Google and Wikipedia are two of the most well-known online entities in today’s digital world. Both have recognizable brands with recognizable services that have spanned the globe. Of course, the similarities really end there. Google is a multinational, publicly-traded, billion-dollar tech company, while Wikipedia is a multilingual, volunteer-based, non-profit encyclopedia that can be edited by anyone. The relationship between Google and Wikipedia has historically been harmonious. But, with the release of Google’s “Knowledge Graph” technology in the middle of 2012, the relationship has certainly soured (at least on a statistical level).
As of December 2013, Wikipedia viewership had declined an astounding 21% from the previous year. This is certainly a surprising piece of data considering that page views on Wikipedia had been increasing steadily each year since its inception in 2001. The Knowledge Graph technology employed by Google is said to have something to do with the unexpected downfall of Wikipedia. If you have used Google in any capacity, then it’s likely that you’ve come across the Knowledge Graph at some point. It essentially culls information from internet sources (including Wikipedia) to produce a snapshot of whatever you searched for.
For instance, if you search for George Clooney, you’ll find typical search results on the left, and a small bio on the right. The bio on the right comes from Knowledge Graph technology. This might seem innocuous until you consider that someone might have only wanted to know Clooney’s birthday. People who normally would have gone to Wikipedia for that information now only have to make a simple Google search. Google has also employed clickable links within the Knowledge Graph. For instance, if you wanted to click on one of George Clooney’s movies like The Descendants it would take you to another similar search page with information about the 2011 film on the right. Clooney’s filmography would also appear at the top of the page in a conveniently-placed slideshow.
Obviously, this system shuts off traffic to Wikipedia because people don’t have to click on any links in the search engine. The Wikipedia page for George Clooney still appears at the top of the list of search results, but when you have all the relevant information you might want in the Knowledge Graph to the right, you don’t need to click on any links. Wikipedia and Google have not had a falling out about this particular topic, with spokespeople publically claiming to be working on the traffic discrepancies found on Wikipedia.
Still, that hasn’t stopped a broader antitrust complaint from being taken to the European Competition Commission. The complaint suggests that Google is turning into both a search starting place and a destination, leaving other websites in the dust. Google is effectively eliminating traffic to some websites because they are offering all the information that those websites might otherwise provide. The other section of the complaint involves photographers who have taken umbrage to the fact that their photos are being used without a proper license and without proper credit.
In any event, it’s clear that Wikipedia and many others are suffering as a result of the Knowledge Graph technology employed by Google. Of course, Google has been a notable benefactor to the non-profit encyclopedia, but without traffic, Wikipedia loses its other main source of income: volunteer contributions. It will be interesting to see how all of this shakes out and whether the antitrust complaint gains any traction.
Robin Bennett advises clients on best SEO practices for companies wanting greater online exposure. His main focus is on long-term branding using popular websites such as Wikipedia.