A recurring topic on this blog and in my public talks is getting skeptics involved in editing Wikipedia. I’ve been writing about it here and talking about it at events like Skepticamp and Skeptics in the Pub for almost 3 years. I believe it to be very important.
But it is sometimes difficult to impress people with the importance. I often approach this by talking about things like SEO and SERP placement. But to many non-webmasters these are confusing concepts. It can be hard to visualize how they translate into readers.
Last weekend at The Amazing Meeting (TAM9) Susan Gerbic-Forsyth gave a Sunday paper presentation on the topic of Wikipedia. Susan has taken up the gauntlet I threw down in a big way, for which I thank her. She’s contributed a ton of photos she’s taken at skeptic events, which are a fantastic addition to any article. She’s also started her own blog where she shares what articles she’s been working on, tips on formatting and so on. It’s good stuff, check it out.
During TAM9, Susan and I were talking about how it is sometimes difficult to convince skeptics that Wikipedia is worth the effort. Skeptics, due to their nature, are painfully aware of the many limitations of Wikipedia. Some express doubts that these can be overcome, and have written off the site. Others who have actually tried to edit express frustration in dealing with other editors and the culture of Wikipedia (a topic for another time).
But as we were talking, it occurred to me there is a very simple way to show exactly how important Wikipedia is, without using any obscure terminology. And that’s what this post is about. By the end of it, it should be crystal clear why skeptics need to edit Wikipedia.
It’s the traffic, silly.
Simply put, it all comes down to traffic.
Effective skepticism is about communication, and skeptical outreach demands we communicate with as many people as possible. Even the finest investigation report or essay on alternative medicine does no good if they’re never read by anyone.
So how are we doing, what kind of readership are we getting? Skeptics are all about evidence, where’s the evidence that our outreach is actually reaching out?
It suddenly dawned on me while talking to Susan that I have access to data that would speak to that question – the analytics for my own site. Like many webmasters I run Google Analytics on the site, which gives me all sorts of statistics. Wikipedia is very transparent, and publishes their statistics, which can be queried using stats.grok.se
What’s the Harm is divided into categories that (mostly) correspond nicely with topics also documented on Wikipedia. That gives nice targets for comparison. Wikipedia has existed since 2001. My site has been around since 2008 and gets good support from skeptics on social media and elsewhere. So my traffic level is good on both sites and stays pretty steady.
So why not compare my pages on a given topic with the corresponding page on Wikipedia? Let’s get directly to the numbers…
I started with the two top visited topics on my site. It probably wouldn’t surprise most skeptics to know they are Homeopathy and Chiropractic. Both topics have figured prominently in news and skeptical activism in the last few years. (Truth be told there are actually pages on my site that rank higher, such as the page full of children and the homepage, but those can’t be reasonably compared to specific Wikipedia articles).
So I gathered one year of statistics on my pages as well as Wikipedia’s pages on Homeopathy and Chiropractic. (Note: searches for “chiropractor” redirect to the same page on Wikipedia, but has a negligible amount of traffic).
The results were sobering. Both Wikipedia articles get on the order of 100,000 hits per month, whereas my two pages get around 2,000 hits per month. Specifically:
Homeopathy: July 2010 – June 2011
What’s the Harm: 29,462 total hits
Wikipedia: 1,314,205 total hits
Ratio: Wikipedia got 44.6 times my traffic
Chiropractic: July 2010 – June 2011
What’s the Harm: 26,915 total hits
Wikipedia: 1,055,614 total hits
Ratio: Wikipedia got 39.2 times my traffic
So, that’s a losing proposition in a big way. But maybe I picked the wrong battlefield there. After all, both of those Wikipedia articles rank in the top 5,000 articles of the millions on Wikipedia in traffic. They have thousands of inbound links, and both rank #1 in Google when queried by their title. Neither of my pages are even on the first page of results.
Let’s try some another tack. Most sites rely heavily on search engine results for incoming traffic. What’s the Harm currently gets about 31% of its traffic from Google this way. Wikipedia says 35.5% of their traffic comes from Google as I write this. So lets find some topics where both Wikipedia and What’s the Harm appear in that crucial first page of the Google results.
First, I picked “attachment therapy” for which What’s the Harm ranks approximately #7 in Google with Wikipedia in its usual #1 spot. I also picked my best ranked page, “ozone therapy“. Here Wikipedia and What’s the Harm are #1 and #2. Surely the results are better there!
Attachment therapy: July 2010 – June 2011
What’s the Harm: 3,023 total hits
Wikipedia: 55,226 total hits
Ratio: Wikipedia got 18.3 times my traffic
Ozone therapy: July 2010 – June 2011
What’s the Harm: 16,112 total hits
Wikipedia: 93,504 total hits
Ratio: Wikipedia got 5.8 times my traffic
The search engine result page (SERP) placement here is probably helping alot. Studies have shown being on that crucial first page of Google results makes a huge difference in the level of traffic you get (one analyst calls this Google Gullibility).
But even ranking #2, right below the corresponding Wikipedia article, puts a skeptic site at a considerable traffic disadvantage. Several studies have shown that the first result in Google gets a third or more of the click-throughs, and it drops off progressively as you go down the results. That is certainly consistent with the numbers we see here.
Conclusion, and a challenge
So I think I have clearly demonstrated that Wikipedia articles on skeptic topics are read far more than equivalent skeptic web pages on the same topic. This demonstrates clearly that Wikipedia is important to skepticism, whether we like it or not.
Should we abandon skeptic websites in favor of spending all our time editing Wikipedia? No, of course not. That’s a false dichotomy. We can do both, my previous admonitions notwithstanding.
An alternative would be to engage in some serious SEO to get our skeptic pages ranked above Wikipedia in Google. Um, good luck with that. If you can crack that nut, go make a billion dollars and create a skeptical endowment fund.
Back in the real world, what if What’s the Harm is an anomaly? Perhaps my traffic sucks compared to other skeptic websites. Well, I don’t think so, and I offer up a challenge to other skeptic webmasters to prove me wrong!
The challenge is as follows:
- Find a static page (i.e. not a dynamically generated page that changes regularly),
- Which is not the home page,
- Of your primarily skeptic website,
- Which is an article about a specific skeptic topic,
- Which also has a corresponding Wikipedia article on the exact same topic,
- Both of which have existed for at least one year.
If you can show in detail that your page meeting that criteria generates more page views over the course of one year than the Wikipedia article does, I will buy you a drink at TAM10. One prize per webmaster. Tax, tag and title not included.
I suspect I won’t be buying very many drinks under this offer.
Until such time as the above challenge is trivial to beat, I think skeptics should clearly be paying attention to Wikipedia. Perhaps 50 times as many people are learning about skeptic topics there as opposed to our own web sites. We owe it to them to make it as accurate and as skeptical as possible.
Don’t forget to check out Susan’s blog, Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia.
One problem is that Wikipedia is a general site. Everyone knows it. Other sites such as whatstheharm are specialist sites, dealing in only a narrow range of topics.
Maybe someone should come up with competition with Wikipedia that does not have the issues with Wikipedia.
Not sure I follow you. The whole point of this post is that Wikipedia is so well established and has such high traffic levels that we cannot afford to ignore it, regardless of what we are doing with our own sites (skeptical or otherwise). A competitor to Wikipedia would be facing the same uphill battle that skeptic sites face.
Awesome and thank you Tim!
I had no idea the numbers were so high on these hits to Wikipedia until you shared that stats site with me. Because Wiki is generally just a static page, with simple edits once in awhile you just don’t think that people are actually visiting it. I suppose we are used to a comment area.
I am really surprised that your Ozone Therapy page which ranks #2 on Google is that much lower than Wikipedia. Still 5.8% is pretty close.
At my TAM9 paper presentation I dubbed this the “Goldilocks” effect. People when given 2-3 alternatives are going to choose the one that they are most comfortable with. Not something overly positive or negative (at least not when they are looking for general information). They are looking for something more neutral (they know they can always follow the hyperlinks on Wikipedia to explain terms further) plus they know that there will be links to outside sources if they really want to get into it.
Plus with Wikipedia they know they are not going to get viruses and pop-ups something that is on our minds a lot as we venture to unknown pages. (See your blog on WOT for information how this can be helped).
As Tim says, we don’t want to stop writing blogs, websites, podcasts ect to get skeptical content out. Those efforts do inform, and also build community amongst ourselves which are important. But until we have our “house in order” and have cleaned up Wikipedia we should really refocus our efforts in a place that makes the highest impact. And this blog shows the evidence, you want proof, you got it.
Please, please help.
I do agree that we cannot ignore Wikipedia now. However in the future things may be different. We can make them different.
Good luck with that. There is an entire industry (SEO consultants) that are constantly trying to dislodge Wikipedia from it’s number one spot in many Google searches. These people are paid lots of money and thus have plenty of incentive. They haven’t been very successful at it.
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