Informing ourselves: the weight of links (and tags)

Tim Daly has written a thoughtful piece about how Wikipedia may be interfering with search engine algorithms, which is a concern for people like Tim who work in the search engine marketing industry. Daly argues that Wikipedia pages will show up on the first page of many results on any of the search engines, and he hopes this fact will be startling to search engine marketers.

Across every search engine today, Wikipedia stands tall as the authority on just about every subject matter underneath the sun. Whether you are in need of the definition of a word, a biography of a famous person, or you simply wish to determine the origin of something, Wikipedia stands out on search engines as a credible authority, regardless of the subject.

But then he goes on to argue a position that really needs to be challenged: that these results are not relevant, because they’re based on the value of internal and external links:

Its success at showing up so frequently on all fronts demonstrates the weakness that lies in search engines’ algorithms that has perhaps rendered them obsolete. The shortcoming particularly lies in the overreaching importance given to link popularity. Wikipedia shows up in results so consistently due to the millions of internal and external links that it has generated across the Web. While search engine algorithms take this as a vote that the material on the page has substance, this is truly a “subjective” take, which is given “objective” weight in the algorithm. Obviously, Wikipedia cannot be the authority on everything. It simply shows up because it has tens of millions of links that suggest to computer algorithms that it is an expert, without further evaluation of this claim.

This is a fascinating argument and one that, I believe, flows from traditional assumptions about authority and relevance as applied to what is essentially a cultural change. If, for example, you believe that authority and relevance are best determined using “objective” standards, it’s very likely that those standards were derived through institutional (hierarchical) mechanisms. Linking, in this context, is seen as crude and clumsy, a mechanism that has no place in that which can be weighed and measured.

However, if you view search as a way that people are informing themselves (God forbid!), then weight assigned to links is pretty darned important. This idea of people informing themselves is at the core of the Personal Media Revolution, and it has pretty profound ramifications for anybody in the information business.

Comments

  1. Seventeen required fields for the privilege of reading the article? I’ll pass. These folks need to read some of your essays.

    Terry, I think this argument flows from the assumption that one’s carefully-crafted, Search Engine Optimized site should obviously be the top result for its targeted search terms. Wikipedia has not generated millions of links, millions of people have linked to Wikipedia articles because the articles are relevant. Why would anyone make a gratuitous link to a random Wikipedia article? If your goal was to be the top hit for Nigritude Ultramarine, it would be annoying to you that people were linking to the Wikipedia article (the #3 hit as I write this). The same claims about large numbers of internal and external links have been made against blogs and messageboards. To some people, it’s a problem if a search for internet advertising brings up your blog. Those people would be the ones selling internet advertising.

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