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.