Wikipedia's Symbiotic Relationship With Search

If Google's arrival was marked by its acceptance as a verb, then Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, cannot be far behind. I can recall three occasions in recent weeks where someone asked, "Did you Wikipedia that?"

Further signaling this non-profit's onset, I contributed to a Hitwise report released last week which found that the weekly market share of U.S. visits to Wikipedia grew over 600 percent since the beginning of 2004, making it the second most visited reference Web site. That means Wikipedia now is more popular than destinations like Microsoft's Encarta and The New York Times Company's About.com. While it's inappropriate to make absolute comparisons to those sites, it is safe to say that Wikipedia has achieved critical mass. Wikipedia has harnessed the collective power of grassroots enthusiasm and volunteer experts across hundreds of thousands of subjects, and organized them within one portal.

Wikipedia: The Ultimate Search Magnet
The Hitwise report revealed something else intriguing: With nearly 600,000 "living" articles to date, Wikipedia's orderly collection of consumer-created content is becoming a high-powered magnet for Internet searches. A ranking of all Web sites based on the total volume of traffic received directly from search engines placed Wikipedia at 146 in June 2004. But in September 2004 it jumped in the ranking to 93; 71 in December 2004; and in March 2005, it was the 33rd most popular site in terms of visits received from search engines.

That means Wikipedia is impacting not only the trivial results of our Internet searches, but increasingly what content we consume and the types of answers we find to larger questions. This is a profound statement for anyone competing in the marketplace for attention to content and ideas.

What's the underlying force driving diverse content into Wikipedia's structured realm? Judith Meskill, a visionary in online social networking and editorial director of Weblogs Inc., says, "Wikipedia captures the current state of humanity in real time, and anyone can contribute and be a publisher optimally within their area of expertise. It's for the people and by the people." Meskill suggests that Wikipedia will continue to grow organically; and if search engines are agnostic, then Wikipedia results will continue to rise like cream to the top.

Wikipedia's Impact on Publishers and Marketers
Should this open-source model proliferate, there could be tremendous consequences for conventional publishers of quality content, so many of whom rely on Internet search to drive audience acquisition, impressions, and advertising revenue. Wikipedia is already competing with all sorts of publishers - not just commercial reference sites - to capture consumers as they search online.

This phenomenon is especially noticeable during major news events such as the tsunami that struck last December. Dr. Michael Cornfield, senior research consultant to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, who specializes in online media, politics, and national discourse, said, "A Google search for tsunami would give you bits and pieces, but chances are you would come across Wikipedia's entry, and it would grow before your eyes in an organized manner. Nobody else can get that information to you in that depth or capacity, answering so many of the intellectual background questions that arise when news breaks."

The tsunami example is still relevant today: On the day I wrote this column, my own Google search for "tsunami" delivered Wikipedia's entry as the No. 6 natural result. On the same page, Google also delivered links to tsunami coverage by two venerable publishers (The New York Times and Newsweek), but they were on the right-hand column - present only because of paid search.

For marketers, Wikipedia can be an unpredictable variable capable of influencing customers and stakeholders. Consider not only its impact on brand search results, but also the impact of potentially inaccurate, unfair, or partisan content. Wikipedia and its contributors can be friends or foes.

Gary Stein, senior analyst at Jupiter Research, said, "Because of its open and communal nature, Wikipedia is perceived as both comprehensive and fair. So, when it shows up in a number of searches, high in the list of results, it is well-received."

Wikipedia, like many open-source online communities, has done a good job of self-policing itself against ulterior motives. Regardless, it would be irresponsible for any marketer to ignore it because people are adopting it.

Wikipedia A New Type of Search?
As Wikipedia's rich content finds its way into top-shelf results of major search engines, it's important to note that Wikipedia itself behaves somewhat like a search engine. It helps people find information not only through keyword queries and algorithmic results within its own network, but through internal and external links based on the input of passionate experts. That combination can result in functionality that conventional engines and directories often can't achieve. So wouldn't it make sense for the major search engines to cozy up to Wikipedia and its offspring? Presumably yes, and it has begun to occur.

At the least, this is evidenced by Google and Yahoo!'s charitable support of Wikipedia and its non-profit parent, the Wikimedia Foundation. On a superficial level, supporting the well-regarded non-profit can help bolster their corporate image - it's a good deed. But I would argue most corporate involvement has to do with acknowledging Wikipedia's potential. At its core, Wikipedia has learned to harness the enthusiasm of thousands of people to create one of the most content-rich and search-friendly portals. It also enhances the value of search by organizing vast knowledge that is otherwise unavailable or in chaos. Angela Beesley, executive secretary of the Wikimedia Foundation and co-founder of Wikicities.com, said simply, "Wikipedia makes sense for search engines because it makes them more useful."

Deepening their relationship, the Wikimedia Foundation and Yahoo! announced last month that Wikipedia content will become available through Yahoo! Search via shortcuts that are automatically displayed above the relevant search results. This is an interesting dichotomy. On one hand, the very for-profit Yahoo! will benefit from the runaway success of the rich and structured content of non-profit Wikipedia.

On the other hand, Wikimedia's access to vast networks of search engines and publishers like Yahoo! will help it fulfill its mission of "creating and distributing, worldwide, a free encyclopedia in as many languages as possible." This arrangement is not necessarily limited to Yahoo!, as all of Wikipedia's content is open and freely available to anyone under its GNU Free Documentation License. I'm sure many more relationships like this will develop, along with more sophisticated content feeds.

Wikipedia's Future
What will the landscape look like a few years from now? I asked Beesley, and she responded, "It's a grassroots, bottom-up process that will define the future of Wikimedia."

I admit I was expecting a bold, glossy, and more futuristic statement, but Beesley's humble reply parallels Wikipedia's spontaneity, anti-elitism, and dedication to democratizing knowledge. Perhaps that is precisely the reason it's so useful and attractive to so many. Regardless, Wikipedia is a fascinating experiment, one whose evolution will teach us many things. At the same time, its symbiotic relationship with search appears destined to intensify.

How do you think Wikipedia and other wikis will intersect with search, existing media, and our larger society? I'd love to hear your perspective.

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