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Summary:

Google’s donation of $2 million to Wikipedia cements a long-standing symbiotic relationship between the search engine and the user-generated encyclopedia. But is that relationship a good thing or a bad thing? Some critics believe that Google gives Wikipedia preferential treatment in its search results.

In one of the few multimillion-dollar donations to be disclosed via a tweet, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales confirmed late Tuesday that Google had donated $2 million to the Wikimedia Foundation, the not-for-profit entity that runs Wikipedia and several other sites including Wikinews (board member Mitch Kapor actually blabbed about it first on Twitter). The foundation itself eventually put up a press release at the Wikimedia site describing the donation, which comes on top of the $7.5 million that the encyclopedia managed to bring in through donations last year.

The $2 million cements a kind of symbiotic relationship that has existed between Google and Wikimedia — and specifically Wikipedia — for some time. As most people have probably noticed, when you do a search for almost any topic, there is usually a Wikipedia link high up in the results (the site apparently gets about 60-70 percent of its traffic from Google searches, according to a recent estimate by Jimmy Wales). But is that just good content winning, or is it preferential treatment?

Google and Wikipedia maintain that pages from the user-edited encyclopedia show up high in search because the site has a large amount of particularly high-quality content, gets linked to a lot, and therefore ranks highly based on the criteria that Google uses for PageRank and sorting of search results. As one Wikipedia editor put it in a discussion about the issue on the encyclopedia’s site, pages at Wikipedia “suck less than most of the Web.”

Others complain, however, that Google is giving Wikipedia preferential treatment over other sites with high-quality content. Why would the search engine do that? One theory is that Google does this because it is effectively acting as Wikipedia’s advertising partner — since the site itself doesn’t carry any ads, Google gets to monetize that traffic using its AdWords and AdSense programs. Wikipedia gets lots of traffic and attention, and Google gets to keep the ad revenue. A marriage made in heaven?

The only sign of any friction between Google and Wikipedia came when the search engine launched a new service called Knol, which sounded very much like the open-source encyclopedia — pages that anyone could edit, with an added feature: an expert curator who would make sure the information was high quality. Despite much fanfare about the launch and the competition with Wikipedia, however, Knol has failed to make much of a splash, and its pages rarely show up in Google searches.

In a statement about Google’s donation to Wikipedia on Tuesday, co-founder Sergey Brin called the site: “one of the greatest triumphs of the internet” and “an invaluable resource to anyone who is online.” For better or worse, it sounds like Wikipedia and Google will be joined at the hip for some time to come — not just because of the money, but because the relationship benefits both sides equally. So is this symbiotic relationship a good thing? Let me know what you think in the comments.

This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com.

  1. I bet it’s a kazillion bloggers and journalists who, like me, when we want a link for “Slovenia” or “Metazoan” or “Dependency Injection”, just use Wikipedia because it’ll be there and it’ll usually be pretty good. That’ll drive up pagerank organically, nothing underhanded required.

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    1. That’s a good point, Tim.

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    2. of course. that and many other things.

      and not always the wikipedia results are among the first, so I am used to typing “wiki” in the end of my queries which stands to prove that there’s nothing artificial about the site’s rank, and even if there is, I really don’t mind…

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    3. linking TO wikipedia does nothing for your pagerank

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  2. Sounds fine to me. If:
    A: Wikipedia has trouble making ends meet
    B: Google likes Wikipedia
    C: Google’s users like Wikipedia

    Then it’s a smart business move for Google to help Wikipedia out.

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  3. I think your title is absolutely apt. I did often think they were “separated at birth” :-) Wikipedia is a reliable source of information and it amazes me how proactive their voluntary editors are. The mistakes that have occurred are minor in comparison to the vast amount of accurate information that exists there today. It makes full sense to me if Google had any plans to invest in them and marry their technology more intimately into their platform than giving them preferential search ranking.

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  4. I gotta say, I agree with Sergey B. Wikipedia is amazing.

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    1. B.wikipedia is very amazing resourses and absolutly agree with you

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  5. snoopyinablender Thursday, February 18, 2010

    I think the relationship is as Google says: high quality content drives traffic. And I am glad Wikimedia has Google as a benefactor.

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  6. Wikipedia is a major contribution to humanity, a great example of people working with each other for the good of all. The results are high quality and getting better. If Google algorithms work right, Wikipedia citations should rank really high.

    We need more of this, and when possible, should all pitch in to help each other out.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Craig. I agree that Wikipedia is a pretty great example of what people can do when they work together for a common goal.

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  7. How does Google get Adwords and Adsense revenue from Wikipedia? Adwords, yes. But Adsense, no.

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    1. That’s a good point, Titan — obviously Google doesn’t benefit through Adsense on Wikipedia pages because they don’t have ads on them. Should have just said AdWords.

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      1. Hoew does it even get AdWords revenue from Wikipedia?

        The fourth paragraph of your story appears to be from a parallel universe. It just isn’t possible in this one.

        The news coverage of the Google donation has been truly weird. No-one posited conspiracy theories of this sort when Microsoft, through Bing, donated $50k. (And the servers still run Linux and Solaris.)

        I’m gonna write a Wikimedia Press Coverage Bingo Card soon …

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    2. David Gerard in a way @snoopyinablender answered your question.

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  8. Personally, I often find that Wikipedia is not displayed high enough in Google results. It annoys me when Wikipedia doesn’t show up on the first page and I have to add “wikipedia” in the search box. I believe that “generally agreed reference on the topic” should be a the top of any search results, and that’s what Wikipedia is most of the times.

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    1. Just a note, adding just “wiki” will usually get Wikipedia into the #1 slot. Don’t need to type out the whole site name.

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  9. Mathew, frankly I am shocked that you would repeat junk accusations like this.

    It’s a ludicrous idea that Google would be stupid enough to jeopardize its search business by giving preferential treatment to a website that hardly needs help getting inbound links. This is the kind of ignorant conspiracy that I hear from annoyed SEO consultants and perpetual critics of Wikipedia. I never thought I’d hear it come from GigaOm and an author who has a great deal of smarts when it comes to the Web.

    Yellow journalism, through and through. I expect better.

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    1. Sorry to disappoint you, Steven. Just taking note of what is out there when it comes to Google and Wikipedia’s relationship, that’s all. I think “yellow journalism” is a little harsh. But thanks for taking the time to comment.

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  10. ‘pages at Wikipedia “suck less than most of the Web.”’

    Translation:
    pages at Wikipedia “suck less than most of the page ranks”.

    People seem to underestimate on how much Google depends on people to organize the web. Without any links could Google rank this article? Not without any reference, which is normally acquired by learning, which organizes data. Something Google just hasn’t mastered, but the editors at wikipedia have.

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  11. [...] “cements a kind of symbiotic relationship” between the two companies, Mathew Ingram writes at GigaOm. “For better or worse, it sounds like Wikipedia and Google will be joined at the hip [...]

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  12. [...] Google and Wikipedia — Separated at Birth? – GigaOM [...]

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  13. Well I normally use the Wikipedia links in my annotated economics blog as a first source for explanatory notes simply because the format is always the same across all articles and people probably know their way around Wikipedia already. Then in a second step only I take people to other sites as well when in depth explanations of an economic concept or an illustration or a “second opinion” is warranted. So, yes, like Tim says: it’s organical I believe.

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  14. Nice observation of their symbiotic relationship. But perhaps there is a simpler way to look at this. Just like Sergey Brin has said, wikipedia is literally “one of the greatest triumphs of the internet”.

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  15. What this article fails to note is that Google employees often attempt to influence the content of Wikipedia articles so as to advantage the company or promote its agendas. See, for example, the biased Wikipedia entry on “Network Neutrality,” which ranks high in a Google search on that term.

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  16. It’s great that they understand that they are partners in the internet eco-system.

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  17. I don’t think that Google benefits from Wikipedia’s lack of ads. Because there are no ads on Wikipedia more people click on the ads in the Google SERPs? I’d love to see data on that. I strongly suspect it’s untrue. The sites competing with Wikipedia generally monetize primarily with Google AdSense, so I think favoring Wikipedia hurts Google’s revenue on these queries. In fact I’d bet there were criticisms inside Google that the donation sabotaged Google by allowing Wikipedia to continue to operate ad-free. The symbiosis IMO is simply that Wikipedia results satisfy Google users, providing more traffic on which for Google to show ads.

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    1. Yes, I think the darker suspicions about the symbiotic relationship are probably a little extreme — it seems as thought the arrangement works well for both parties, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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    2. agreed. the donation comes after Knol failed, credit to google for admitting as much. I think we will see a similar turnabout after Buzz flames out. Google will start working with FaceBook rather than fight them.

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  18. Whether this relationship is good or not totally depends upon how the users see it. If in general people find it easier to grab information just because Google has tied up with Wikipedia, good.

    But it goes against Google’s natural voting mechanism – that, good content will be voted by people (by linking towards it) and Google will have to read people’s votes to decide what is good, rather than rely upon their own impression.

    Anyway, hope all remains well.

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  19. Wiki is already a Brand Name in itself, so we search its library without Google’s help on our URL. It may be difficult for the company(wikimedia) to raise money since they are functioning like a charity and I do not mind that Google is helping. What makes the writer,so it seems, think there is something nefarious going between the relationship? Logic, What would be the gain for Google? Contents. And for whom? So What? What would be the gain for Wiki? Cash to improve. Wiki does not display any ads from Google or any other sites. It would be wrong if we start seeing Google ads start showing on Wiki web site. The Advertisers will not lose much since wiki is not selling anything, thus no problems, so no compete. The only people who might lose are web publishers trying to organically influence and position themselves in the search engine. This article writer did not do any logical analysis before begin writing and posting and does not have any idea how Google Adwords or Adsense work. You are wasting server space. And, by the way, we are the beneficiary of such a great symbiosis.

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  20. In doing research, I sometimes click through all of the Google’s search results listed on page one and even page two and beyond. Where Google lists a Wikipedia entry, I have found that the Wikipedia article usually provides good quality, readable content in comparison to the other links listed. Recently, I made a small donation to the Wikimedia Foundation to show my appreciation for their work and am glad Google has also chipped in keeping Wikipedia going.

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  21. [...] Google donated $2 million to the Wikipedia Foundation. GigaOm reported the news, but also raised the question of what exactly Google gets out of [...]

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