Following up on a phenomenon noted in a number of sources, an enterprising blogger has run an analysis to see where Wikipedia articles appear in different search engines. Confirming what others had observed, he reported that two of three major search engines would show a Wikipedia article in the top 10 search results more than 75% of the time.
The study was conducted by Jure Čuhalev, a former Slovenian Wikipedian, as part of a university seminar dealing with internet search. Čuhalev used Google, Yahoo!, and MSN, the three largest search engines by market share, which collectively support 80% or more of all internet searches. He reported that Wikipedia appeared in the top 10, thus putting it on the first page of results, on 81% of searches using Google and 77% for Yahoo. MSN produced Wikipedia articles much less often by comparison, only 38% of the time in the first ten results. (Seth Finkelstein argued that the difference was because Yahoo had largely imitated the factors Google uses in weighting pages for search results, while MSN took a different approach.)
Čuhalev's methodology involved taking 1000 randomly selected Wikipedia articles and using the titles as search queries. A number of people pointed out that this was likely to affect the results, since the searches would be skewed in favor of terminology used on Wikipedia as opposed to other sites. Several suggested that the experiment could be run using data from actual search queries, such as that controversially released by AOL earlier this year. This would presumably give more realistic results and avoid overstating Wikipedia's presence in search results, although most agreed that in their own experience, Wikipedia does come up frequently in searches.
Čuhalev sought to more systematically research a question that has been asked previously, and followed in the steps of several other bloggers who had examined Wikipedia's position in search results. Earlier, Steve Rubel had studied where Wikipedia articles appeared in Google searches for the brands of leading advertisers. He found that on average, Wikipedia fell just outside the top 10, but for a sizable number of brands the Wikipedia article would be on the first page of search results.
Tim Bray, analyzing the difficulty of finding population figures for Canadian provinces, decided that the lack of standardization among more authoritative sources is a major reason people turn to Wikipedia as an "easy and quick" alternative. Bray concluded, "So Wikipedia is going to win. Do you see any other plausible outcome?" One possibility that might bridge the gap, and a reason why dealing with expertise and conflicts of interest among editors are such hot-button topics, would be for the experts to take a greater interest in ensuring Wikipedia's accuracy and quality. The Nature analysis that compared Wikipedia with the Encyclopædia Britannica last year (see archived story), for example, took exactly this approach in urging its readers to improve Wikipedia articles in their fields of study.