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Wikipedia page views in downhill slide

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Yesterday, the foremost Wikipedia criticism site, Wikipediocracy.com, revealed on its blog a batch of web traffic data from the Wikimedia Foundation that is truly newsworthy: Wikipedia experienced in 2013 the first-ever year-over-year loss in page views. And this decline in readership isn't limited to just the English-language encyclopedia we know and love to mistrust. The same setbacks in page views are manifested on the French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish language versions of Wikipedia (see graphic).

Even though monthly traffic patterns on Wikipedia can take temporary dips and surges, ever since 2008 the annual page views have always exceeded the previous year -- that is, until 2013. What happened?

Google's to blame

In an ironic twist, the Google search engine that has been said to drive 60% to 70% of all Wikipedia's inbound traffic is the same culprit leading to the recent downfall in page views at Wikipedia, according to the Wikipediocracy hypothesis. Throughout 2012 and leading into 2013, Google implemented its "Knowledge Graph" boxes and image carousels on the first page of many topical search results. Because these information panels take content from Wikipedia while answering most of the questions that the user was looking to solve (such as "what's the capital of Morocco?" or "who is Kate Beckinsale married to?"), fewer Googlers are taking the additional time to click through to Wikipedia to read the more in-depth articles found there. Thus, fewer Wikipedia page views in 2013.

The semi-official newsletter of Wikipedia, The Signpost, recently described how "the statistics for edits and editor numbers over the past year are looking queasy for most projects, although page views are holding up". Actually, it looks like even the page-view numbers are looking queasy, too.

The twist 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. The Wikimedia Foundation probably thought it was in the driver's seat when it set up its new "Wikidata" project, with funding from Google. But then the following year, Google wooed away Wikidata's project director and semantic web expert, Denny Vrandecic, to come work for Google. Now, Google has figured out a way to take that same semantic 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. Google's donation to the Wikimedia Foundation turned out to be more of an investment in future ad income.

Disclosure: Gregory Kohs, the author of this story, owns the domain-name registration for Wikipediocracy.com, which is a non-commercial site with no earnings.

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