Just How Powerful Is Wikipedia?

Josh Catone

According to comScore Wikipedia is the 9th most popular site on the web. Quantcast has them in the 8 spot. So does Alexa, and Compete has them coming in at number 10. They’re the second most downloaded search engine addon for Firefox (after IMDB), and Google Trends shows that Wikipedia has a higher search volume than even perennial web search favorite, Paris Hilton. Clearly, Wikipedia is popular. But just how much control does it have over public perception?

In the information saturated age we live in, the place we first turn for answers to most questions is no longer the library or dead tree encyclopedia: for many (most?) of us, it is now the Internet. And the place that over 70% of us try first for answers is Google. Just how often is Google sending us to Wikipedia to get those answers?

I read on Slashdot the other day, that shortly before US presidential hopeful Senator John McCain (R-AZ) announced Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, someone — presumably from the campaign — went to work on editing her Wikipedia page. The same thing apparently happened to Democratic Vice Presidential choice Senator Joe Biden’s (D-DE) Wikipedia page as well.

Is having a clean, accurate, or positive Wikipedia entry really that important? Well, with 70% of the US using Google (and that number is similarly high is many countries around the world) to find information, it would definitely be important if Google was very often sending us to Wikipedia. So I decided to look into it.

My friend Kelli Shaver whipped up a PHP script to check a list of search terms in Google to see if a Wikipedia link appeared on the first page of results. We ran the Long Top 1000 list from Wordtracker through the script first. The Long Top 1000 list contains the top thousand most searched for keywords over the past 130 days taken from a database of about 300 million searches. Unfortunately, the list has a ton of adult-related search terms, and Wordtracker’s “remove offensive content” filter is more or less useless.

Even so, we found that an amazing 50.2% of the top 1000 searches had a Wikipedia result on the first page. (That’s 502 out of 1000 for the math challenged.) We theorized that many of the “no” results likely came from the large number of porn terms on the list, and a cleaner list of family friendly terms might favor Wikipedia even more.

Next we ran the Lycos Top 50 terms through our script. The results were even more staggering. From the Lycos list, just a single search term didn’t have a Wikipedia link in the top 10 results (the first page). The lone hold out? “Dragonaball” … and we’re pretty sure that was a typo on Lycos’ part and should have been “Dragonball” — for which Wikipedia appears in the #2 spot on a Google query.

So for the top 50 search terms, Google thinks Wikipedia is authoritative on every single one of them. For the top 1000 searches, Google sends us to Wikipedia 50% of the time — and possibly more if you discount all the searches for adult content.

What does this mean? It means that Wikipedia is one of the most powerful sites on the web in terms of shaping public perception. Because Google favors it so heavily, the entries on Wikipedia have become supremely important and relevant. It also means that a link from Wikipedia might be worth its weight in gold.