Look Who's Using Wikipedia

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Poor Wikipedia. Professional Golfer Fuzzy Zoeller is suing one of its contributors for a defamatory cyber-attack. And last year, television host and comedian Stephen Colbert urged his audience to vandalize a Wikipedia entry about elephants to prove the point that in a model where any user can edit encyclopedia entries, those entries are only as good as their source. Take the case of retired journalist John Seigenthaler, a former assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who was wrongfully accused of involvement in the assassination of Robert and John Kennedy by an anonymous Wikipedia contributor in 2005. Given the controversy stirring around Wikipedia, the history department at Middlebury College has banned its use as a research source. When did the online form of the dust-covered encyclopedia become such a magnet for drama?

Academics are split on the usefulness of Wikipedia, which bills itself as "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit." The sheer volume of content (Wikipedia claims over 5.3 million entries, 1.6 million in English) is partly responsible for the site's dominance as an online reference. When compared to the top 3,200 educational reference sites in the U.S., Wikipedia is #1, capturing 24.3% of all visits to the category, according to Hitwise data. But as the recent drama illustrates, a body of online knowledge built by an army of 75,000 volunteer, anonymous contributors and editors is prone to anything from simple benign errors to outright information vandalism.

Search and Internet behavior data provide alarming insight into this powerful but volatile resource — alarming because one of the core groups of Wikipedia users are school children.

Determining the extent to which students leverage Wikipedia requires some data detective work. The search terms that users enter to navigate to the site are the most revealing. Along with searches for various anime cartoons, sex topics and information on the most recently shorn, exposed or departed celebrities, the majority of top terms bear a close resemblance to elementary school homework and research projects. During the month of February, which is also Black History month, three of the top 20 terms sending traffic to Wikipedia were for prominent black historical figures, while two other searches were likely motivated by President's Day. In fact, changing time-frames to any other month during the school year reveals a similar result. (Source: Hitwise)

Along with the impressive growth in visits to the site, 680% in two years, charting those visits over time confirms student activity. Over the last three years of growth, traffic dipped during the summer months and the weeks of spring break and winter vacation.

One of the reasons for Wikipedia's stellar growth rate in visits is all the traffic it receives from search engines, over 64% last week. In fact, due to Google's algorithm for displaying search results and the abundance of links in any given entry, Wikipedia has become the #1 external site visited after Google's search page.

As students begin their online research, they could view the prevalence of Wikipedia references in Google as proof of the accuracy and reliability of the source. Given the search exposure and sheer volume of data available on the site, they might fall into the trap of relying on a single source for their education. Hopefully their research projects won't involve elephants or professional golfers.

Bill Tancer is general manager of global research at Hitwise.