Recent research by the UK SEO company Intelligent Positioning has found that Wikipedia appears in the top page of results for 99% of searches, and at no.1 an enormous 56% of the time. Before we say “no sh*t, Sherlock, yet more research to tell us what we already know”, it’s worth looking into this in a little more detail and asking why.
Perhaps the surprising thing about these results is that researchers weren’t using traditional ‘encyclopedia’ phrases such as charles dickens or particle physics, where you might expect Wikipedia to perform well, but ordinary nouns picked at random from a dictionary, such as male, wand, woman and withdrawal (no kidding, those were four of the words used).
The question people usually ask when evidence like this is offered up is why does Google love Wikipedia so much? The answer to that lies at the heart of why Google produces relevant results. Historically Google wiped out its competitors because its founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin took advantage of what other search engines had ignored until then. This is the premise that you can tell how authoritative a research paper is by seeing how many citations it has in other research papers. With their PageRank algorithm they translated this into the web’s equivalent: how many links a web page has from other pages. It’s also one of the reasons why Google is so keen to develop a social network of its own in Google+ to get better data on what pages people are sharing in the social media age.
The reason Google loves Wikipedia so much is because we love Wikipedia so much. While we can’t do anything about what factors Google uses in its algorithm, as content owners and content sharers we can all do something, however little, to help influence results.
I often do the lazy thing myself when I want to link to a subject as reference, and just link to the subject page on Wikipedia. It’s the easy thing to do. We all know Wikipedia has flaws, but a Wikipedia page is usually reliable. What I should be doing is looking through the results in Google, reading a few pages and linking to the best one instead. If we all link to Wikipedia, and Wikipedia in turn links to 1000s of its own pages, even the ones that aren’t very good, then of course Google is going to see it as an authority.
There are things Google can do to improve its results. Last year it made the important Panda update to its index, which eliminated millions of content farms from its results overnight (sites with rubbish content linking to themselves). It needs to do something to sort the poor quality Wikipedia content from the really good stuff, but instead of complaining about how much big corporations harm the environment, we all need to do the little things which add up, such as cycling to work.