Decennial ABC: G as in Google

How do people come to know that there is an encyclopedia?

In previous times, people (maybe) learned at school that there exist encyclopedias, what they are good for and where to find them. The publishers on their hand tried to reach as many people and also convince them to buy an encyclopedia.

How appalling that this is totally history by now, because of two internet giants which rose at the eve of the new millennium. Nowadays, pupils (and adults alike) open their web browser and often find Google pre-installed as the start page. When they ‘google’ for something, a Wikipedia article is almost always among the first five search hits. It is absolutely unnecessary that a teacher tells them ‘where to find the encyclopedia’. [1]

Andrew Lih in The Wikipedia Revolution recalls a case from April 2004, when antisemites had manipulated Google in a way that searches for ‘jew’ produced an antisemitic site at the top of the search. A site appears at the top if many other sites link to it. So internet activists asked people to link to another site, to beat the antisemites with their own weapon. The suitable site was Wikipedia because of its neutral point of view. [2]

Also Wikipedia itself became a victim of Google manipulation. It is legal and even legitimate to create a new site and use Wikipedia content there, so some people created Wikipedia ‘clones’ with adverts. Normally nobody would have looked at these clones, but some clone owners were capable enough to manipulate the Google search. Around 2005 there was a period when it was difficult to find the Wikipedia article among all those clones; after Google improved its PageRank, this problem became history too.

Some people even speak about a symbiosis between Google and Wikipedia, although it is not clear what the benefit for Google would be. On the contrary, Google is unhappy about the fact that for about one-third of the search hits go to Wikipedia articles – meaning, pages without (Google) adverts. So Google came up in 2008 with a knowledge platform of its own, Google Knol.

And how do you find Google?

The media liked to present Knol as a Wikipedia killer that wants to avoid the flaws of Wikipedia. Knol wishes people to write under their real name, that they can own an article, are not bound to encyclopedic rules, and can make money per page views.

Of course, Knol came into existence when there was already a strong competitor (Wikipedia) on the market. But the main reason for the very limited success of Knol is more inherent: Knol is just another one of many places for single authors to publish, without control by anyone. Nobody at Google checks whether the authors really are the experts and professors they claim to be.

Anyhow, the intimate relationship between Google and Wikipedia will probably remain for a long time. A friend of mine once explained to me how he proceeds on the web. The retired archivist googles, and usually comes to Wikipedia, and then reads the article and maybe clicks on an internal link. And when he wants to look-up something else, he does not use the Wikipedia search (of which he doesn’t know at all) – he clicks the home button of his web browser and googles again.


Previously: A as in Advertisement, B as in Balance, C as in Cooperations, D as in Deletions, E as in Encyclopedia, F as in Free


[1] Andrew Lih: The Wikipedia Revolution, Hyperion books, 2009, p. 115.

[2] Andrew Lih: The Wikipedia Revolution, Hyperion books, 2009, p. 115, pp. 202-204.


6 thoughts on “Decennial ABC: G as in Google

  1. “And when he wants to look-up something else, he does not use the Wikipedia search [..] he clicks the home button of his web browser and googles again.”

    Sounds like me. With google search always in sight in Firefox toolbar there is not even an extra click. In fact after hearing similar stories from other wikimedians I’m under the impression that Wikipedia search page being most visited page (en 2009: is the fact which is surprising.

  2. I’d say the reason Knol failed to gain traction was not the lack of background-checking (on the contrary, Wikipedia only worked because it didn’t have it).

    Instead, what doomed Knol, imo, was the lack of collaboration and engagement in a community. Despite the social sharing tools, people there were much more isolated (compared to Wikipedia) each minding their own business, writing their own versions of the articles on the topics they cared about.

    There wasn’t that feeling of a shared mission which was what made the Wikipedia game so engaging.

    1. Yes, the fact that authors in Knol “own” an article can kill collaboration, and why should I help to improve a “knol article” if it is someone else who gets revenues?

  3. I don’t think Google is “unhappy about the fact that for about one-third of the search hits go to Wikipedia articles”. Google is an agent providing links to other sources of information. If Wikipedia were not in Google users would rather sooner than later go and search Wikipedia directly. They would “google” in Wikipedia, then, having gone lost for Google adverts altogether.

    So, it is right to say that there has grown a kind of symbiosis between Google and Wikipedia, the latter providing the content while the former is guiding users the way.

    Wikipedia articles are ranking very high in Google no matter their quality (a search engine cannot check whether what is said in an article is correct). If a term is in Wikipedia the link there will certainly be ranked among the top ten in Google. This is a decision that was taken by Google sometime. The Wikipedia ever since belongs to the Google SERPs just as much as links to Google’s own products Google News, Pictures, and YouTube, no matter if you indicated you were looking for news, pictures, or videos at all.

    Also, please think about the financial support by Google for Wikipedia in terms of rather impressive donations.

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