A study by Conductor revealed that 46% of every search on Google will result in a Wikipedia reference on the first page, whereas it occurs in only 31% of searches conducted on Bing. The research model included both transactional and information keywords, and also measured various word combinations and search term lengths.
Despite there being no evidence of untoward alliances or favoritism, Google honchos are still quick to defend their altruistic algorithms. When asked about the heavy Wikipedia visibility, one rep noted that other studies circulating show the popular information website popping up more frequently on Bing, and that regardless of today’s results the vagaries of the search world practically guarantee that there will be different results tomorrow.
That may be true for users in the U.S., but Googlers in the United Kingdom may not agree. One research study conducted in Brighton, England, around the same time as the aforementioned study revealed Wikipedia appeared on the first search engine results page (SERP) in 99% of searches using 1,000 random keyword nouns (compared to 2,000 specifically chosen keywords in the Conductor research).
The UK researchers took the issue one step further by asking whether the high level of visibility enjoyed by Wikipedia was deserved. This is obviously a matter of opinion, but with nearly 500 million unique visitors each month to its English site it is a very relevant matter to consider, especially if the assumption is that these people are disseminating Wikipedia’s information as a means to validate arguments, make points and essentially drive conversation.
Ever since Wikipedia’s inception in 2001, the debate has raged over whether the website is reliable enough to use as a vetted source given its open-access approach to developing content. The fact that there is also Scholarpedia, an open-access peer-reviewed version of Wikipedia, suggests that there is a market and desire for a more reliable source of free information.
The fact that Scholarpedia never shows up in Google or Bing search results, however, demonstrates Wikipedia’s dominance across search engines; dominance so pervasive that information sources like Scholarpedia would be hard-pressed to compete against it.
Even fans of Wikipedia would have to admit there is a problem with that. When the ubiquitous nature of an inferior product is so complete that it hampers the possibility of a superior product emerging, it leaves questions regarding marketplace mechanics and Google’s influence on it.