When people say they’re going to “Google” something, they often mean–without quite acknowledging it–that they’re going to look it up on Wikipedia. If you’re looking for a good dry cleaner, then maybe Wikipedia doesn’t get involved. But if you’re googling cicadas (and you should be) or Marian Anderson or how many presidents have been assassinated–then the #1 result of your Google search is a Wikipedia entry. This is true even of a search for “Harry Potter,” where the #1 Google result is a Wikipedia entry, not JK Rowling’s website or Scholastic Publishing. Indeed the cheeky “I feel luck button” at Google–the one that takes you directly to the page Google thinks you want without all those distracting other results–virtually lands on Wikipedia as a default. So in essence Google is like a salesman who carries a wide variety of lines, but really only pushes one. For Google, that line is Wikipedia. The question is: should it be?
The size and scope of Wikipedia–admittedly an extraordinary, seminal cynosure of well-organized information–appeals innately to the Google algorithm. The algorithm’s workings, of course, are a world-beating secret (ask Bing), but one of its crucial elements is the role of popularity in determining its rankings. (Loosely based on the system of peer review in academia, the Google algorithm rewards consensus and size–just as an academic paper gains prestige and rank by being widely cited, a website gains rank by links it attracts.) But Wikipedia has been under fire recently for demonstrated biases in the information it organizes. The volunteer editorial team that has put together its 30 million pages and performed its more than 600 million edits is nearly 90% male. (Wikipedia itself is aware of the disparity and actively works to change it, but the facts remain.) If people trust Google–the “do no evil” company–because it delivers excellent information, should Wikipedia rank so highly? In enhancing Wikipedia’s standing, does Google inadvertently promote an organization that, for all its usefulness, has a demonstrated bias against women? And some other pretty unsavory biases as well? If Google’s algorithm didn’t favor Wikipedia, would more people get better information? If “googling” something didn’t mean–much of the time–really “wikipedia-ing” something, would competition have a better chance?