Google and the Great Wikipedia Feedback Loop
Google's Wikidependence is worse than ever. And Jorge Cauz thinks it's time for an intervention.
"If I were to be the CEO of Google or the founders of Google, I would be very [displeased] that the best search engine in the world continues to provide as a first link, Wikipedia," the Encyclopedia Britannica president told The Sydney Morning Herald last week during a visit Down Under. "Is this the best they can do? Is this the best that [their] algorithm can do?"
In an effort to unseat the Web 2.0-happy Wikicult, Britannica has revamped its online operation to accept edits from the world at large - while maintaining tight control over content through its existing stable of professional editors.
"What we are trying to do is shifting...to a much more proactive role for the user and reader where the reader is not only going to learn from reading the article but by modifying the article and - importantly - by maybe creating his own content or her own content," Cauz said.
But no matter what Cauz and company do with their venerable encyclopedia, they won't unseat the Wikicult unless Google unseats the Wikicult. And Google shows no signs of self-correction.
More than two years ago, über-blogger Nick Carr - who sits on Brittanica's board of editorial advisors - plucked ten random topics from his brain: World War II, Israel, George Washington, Genome, Agriculture, Herman Melville, Internet, Magna Carta, Evolution, Epilepsy. He then keyed them into Google, just to see how the search giant ranked the Wikitext on each topic.
As you might expect, Wikipedia never appeared outside the top ten search results. And in some cases, it was the top result:
World War II: #1
George Washington: #4
Herman Melville: #3
Magna Carta: #2
Then, last week, he repeated the drill. And Wikipedia was the top result for all ten topics:
World War II: #1
George Washington: #1
Herman Melville: #1
Magna Carta: #1
Carr sees this Wikidomination as "evidence of a fundamental failure of the Web as an information-delivery service."
The web, Google, and Wikipedia form a kind of "information triumvirate," Carr says - a triumvirate that has transformed the net "from a radically heterogeneous information source to a radically homogeneous one."
And he questions whether that's a good thing. "It's hard to imagine that Wikipedia articles are actually the very best source of information for all of the many thousands of topics on which they now appear as the top Google search result," he writes.
"What's much more likely is that the Web, through its links, and Google, through its search algorithms, have inadvertently set into motion a very strong feedback loop that amplifies popularity and, in the end, leads us all, lemminglike, down the same well-trod path - the path of least resistance. You might call this the triumph of the wisdom of the crowd. I would suggest that it would be more accurately described as the triumph of the wisdom of the mob. The former sounds benign; the latter, less so."
A fair assessment - though we would ask whether Google's role was "inadvertent."
Reg Associate Editor Andrew Orlowski argues that back in 2006, Google purposefully pushed Wikipedia to the top of its search rankings in an effort to combat the sea of "Goobage" served up by so-called search engine optimizers and unchecked bloggers. And Google has the power to knock the Wikifiddlers back down. Mountain View created that feedback loop, and it can just as easily end it.
Google and Wikipedia are cut from the same cloth. They profess a commitment to the wisdom of the masses - to something called Web 2.0 - but they rarely admit there's a tiny brain trust at the top pulling the strings.
Google now has its own online encyclopedia, which it insists on calling Knol. And Mountain View search guru Matt Cutts is adamant that Google would never juice Knol's search results. "Google Knol does not receive any sort of boost or advantage in Google’s rankings," he wrote over the weekend.
"When Knol launched, some people asked questions about this. I dutifully trundled around the web and said that Knol would not receive any special benefits in our scoring/ranking for search. With the benefit of six months’ worth of hindsight, I hope everyone can agree that Knol doesn’t get some special boost or advantage in Google’s rankings."
But for other reasons, it gave a "special boost" to Wikipedia. And now the world's collective consciousness is paying for it. According to the latest numbers from Hitwise, announced Friday, Wikipedia accounts for 97 per cent of all online encyclopedia visits from US web surfers.
Never mind that Jimbo Wales sees Wikipedia as some sort of news site.
MSN Encarta ranks second at 1.27 per cent. Encyclopedia.com is third at 0.76 per cent. Something called Fact Monster is fourth at 0.72 per cent. And Britannica brings up the rear at 0.57 per cent.
Britannica.com is handicapped because much of its content is hidden behind pages that ask for credit card numbers. As Hitwise and others point out, this drives visitors away - and it cuts down on links from other websites.
We all know that Google's search algorithms don't like it when a site is low on linkage. But those mindless Google algorithms aren't controlled by mindless Google algorithms. They're controlled by Google. When Wikipedia popped into Google's top ten back in 2006, linkage wasn't the only culprit.
In the end, with Google controlling well over 60 per cent of the search market, it's Google that decides what the world reads. And Google prefers its version of the wisdom of the
masses mob. ®