Friday, January 26, 2007

The business case for Google to nerf Wikipedia

One part of the recent Wikipedia rel=nofollow hullabaloo which didn't get enough play, in my opinion, was Shelley Powers' suggestion that Google remove Wikipedia from their search results entirely, and perhaps add them as a sidebar to every search. This would certainly cause much rejoicing amongst SEO professionals who fight with Wikipedia for top billing on almost every worthwhile search phrase, but what would the discussion be like if Matt Cutts and a bunch of Googlers sat round a table and jawed it over?

First, it must be said that Wikipedia is just the sort of content that Google wants to link to. Structured prose, highly subject-specific, stuffed with keywords, nice and lengthy, and arguably the best linklove in the business. I don't think removing it altogether is going to fly. As to whether they get relegated to a sidebar, I don't think that's out of the question.

Second, let's look at the bottom line and be a teensy bit cynical about the big G's motives for a second. Would pushing Wikipedia below the fold increase Google's revenues from AdSense? It would need to be tested, but I'm guessing it would boost revenues significantly. My guess is that users' eyes (and mouse arrow) would gravitate towards the trusted Wikipedia entry if it's above the fold in #1-3 result position, but if it's not there then the average user's attention would wander more frequently to the AdSense positions. Not by a lot, but given the volumes we're talking about here it would add a considerable amount to Google's revenues.

Third, would it hurt the user experience? Some argue that it's pretty ridiculous that Wikipedia is on the front page of Google results for every damn thing. It's getting to the stage where if you're looking for non-encyclopedic content, the Wikipedia result is actively getting in the way of your search experience. On the other hand, many people use Google as their Wikipedia search engine, so they might be discouraged by the shifting of the result to a less accessible place and stop using Google.

Last, does it violate Google's culture? It might be argued that it's a little bit evil, but there are arguments on the other side as well to say that it would be good for users. It is also, arguably, a perversion of search engine ethics since the only results you should really be tampering with are those from other search engines, for obvious reasons. Wikipedia is not a search engine. But is it a special case which requires a new rule? Google might even be helping Wikipedia if the campaign to add rel=nofollow to all Wikipedia links (which now has a Drupal module and a Wordpress module) gains traction.

I would love to be a fly on the wall for any real discussion about nerfing Wikipedia (or IMdB or tv.com or other SEO category killers, as Everton Blair points out) on the Google campus. I'm sure they'd bring up other points, but the above is how I imagine it to be framed on the whole. What will they decide, if they ever do meet about this?

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