Just How Powerful Is Wikipedia?

By Josh Catone
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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.

You can download the results from the Wordtracker Top 1000 test here.
You can download the results from the Lycos Top 50 test here.

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  • Nice experiment. I found that when I know about the topic I’m searching for and I can evaluate the quality of the results, I tend to type in detailed search strings and get exactly what I need. When I don’t know about the topic, I tend to trust wikipedia and if I don’t see wikipedia in the top 5 results, I change my string to include “wikipedia” :)

  • Anonymous

    It is not worth its weight in gold; it is “worthless” (except for direct clicks ofcourse); all external links use rel=”nofollow”..

  • It also means that a link from Wikipedia might be worth its weight in gold.

    Wikipedia put rel=”nofollow” on all their links to external sites though :/

  • I often rely on Google for searching within wikipedia rather than their own built in search and to garuntee a result I usuall type the search term followed by the word wiki. It is rare that most users need an absolutely and scientifically correct answer to want they want to know and in this respect Wikipedia excels. That Google sends so many people there, I am not surprised at all.

  • @Anonymous and Stormrider: passing Google PR isn’t the only thing that makes a link valuable…

  • Hi…

    Try the Wordtracker top 1000 list with the much stronger “remove dubious”.

    The “remove offensive filter” filters only the most obviously graphic terms. An important use-case for Wordtracker is niche finding. This makes us hesitant to filter very much by default.

    If you are doing something statistical or for public consumption (as here) you want to use the stronger filter. The filter does need an update though, as redtube still comes top :(.

    Any chance you could run it again? I’d love to know the percentage with full filtering on.

    yours, Marcus

  • @Anonymous and Stormrider:

    I have a niche website where for a long time before it was well established, the #1 source of traffic was a link from a related Wikipedia entry. Who cares about PR? The link helped to establish my website – that is real, measurable value.

    BTW – The website was jscompress.com, an online javascript code compression site.

  • I have noticed just from my own use that Google strongly favours Wikipedia. Beats me why. It seems to suggest that Wikipedia is a reliable source, which of course it isn’t.

  • simsim

    That’s apparently obvious to me as almost every search I do in Google for public concern keywords almost always yields a Wikipedia entry in the top 10 results.

  • FredBauder

    You say “So for the top 50 search terms, Google thinks Wikipedia is authoritative on every single one of them.” Google doesn’t think any such thing. It knows from spidering websites that there are more links to that Wikipedia article then to other sites regarding those search terms.

  • Has anyone noticed how Yahoo! Answers is showing up more for searches and seems to be competing (in some areas) with Wikipedia? With that said, I still think Wikipedia is very powerful in shaping public perception.

  • Lego

    The fact Wikipedia outranks sites written by Nobel prize winners, etc says it all, Google is useless, link power was fine a deacade ago, but everybody got wise to it a ling time ago and it is now pretty worthless, just like Google’s search results, still I am sure the sub-standard results increase the clickthrough rate for the ads, so no doubt google are happy…

  • soome nice articles here btw… by web design