From the late 1990s and in to the following decade, the World Wide Web was a bastion of free expression. If entertaining or informative content was created it found an audience. The cost to produce, publish, and reach an audience online was within the reach of almost anyone.
As a result, many mission-driven individuals and organizations launched a tremendous number of websites dedicated to a wide variety of subjects that were previously not covered by the mainstream media. Subjects that had the potential for broad appeal, but were previously overlooked by large corporations, were being published online by smaller entities with a better understanding of the audience.
Today, the cost and effort required to be discovered online is hurting independent websites. As a result, many websites have shut down. Some entities engage in search engine optimization, utilizing social media, or are investing more in advertising to help drive traffic to their websites. For independent websites where resources are often limited, these efforts merely redirect money, time, and energy away from content creation. This redirection of resources ends up contributing to the reduction of quantity and often the quality of what gets published.
Today, there is more reason for concern than excitement about the Web. One reason is the pimping of Wikipedia.
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, launched 12 years ago, currently hosts more than 24 million articles, and seems like a perfect example of the best of what the Web has to offer. It is independent, and advertisement free. Content is created by volunteers motivated only by the desire to share information. Wikipedia is multilingual, multinational, and receives financial support through contributions.
Over the past few years, Wikipedia began dominating the search results on Google. It is not that Wikipedia does not deserve to rank high on many queries, but Wikipedia's articles rank in the top 3 on virtually any subject one might run a search. As a result, Wikipedia is ranked sixth in the world based upon traffic as reported by Alexa, a Web information provider.
A website's traffic volume is more a function of its ranking in a Google search result than the quality of its content. To support that statement, we can run a Google search on the name of the New York Times best-selling author Eric Jerome Dickey and review the results. On the upper-right-hand side of the Google search results page, Eric's name, photograph and biographical information is prominently displayed. The short biography is from Wikipedia and serves as a perfect way to introduce some of Eric's many novels. Click on any of the books and more Google pages will be shown where one may purchase Dickey's eBooks from Google without ever leaving Google. Google now intercepts visitors who they would have previously sent to other websites.
The fourth search result is Amazon.com. If one followed the Amazon link, and clicked Eric's biography, Eric Jerome Dickey's "Shopping-Enabled" Wikipedia page would be found. This page contains all of the information from Eric Jerome Dickey's Wikipedia.org page, but on Amazon all of his novels are now hyperlinked directly to an Amazon page allowing you to immediately and easily purchase that particular novel.
The ninth result is Dickey's Facebook Fan Page. On Facebook, one will also find an Eric Jerome Dickey Page, which is his Wikipedia.org page copied directly into a page on Facebook. The Facebook page, copied from Wikipedia, has almost 18 times as many Facebook "Likes" than the Official Facebook Fan page which Eric Jerome Dickey created himself.
The third result for Eric Jerome Dickey is Wikipedia.org. As discussed, this is not surprising. However, given the fact that the Wikipedia page is merely a 400-word bio and a list of his published novels -- one could easily make a reasonable argument that many results returned in the Eric Jerome Dickey Google search should rank ahead of Wikipedia.org, based solely on the quality, depth and originality of the page's content. The AALBC.com page (http://bit.ly/ericjd) is just one example.
Reviewing the remaining results, we would see many more links to Google's dynamically generated pages, each page describing and selling just one of Eric's books. Amazon pages dominate as well. Dickey is just one example, any prominent author will yield similar results. Is the web searcher better served seeing these redundant results from just a few large corporations?
We've seen the following: (1) Google contributes substantially to Wikipedia's global ranking by returning Wikipedia very high in search results; (2) Google uses Wikipedia's content directly on their search results page to sell their eBooks; (3) Content from Wikipedia, which was created by unpaid volunteers, is used by Amazon, Facebook, and Google for commercial purposes; and (4) all of these websites are on the very first page of the Google search results, using Wikipedia's content, and profiting wildly as a result.
The problem is much more profound than the subjective rankings of different websites or the exploitation of Wikipedia for monetary gain. The biggest problem in this entire scenario is that the smaller websites that actually create much of the richness and uniqueness of the Web are increasingly buried so deep in the search results they are rendered invisible. The opinions, critical reviews, interviews, articles, and video created by independent sources are being outranked by a few corporate websites who are reusing Wikipedia's content.
Our collective experiences on the World Wide Web are diminished when only a handful of websites dominate the search results. When those websites reuse the same content over and over the ability to find new or different information on a variety of websites is made more difficult. There is still great independent content available being created online, but if the ability to be discovered is no longer a function of quality of content quality and more function of one's advertising budget or placement on Wikipedia, Facebook, Google or Amazon, it is not clear how much longer these independent websites can survive.
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