The genesis for this post came from doing some significant keyword research for one of our partner’s clients with SEOmoz’ unbelievably powerful Open Site Explorer. Doing keyword research for relative links came back with significant (and troubling) results. Wikipedia is at the top, over and over again. This is a problem.
Don’t get me wrong, open source products can be really, really good, useful, and beneficial. Anyone who has ever used WordPress’ content management system for websites realizes this is true. There is no end to the writers who talk about folks, highly technical and creative, who want to have an opportunity to get in on a creative concept even though they won’t receive a dime in payment. This is true in technology. But is it true in compiling content?
When it comes to content and “authority”, everyone is can be an expert at Wikipedia.
If you can’t read what I’ve circled above in the screenshot from the English version of Wikipedia, it says “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit”. In concept (and in an ideal world), this is a great thing. It screams democracy and equal access. However, in practice, and especially when Google determines that it will promote Wikipedia to the top of search results again and again, this is dangerous.
But Isn’t Everyone an Expert?
The underlying premise at Wikipedia makes the assumption that through open dialogue and participatory engagement, good information will float to the top. Here’s a quote from their about page:
“Wikipedia is written collaboratively by largely anonymous Internet volunteers who write without pay. Anyone with Internet access can write and make changes to Wikipedia articles (except incertain cases where editing is restricted to prevent disruption or vandalism). Users can contribute anonymously, under a pseudonym, or with their real identity, if they choose.”
The problem is simple and succinct: everyone is not an expert and real experts do not have the time (always) to moderate Wikipedia pages.
Rand Fishkin over at SEOMoz says that we should approach the machine to fix it from the inside. I don’t think that I’m in a position to disagree with him (at least outright or until I lose more hair). He challenged his readers to write internally on Wikipedia pages. “Wikipedia articles, due to their phenomenal overrepresentation in search engines, can drive a remarkable amount of traffic, so many wiki-hacks are simply attempts to boost click-throughs.”
I think he would agree with my assessment that the wiki phenomena falls down hard in the area of trustworthy content.
Nonprofit Business Model Failure
The Wikipedia idea is based on ideals that crumble when anonymous posters, unscrupulous additions, and/or faulty content is uploaded to the site. I repeat, not everyone is an expert; not all knowledge is best amalgamated through a participatory process; not everyone participates for good. It takes a lifetime to become the authority on a subject. These experts work for a living and expect payment. That’s been the history of authoritative information since the beginning of the world.
Here’s an example to illustrate this point better: when you get sick, you visit the doctor. The healthcare provider that you visit has invested uber-high amounts of money into his or her education so that he or she can specialize in medicine. In the United States, we regulate these professionals because of the risks associated with poor practitioners (not to mention the soaring malpractice insurance rates that they have to pay because of masses of affected parties who feel as though the “authority” should not have erred).
Now apply the Wikipedia concept to the medical profession, which relies on exact information and deep learning. Would you go to a doctor that learned how to heal because he has been involved in many, many online chat discussions on the topic? Would you place your triple heart bypass surgery into the hands of an intern who blogs about heart health? What about the guy who blows smoke all over your body and chants to your good health? Do you trust his expertise?
Authority and Credibility. Google Search Results Misrepresent What a Wiki Actually is.
Now, here’s the problem with Google ranking Wikipedia so very high in search results: it builds their credibility and authority to be MORE THAN what they actually are: a community conversation. That isn’t meant to denigrate all of the useful information and posts that people “give” to Wikipedia along with the financial support, but it’s meant to explain what they are.
Despite the 6 people or so who refuse to swallow the cool aide (such as Paul Venezia “Should you Trust Google?”), most people fully trust Google. So, when Google tells you that the highest results for heart disease are on Wikipedia and not the American Heart Association, there is a problem (as of the writing of this post, Wikipedia ranks 7th in results for the term “heart disease”). Who’s the authority?
If I had my say, I’d ask Google to take a look at how high they rank Wikipedia in search results. They may be unwittingly perpetuating a misrepresentation…
…or not unwittingly. (Shhh).