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Does Wikipedia Deserve to Dominate Search Rankings?

Stephen Logan

by Stephen Logan on 16th February 2012

Wikipedia LogoThere has been a lot of fuss about the fact that Wikipedia has achieved a first page ranking for 99% of terms (within a sample of 1,000 queries) in recent weeks. Intelligent Positioning were the first to expose this, before Econsultancy and a swarm of industry blogs jumped all over it. But what’s the problem?

To be fair, the posts I’ve mentioned and linked to here don’t explicitly suggest that this is part of a wider conspiracy to give Wikipedia an unfair advantage. But as with many SEO investigations, there is an underlying assumption that this is somehow wrong or surprising. In my opinion, it is neither.

If we assume that domain authority (strength through inbound links, age etc.), relevance of content and human factors (including click-through rate) are key to determining rankings, Wikipedia is always going to have a huge advantage. The site currently has 3.86 million pages in English alone. Open Site Explorer currently estimates that there are around 1.7 million inbound links. It was first registered in 2001 and, according to Alexa, it is the sixth most visited website on the planet. It doesn’t even have any advertising. In short, it has everything you could ever possibly want to rank first.

In all likelihood, if I’m searching for Archduke Franz Ferdinand, I just want a quick bit of information about the former head of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Unsurprisingly Wikipedia is top for this search and that, for me at least, is entirely logical. It features an exhaustive overview of his life with links to relevant sources, both within the same site and externally. Google, and indeed Bing, are simply delivering on expectations.

However, if I was to search for something more specific, such as “did the assassination of Franz Ferdinand cause World War 1″, I’d want something a little more specific. Again, Google delivers. This time the top result is for firstworldwar.com, a site wholly dedicated to The Great War – sensible. Wikipedia is on the first page, but only in seventh and eight positions.

The original study involved single word searches, mostly random nouns, incorporating everything from aardvark to zebra. The eight terms that Wikipedia failed to achieve a first page ranking for were all highly competitive terms, such as ‘mail’ or ‘news’. Again, no massive surprise.

Whilst there are 309 million sites all targeting the word “Uzbekistan”, Wikipedia (arguably) is the most authoritative and informative – in general terms – of all of these. Particularly as it is a very specific word in terms of what it is referring to (a country), but vague in the sense that the search engine can’t understand the user’s intention (holidays, general information, history etc.) Mail on the other-hand is being targeted by 11.23 billion sites, including companies such as the Daily Mail and Royal Mail as well as popular email providers. In this instance, these should come first, and they do.

So for me there is a certain logic to the way in which Wikipedia is being ranked. The only place where there are potential conflicts is where brand names or businesses are being pushed down to accommodate a generic entry. However, this was one of the reasons why Google started giving greater prominence to exact match domains and brands in general – even if this has since subsided slightly.

It has the domain strength, unique content (even if this is duplicated elsewhere or sourced and cited from other sites) and user popularity, so why shouldn’t it rank? Sure, it might be a little irritating if you’re also targeting a generic single-word term, but that’s why you have to build up your strength and ensure that your keywords are specific to each page. There is a user-expectation for some searches that Wikipedia will be prominent, for everything else, you have the opportunity to get to the top.

In short, it’s a bit of a non-issue – at least in my humble opinion. It’s better that Wikipedia is top rather than an uninformative, advertising-filled site that just happens to have nailed its SEO. If you have any thoughts on the matter, positive or negative, please post them in the comments section below.

Stephen Logan

Stephen Logan

Stephen Logan is our Senior Content Marketer at Koozai. With four years experience writing exclusively for the search engine marketing industry, he has amassed a wealth of industry related knowledge. He will be breaking news stories and contributing compelling SEO related stories.

8 Comments

  • Bart Schuijt 16th February 2012

    When a Wikipedia article shows up at the result page I often find it relevant and therefore matches my expectation. So yes.

    Reply to this comment

  • mike 16th February 2012

    ok fair enough it is logical for terms like that, historical figures etc. But lets look at things like casino, if I type that in do I want wiki, probably not. Or roulette probably not. I am probably more likely looking to play than research at least that would be my expectation.

    Reply to this comment

  • Stephen Logan

    Stephen 16th February 2012

    Completely agree Mike, but ambiguous searches are often rewarded with ambiguous results – hence Wikipedia gobbling up so many rankings. “Casino” could relate to the film, online gambling or casinos close to you. Nobody really wants to know ‘what a casino is’, which is effectively what Wiki is, but without adding more clarity to the search i.e. “online casino”, Google and Bing will always be confused. Law of averages suggests that people who search for that term want to find an online casino, but instead Google offers up a bit of everything (film, local results and online casinos).

    These kinds of examples can be seen everywhere, including Poker (where Wikipedia is second) insurance (sixth), but it’s just a symptom of single word searches – in my opinion at least. It would be great if Google could determine the most likely user intention, but it’s still not that clever. But I don’t think that means that Wikipedia’s rankings are disproportionate or inaccurate; although I completely agree with your argument.

    Thanks for commenting.

    Reply to this comment

  • Mike Litson 16th February 2012

    exactly the flaw being that surely with the whole click through rates and on site user relation factors supposedly coming into play Wiki should of course NOT be there in those positions.

    Of course there is the other argument being that the gambling world is being punished as opposed to Wiki being boosted, but then that begs the question why does this not happen when you search for the word “porn” (I just searched this not a regular relying on memory XD) surely wiki should come up, by the same logic as terms like slots which I imagine you are even less likely to be looking for background info on.

    Reply to this comment

  • Eva 16th February 2012

    I think one big reason for its high rankings is the fact that it does draw in so many visitors for a variety of searches. Traffic is a huge signal to Google and Wikipedia is often people’s favourite result among all search results.

    Reply to this comment

  • Harry Clark 16th February 2012

    Most of the time when I search for something I use Google to search it, but I’m expecting Wikipedia to give me the answer. It can be frustrating for brands and businesses who want to rank as highly as possible. There will always be situations like the ones you guys have discussed above but search engines are designed for your typical user and I think the majority of users find the information they want when they access Wikipedia.

    So to sum up, yes it deserves to be there.

    Reply to this comment

    • Leg Alphin 10th June 2013

      Yes, this is quite common. And Google is happy, and Wikipedia aswell. If we are looking for learning more about a subject, Wikipedia will fit. If we are looking for entertainment or buying a plane ticket, obviously not.

      Reply to this comment

  • Eric Legge 5th March 2012

    In the Apple Safari web browser you can pin the sites you use most often to the top taskbar. It has Wikipedia, Apple, YouTube, etc., pinned there by default. Google is running the risk of users merely making Favorites of the sites that come up most often like Wikipedia and going directly to them instead of using its search.

    In any case, the first page of Google’s search looks like a Google landing page – Ads right on top of the search results, Maps results, ads to the right, Google Products (Shopping results – the only price comparison site that can use images of products that always comes up in the middle of the search results) and a block of ads at the bottom. It seems that there are only a few search results to make the searcher visit as many pages as possible and consequently get exposed to as many ads as possible.

    Most sites have been demoted by this practice and lost visitors. A site only has to drop a few positions on the first page of results to lose half its audience for specific keywords.

    Reply to this comment

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