SAI contributor Nate Westheimer is the founder of BricaBox, a stealth-phase NYC start-up. He writes the blog Innonate.
The tech press has been consumed by two things: the introduction of the Google Knol and the release of Wikia Search (see Allen Stern’s excellent coverage here). If there’s one thing that’s clear from these two events, it’s that we may be moving towards a cataclysmic collision between the Monolith-of-Search (Google) and the Monolith-of-Knowledge (Jimmy Wales and his Wikipedia/Wikia empire).
In August, 2007, Answers.com, a publicly traded company, announced to its shareholders that, due to a slight change in Google’s ranking algorithm, traffic and revenue for the company would decline by over 25%.
This caused many to raise questions about Google’s power, including usually calming folks like Om Malik. Google’s move sent a clear signal: you may have the information, but we have the gateway to that information, and in this relationship, you’re the one who’s vulnerable.
Knol and the Coming Threat to Wikipedia
Fast forward now to early December, when Google announced a new community knowledge project called “Knol.” Knol squares off directly against Wikipedia in the war over human edited information centralization, and places itself at the source (Google Search) of at least 50% of traffic to the World’s 9th most visited website (Wikipedia supposedly get 40-something per cent directly from Google, but one has to assume that the search engine’s ranking of the website increases links from other sources as well).
So here Google is, taking advantage of the centralization of Search, and wedging itself between its Search and “knowledge content.” Taking the Answers.com issues into account, it’s clear that Wikipedia could have a major drop in traffic sometime in the near future, with the combination of new Google Knol content and an always-possible change in the PageRank algorithm.
Search and Diversity
What’s Jimmy Wales to do? What’s the World to do, if the free, open knowledge base starts to lose power to a private, proprietary knowledge base run by the Internet’s greatest superpower?
To start, Wikia (Jimmy’s private but very-related company) has just released a search engine called Wikia Search. Besides the independent imperative to “make money” (see Valley Wag’s Nick Carlson confused about this concept here), Jimmy and Company are surely realising that a world with a more open Search market is a world better for Wikipedia itself.
With so much traffic coming into Wikipedia from one source, they’re right to think that diversifying the source of traffic will be the only way for Wikipedia, and its wonderful ideals, to remain the #9 website in the World.
But Wikia Search is the wrong way to make Wikipedia better — the products are disconnected and there’s too small of chance of success — so Wikipedia needs to save itself by diversifying where its knowledge lives, rather than diversifying the direct source of traffic to that knowledge.
How to diversify where Wikipedia lives
This all leads me back to what I state in the first sentence of this post: Wikipedia needs to introduce a full API to its content, editing, and moderation systems. Using today’s technology, there’s no reason why developers shouldn’t be able to integrate Wikipedia into their own sites; and if developers are willing to abide by the standards of Wikipedia, there’s no reason not to allow editing and moderation to occur in a distributed fashion either.
When you think of it, the fact that Wikipedia’s content is not easily distributable through an API, and editable too, is surprising. Newer, Wikipedia-type products — like Freebase — have extensive APIs for the greater community. Even BricaBox will have an API for public content within its first year after launch.
And so I say it’s time — and with the Knol soon to come out, there’s no better time:
Open Wikipedia. Give us an API. Allow us to display content easily and anywhere. And allow the beauty of Wikipedia to exist throughout the rest of the Internet.
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