by Gregory Kohs
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At the beginning of 2012, Sue Gardner, the woman in charge of the organization that hosts Wikipedia, caused quite a tech media stir when she rolled out a chart that actually had been sitting around for months. The line graph depicted a trend of declining active Wikipedia editors that suggested the English-language encyclopedia would never again see as many editors working away on it as were seen in March 2007. It has been a downhill pattern ever since then. Many of the Wikipedia faithful, adept at mindlessly deflecting criticism, said not to worry as long as there were more and more people visiting the site, it didn’t matter if fewer were choosing to edit the content they found. And besides, other language Wikipedias were supposedly going to take up the global editor slack being let out by the English version of Wikipedia.
Now, two years after Gardner revealed the “holy shit” slide (as she called it) documenting editor loss, Wikipedia is finally losing its readers, as well. Wikipedia analyst Andreas Kolbe broke the news on Wikipediocracy.com on Saturday, January 4th, revealing a series of alarming graphs that unmistakably show that Wikipedia ended 2013 with far fewer page views than it began the year. And not just on the English Wikipedia; the same disappointing pattern was found on the French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, German, and other language versions of Wikipedia.
What could explain this decline in viewership of the Wikipedia.org sites? Are readers getting fed up with the unrelenting fundraiser drives that make us feel guilty for not donating to a $50 million, organizationally bloated Wikimedia Foundation budget? Or have readers been shamed into finding more reliable sources that aren’t written by anonymous teens in their parents’ basement? Neither is the likeliest explanation. As with just about every traffic-related puzzle on the web, it traces back to Google, in all likelihood.
The Google hypothesis put forward by one Wikipediocracy participant speculates that Google’s “Knowledge Graph” feature is the culprit. If you’ve used Google throughout 2013, you probably couldn’t help but notice that on many basic topical searches, a sidebar of pertinent info and images appears on the right-hand side of the results page.
Google hopes that the short, visually appealing semantic data that it displays in the Knowledge Graph will be sufficient to answer your immediate needs, thus keeping you on Google and not letting you slip off to another website to learn more about the subject. Google began to roll out Knowledge Graph to English-language search engine users on a staggered basis through mid-2012. Sure enough, by February 2013, the English Wikipedia began to show its page-view decline. With the success of the English-language Knowledge Graph results, Google expanded the feature to other European language search customers in December 2012. And just as predictably, the visitor traffic to those language Wikipedias began to drop in the early to middle months of 2013.
The sad irony is that Google is very much for-profit, while Wikipedia is non-profit. Google has donated several million tax-exempt dollars to support Wikipedia in the past, and the Wikimedia Foundation thought that was a lovely series of gifts at the time. But now, Google has figured out a way to take that same Wikipedia content and “import” it directly into Google’s own Knowledge Graph space, where it can be surrounded by advertisements that put money back in Google’s pocket. And if these recent Wikipedia traffic statistics are to be trusted, the shift of Wikipedia “knowledge” over to Google may be exactly what is simultaneously robbing Wikipedia of its readers.
Image credits: Google screen capture (fair use), and Wikimedia Foundation and Gregory Kohs (CC-by-SA)