topic. If that’s true, why does Wikipedia rank so well? Wikipedia does not fit into this description. There’s a difference between a lot of information and quality information.

Complaint #3: There’s a reason Wikipedia ranks so well in Google. Something fishy is going on!

I don’t for the life of me know what it is, but there’s got to be something there. I want to know what makes Wikipedia rank so well and why 40-50 percent of newly created Wikipedia pages appear in Google’s index with 100 hours of being created. Does Google index your site that fast? I doubt it.

Late last week, comScore reported Google’s Traffic to Wikipedia up 166 percent Year Over Year. Call me paranoid, but that’s worth noting and looking to it, especially when you consider it’s more traffic than it sends to its own Google Images property and to MySpace. Google and Wikipedia both claim there’s no incestual relationship, and maybe there’s not, but it sure looks funny. An explanation would be beneficial.

Why does Wikipedia rank so well? Is it because of the depth of content and the frequency of updates? LIkely. But to me all that is outweighed by the lack of quality of the content. There are plenty of blog spam rings that update continuously with scraped content. They don’t receive number one Google rankings because they’re quality is…not good. Same applies to Wikipedia..

The truth is, I might be more inclined to trust Wikipedia if its results weren’t constantly being thrown in my face. I’d trust that Wikipedia was an expert on cats, if they weren’t also an expert on love, bowling, SEO, rain, blogs and staplers. And by Google’s insistence that they are, it makes me second guess their search results. And I don’t want to have to do that. I’ve always trusted Google to lead me to the correct information; I’d rather not have to change that.

So those are my reasons for not trust Wikipedia? Am I whiny and being bitter? You tell me. [You are. And here's why: Wikipedia is a first stop information source. No, you shouldn't trust Wikipedia for your paper that's going to be half your grade but Wikipedia's guidelines indicate that you have to cite sources which means that you can track down the primary source and decide if it is credible. Wikipedia ranks because they have a) more content than God b) more links than Buddha and c) more frequent updates than Xenu. It hits all the Golden Points of the Google's algo. The way to take down Wikipedia is for expert sites to stop citing Wikipedia. Honestly, the Web has no one to blame but itself. --Susan]

I thought it was Google’s job to track down the primary source of information as a way to provide searchers with the most expert information?

But I’m sorry, I should have been more clear. When I asked for insight, I was asking everyone not named Susan Esparza. I already know her opinion. On everything. She makes sure of that.





25 responses to “The Lisa’s Problem With Wikipedia Explained”

  1. Nathania Johnson writes:

    All I can say is – my sentiments exactly!

  2. graywolf writes:

    I’m with Lisa any information source that says we don’t care about the truth as long as it’s citeable is built on house of cards.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WP:V
    Secondly the only reason people link to it is because all the good information on other encyclopic sites is behind the paid wall. People want to link to something that’s open and free. For example
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephant
    compared with
    http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9032357/elephant
    I’d be willing to bet that the information on Britannica is more accurate since an editor actually read and approved it not some random passerby behind a proxy who happened to read how to game wikipedia
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Daniel_Quinlan/gaming
    sorry for all the link drops

  3. jlewin writes:

    These are good points, especially #3, which nobody seems to talk about.

    Wikipedia’s problems wouldn’t be important if Google’s search algorithms did a better job of indexing. Your characterization of Wikipedia as a huge school book report is spot-on, yet the site dominates Google’s search results.

    Over the last several years, blogs and Wikipedia have largely taken over Google search results. This has allowed a lot of great news sources to emerge, but has also allowed search results to be dominated by garbage. A secondary result is that pro or semi-pro blogs that tend to have AdSense on them get a lot of the top search results.

    Another important issue that gets missed is the failure of Brittanica and others to adjust to the Web. There’s no doubt that Brittanica could be at the top of the search engines and becoming one of the most popular sites on the Web, if they provided free access to the site and leveraged the revenue to grow their trusted content quickly.

  4. Deepak writes:

    My experience suggests otherwise. In many cases (and I am being very domain specific here), I find information at Wikipedia, or go there, because the information tends to be a good overview of the field with references to additional details. In some cases, where I’ve found mistakes or where the situation has changed since the last article update, I’ve made a change myself. It shouldn’t come as a surprise at all if Wikipedia goes up the rankings. If it shows up on a page, I tend to click on it first.
    The fact remains that anyone reasonably intelligent can and should use Wikipedia.

  5. Matt McGee writes:

    I’m neither a WikiHater or a WikiFan. My little U2 site is still beating the Wikipedia entry in the SERPs, so as long as that continues, I’ll sit on the fence. :-)

    However, let’s not pretend that print encyclopedias are the standard bearers for accuracy:

    ArsTechnica: Experts rate Wikipedia’s accuracy higher than non-experts
    http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20061127-8296.html

    (Again with the U2 example – I’ve heard countless people complain about the U2 entry in Wikipedia, but the expert in me knows that it’s mostly accurate.)

    Nature: Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries
    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v438/n7070/full/438900a.html

    “The exercise revealed numerous errors in both encyclopaedias, but among 42 entries tested, the difference in accuracy was not particularly great: the average science entry in Wikipedia contained around four inaccuracies; Britannica, about three.”

  6. Anonymous writes:

    “any information source that says we don’t care about the truth as long as it’s citeable is built on house of cards.”
    if accurate and inaccurate statements can be sited , what makes a statement unciteable?
    an encyclopedia is suppose to serve as an index. editors who work for britannica are just editors. they are not PHDs in 60 different subjects.the fact that their site is so tragically inaccurate and outdated when it comes to history is evidence of this (look at their world war 1 section or cold war and compare this with scholarly sources since the 1960s)
    the fact that other sites have expert information that does not match what wikipedia posts is insignficiant. its an index and its suppose to include general basic information instead of arguing some point of view. if you want critical assessments, or information that accounts for various points of view than go read a scholarly journal and stop complaining that an encyclopedia does not do it for you. thats like dismissing dictionaries because they do not include stories and folklore
    people refer to the site because its like a dictionary or an index. its just naturally going to be referred to more times than a site that only addressess specific issues or particular points of view.
    complaining that the site does not provide expert information seems stupid. anyone seeking expert information is going to look it up in a library or scholarly journal thats online. no one is going to google information when writing a book or essay on politics, history,etc.
    the problem is not the site, the problem is you are looking for something in the wrong place.
    expecting an index to provides general information and than to account for various points of views seems unreasonable. thats like expecting a dictionary to provide an example of every possible way a certain word has been prenounced in every dialect of a certain language. …
    both of you agree, but neither of you can show any information about britannica editors being any different from those who work wikipedia…maybe because in some cases its been the same people… :)

  7. Susan Esparza writes:

    My poor car! Don’t you dare!

    Here’s my take on Wikipedia. The SEM community hates it because it’s outranking them for everything and that makes them cranky. But everyone else (that is, normal humans) loves Wikipedia. It’s a quick source of information on nearly everything. You don’t have to be niche to be good at something and Wikipedia does a brilliant job of being theme relevant without physical siloing. As an aggregator of information, Wikipedia does exactly what it is supposed to do.

    Dear nameless commenter, I love you.

  8. Darren writes:

    First off, I think points #1 and #2 are essentially the same, or two ways of saying the same thing, so I’d merge them.
    I think Susan makes a good point about SEM folks vs. normal humans. I also think that the way to improve Wikipedia is to participate in writing and editing the articles. That’s what I do, on occasion, and it’s a joy to watch an article I’ve started grow and become more thorough, more authoratative and more complete.

  9. Ed Kohler writes:

    That’s an interesting argument. I don’t agree with all of the assumptions. For example, the quality of Wikipedia articles is not dependent on non-expert’s opinions. If Stephen Colbert was to edit the elephant page, I’m sure a true elephant expert would roll back the edits (assuming they were poor edits) in no time at all. In fact, that page on wikipedia is edited a few times a day.

    The bumping expert opinions assumption overlooks the external links and citations found in Wikipedia entries.

    And thinking there’s a conspiracy behind Wikipedia’s rankings doesn’t need to be addressed.

  10. Expert writes:

    Oh yeah, like the experts’ clear explanations would be ranking #1 were it not for Wikipedia.

    Wake up.

    For a start, most experts couldn’t explain their way out of a paper bag. Secondly Google can’t tell the difference between a clear explanation and a hopelessly convoluted piece of ‘expert-certified’ obfuscation. Wikipedia ranks well because so many people find it useful on so many topics, and they link to it.

  11. Dave Donohue writes:

    Susan,

    In theory, I think that the way to improve Wikipedia is through participation, both in editing the articles (for personal interests) and by participating in discussions (as I work in PR, my POV is necessarily subjective, so I don’t edit clients’ material).

    However, what drives me nuts is when what I know to be true clashes with what is believed by consensus to be true – and that’s when Wikipedia entries become innacurate.

    I’ve edited another band’s Wikipedia article extensively, only to see time and time again rumor win out over fact time and time again. I’m not as placid about it as the U2 admin above :)

    BTW, great post. I knew Wikipedia articles eventually went straight to the top of Google’s results. What I didn’t know was how quickly.

  12. Susan Esparza writes:

    Dave,
    Thanks for the comment! I don’t disagree that there are times when the democratically-voted version of the truth and the actual truth don’t see eye-to-eye in the Wikipedia, however, that seems to be a minority of topics. By and large, the information tends to be within shouting distance of the correct answer.
    It seems to me that the point is not whether or not Wikipedia is perfect but whether or not it is a good result for a query. Search engine optimization is about creating a website that will be perceived by the search engines to be the most likely to satisfy a searcher’s need or solve their problem. Wikipedia more often than not does just that. It seems to me that SEMs should be learning from Wikipedia, not bashing it.
    Though I’m sure that Lisa will be along shortly to tell me how very wrong I am. She loves doing that.

  13. Halfdeck writes:

    “any information source that says we don’t care about the truth as long as it’s citeable is built on house of cards.”

    There is no “truth” to begin with, so no, they’re just being realistic.

  14. Anonymous writes:

    You know, I was almost going along with you until you mentioned “brainwashing by goverment employees”. Yeah… I didn’t go along with it at all, really. Just like every other SEO out there, you’re annoyed that a site you don’t have complete control over is ranked higher than the sites that you are trying to spam up the rankings for your keywords of choice. That’s not a problem with Google’s ranking algorithm. That is Google’s ranking algorithm working correctly.

  15. Andy writes:

    The influence of the Colbert Report on specific Wikipedia articles is a feature of the post on the Compete.com blog. The post shows the amount of traffic driven to those article pages after Stephen Colbert mentions them in his shows. Definitely some “non-expert” information in those Wikipedia posts. Check it out… http://blog.compete.com/2007/02/16/colbert-report-wikipedia/

  16. David Temple writes:

    No, you are not being whiny (this time). I like the fact that you’re not drinking the Wikipedia Koolaid and wrote what you really think. Now run, because Jimmy and his boys are coming after you. I’m curious why you don’t think Wikipedia’s information on cats, love, bowling, SEO, rain, blogs and staplers isn’t meeting your needs. Anything we shoud know about?

  17. Schuyler Haussmann writes:

    I’m just a normal human (who knows nothing of SEO). I use google
    1/ for professional use to find info on companies or industry that I am working on,
    2/ for personal use to find info on subjects that interest me.

    In both instances, I find out that google often returns a wikipedia link first and that what I find in the wikipedia link is not relevant enough.

    To me, that simply means that, in the presence of wikipedia, google no longer does the job it is supposed to do.
    Google’s algorithm has reached its level of incompetence.
    It cannot work in cases where everyone links to a site just because it is conventional wisdom that it’s the best, while it is not actually the best.

  18. Mary Kay Lofurno writes:

    I think the 1st reason posted is the most pressing & biggest issue. Google’s mantra is to provide the best, most accurate information on a topic for its users. Wikipedia does not do this…period, by the vary nature of the medium, it is not verified.

  19. Walter Earley writes:

    For the life of ME, I can’t figure out why this Wikipedia problem can’t be solved. It seems to me that 99% or more of the content of Wikipedia is good and useful information. The method of information which has produced such content is such a short period of time is great, but has problems.
    Why is it not possible for responsible groups to derive a “Reliablepedia” from all of the articles in the Wikipedia which are not contested, and then update their “Reliablepedia” based upon uncontested updates to the basic Wikipedia. One could imagine a “Respinsiblepedia” derived from a conservative organization, another produced by a collaboration of news organizations, and another perhaps with a more liberal slant.

  20. webmama writes:

    Gossip and Rumour – those are the two reasons Wikipedia is not a good resource for primarily three subject matters (and many others I expect): politics, social concerns and corporations. I will address the third.

    As a Search Engine Marketer responsible for the online reputation, in search results, of large public companies, I care about what content is in the wikipedia article on that company. Much of the content for corporations is excellent but for every disenfranchised employee or stockholder this is THE place to post. Currently, there is very inaccurate and damaging material in brand name results. Attempts to remove it are reversed. Legal action is very difficult.

    Now, should Wikipedia results be dominant for less controversial subjects in search results on Google and Yahoo (yes Yahoo has jumped on the bandwagon)? I don’t think so, if only because it becomes tedious and over time will be ignored. Remember when Amazon showed up in every organic result? Google changed that. Wikipedia will lose the #1 spot in the limelight soon enough but don’t expect it to go away, there is some awesome research information there. Time to go edit a Wikipedia page…

  21. Ben Pfeiffer writes:

    I agree, I couldn’t have said it better! I don’t think its an issue of SEO’s getting annoyed at looking at Wikipedia results we have no control over, its the persistent misinformation we are continually confronting on a day to day basis in search results about brands, history, and people we know. It would annoy anyone.

  22. fionnd writes:

    Wikpedia ranks high because of links and of course content. I agree that the content is hihgly suspect. I am sure there are some great well crafted accurate articles in wikipedia but my own personal experience with two of clients meams I do not trust it all. One of my clients competitors created an article then added information to it that was less than complimentary about the client. Every time the client tried to edit the information it was removed. Finally, after a year of wasting time on it the article was removed by wikipedia but only after multiple complaints and a threat of legal action. Until that article was removed the derogatory article was #2 for the clients name. How can a source so easily manipulated be a good thing?

  23. Joe Szilagyi writes:

    To echo what others have said, it’s the massive number of inbound links and aggressive cross-linking, between the various national Wikis, that makes them so hot on the results pages for SEO. But the information is painfully easy to manipulate, as we’ve often seen.

  24. Anonymous writes:

    The Wikipedia is great except for the fact that anyone can get a group of people together to control a page, and use it to give them top Google PageRank by adding links to their website. The links are added as references to information, etc. Having these links are very powerful. And when a competitor tries to be added to the page, the group working together removes all references and tells a good story why other links are not relevant.
    It is totally wrong. The Wikipedia should not allow any links to external sites. All links should be to other Wikipedia pages.
    No Exceptions.

  25. Charlie Jones writes:

    Wikipedia is not great, good, or even acceptable. It is a joke, and a poison to the internet. It seeps into the search results, and regularly dominates the top5 results of a search. The worst part is that too often, an attempt to bypass wikipedia and look further down the results list is met with further wikipedia results… I cannot avoid it, and it causes me an untold number of lost hours of sifting the Wikipedia results, wikipedia scraper sites, etc.

    Wikipedia is a joke, and anyone who has spent any time editing knows that it is controlled by a handful of admins with vast amounts of power, while no form of real arbitration is available. Consensus in an edit war is reached by the person who is OCD enough to hover over their computer the longest.



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