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Google News serves up...Wikipedia links

Walesian prophecy fulfilled

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy "Jimbo" Wales likes to discuss the "free encyclopedia anyone can edit" as some sort of breaking news source. And apparently, Google agrees with him.

As noticed by The New York Times, the world's largest search engine is now including Wikipedia links on Google News, billed as "a computer-generated news site that aggregates headlines from news sources worldwide."

Monday afternoon, for instance, the Google News home page pointed readers to Wikipedia articles on modern-day Iranian martyr Neda Soltani, the recent Taza bombing, Craigslist killer Philip Markoff, and the 2009 flu pandemic.

This would seem to be a permanent change. A company spokeswoman tells The Reg that it began as a test, with Wikipedia articles included on the news site for only a small percentage of users, and in Google's mind, the test went well.

"As with many features on Google News, these links were initially launched as an experiment," she says. "We've rolled out this feature to all English language editions of Google News. From our tests, we've seen that users searching for news find these pages to be helpful supplements to many stories, offering background and reference material on current events."

Google has already used Wikipedia to draw attention away from the mountains of Goobage clogging its main search engine, and in the process, it turned the anyone-can-edit site/online cult into perhaps the world's most dominant information source.

Now the search giant is playing into the hands of Jimbo Wales yet again, while making a mockery of the legitimate news sources it so recently vowed to protect.

It's no secret that in allowing anyone to edit its pages, Wikipedia has a certain knack for disseminating nonsense. In January, for instance, the day of President Obama's inauguration, longtime US Senators Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd turned up dead in Wikiland - even though they were still among the living in our world.

But for Wikimedia Foundation executive director Sue Gardner, this is all part of Wikipedia's role as a, well, news source.

In a recent interview, Gardner said that she was "quite comfortable" with mistakes on the site, and she sought to defend her argument by calling Wikipedia "just another mainstream news medium," echoing the words of Wales, Wikipedia self-described Spiritual Leader. "I know that more or less the same mistakes can be found in the New York Times," she said.

The difference, of course, is that The New York Times doesn't let any anonymous shut-in edit its pages, and barring a few exceptions, it doesn't allow the sort of info hoax that makes Wikiland such an amusing place to visit.

In the wake of the Byrd and Kennedy Wikinonsense, Jimbo ordered the site's IT staff to roll out a new Wikitool designed to suppress site "vandalism." With "Flagged Revisions," certain edits wouldn't be shown to the public unless they were approved by "trusted editors." He ruled out a complete lock-down on articles because that would kill the site's knack for, yes, news.

It's unclear why those anonymous volunteers should be trusted. But whether they can or not, the Flagged Revisions idea was put on hold. Many Wikifiddlers believe such a change would somehow undermine the site's commitment to the tenets of Web 2.0. They continue to discuss the idea in Wikiland, and it may be revived as early as August.

Part of the problem is that Wikipedia can't quite decide what it wants to be. Encyclopedia? News medium? Unfettered nonsense? But regardless, Google sees it as a trusted source of information. That's nothing new. ®

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