Wikipedia has lost about 300 million monthly desktop readers since the beginning of the year, according to a new analysis from Similar Web, an internet traffic analysis company.
The analysis appears to resolve an argument between Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Similar Web over whether Wikipedia was suffering an unexpected, recent decline in traffic. (Wales also expressed his distaste for Business Insider’s coverage of the issue, but we’ll get to that in a moment.)
Sea changes in Wikipedia’s readership are closely watched by web publishers.
Wikipedia can receive up to 3 billion unique readers every month, on desktop computers alone. The health of its audience, and patterns in its traffic, can be read as a proxy for total internet traffic and the health of the web in general. Wikipedia is currently the 10th biggest website on the planet. At the start of 2014, it used to be the fifth. Instagram.com is one of the sites that has overtaken it. As Wikipedia — through links on its pages — is also a massive source of traffic for other websites, any decline in Wikipedia traffic can be a bad sign for web businesses generally.
Similar Web now says the traffic decline wasn’t sudden:
Following feedback from Jimmy Wales we looked further back and it is now clear to us that this is indeed not a sudden development, but a longer trend that has intensified this year.
The decline appears to have happened following Wikipedia’s switch from delivering its pages in HTTP format to HTTPS, Similar Web and Wikipedia both say. HTTPS is a more secure, encrypted website publishing format, and it prevents bots from crawling Wikipedia and creating fake pageviews.
The total amount of traffic coming from Google has also declined overall, Wikipedia confirmed in an email to Business Insider. Part of that decline is seasonal — Wikipedia always sees a summer dip when students aren’t in classes. But the share of Wikipedia’s traffic coming from Google actually rose over the period, suggesting that Google has not done anything to reduce Wikipedia’s status in its search rankings. In other words, Google is not the source of Wikipedia’s loss of traffic. A spokesperson for Wikipedia told Business Insider:
With an overall page view decline during this period, we did see Google-referred traffic decline. The proportion illustrates that Google-referred traffic was declining at a slower rate than overall traffic on Wikimedia sites as measured by page views. In other words, Google-referred traffic declined less than expected during this period: while our traffic in the summer is at 85% of what it was at the beginning of the year, Google-sourced traffic is at 92%. This leads us to believe that other factors contributed to this general decline in traffic.
Here is the chart showing that decline:
Wales initially disputed Similar Web’s analysis of its traffic. SW said, “Wikipedia lost an insane amount of traffic in the past 3 months. … It looks like Google is giving preference to the brand itself, as opposed to a brand’s Wikipedia page.” Wales also took issue with Business Insider’s coverage, which called the loss of readers “sudden” and “massive.”
In response, Wales posted an internal Wikipedia analysis of its own traffic, which stated, “No direct data shows a decrease in Google traffic; in fact, direct referrals from Google have been increasing in the last few months, rather than decreasing.”
In an email conversation with Business Insider, Wales said, “This is not a complaint about interpretation it’s a complaint about people running with a story with zero zero zero zero actual facts.”
“You … write a confusing and speculative analysis suggesting that oh, maybe our direct and simple statement is wrong. But it isn’t. Direct referrals from Google have been increasing in the last few months. Simple as that.”
However, Wikipedia’s report showed only an increase in Google’s share of traffic landing on Wikipedia, not an actual increase in the total number of clicks Google delivered to Wikipedia. Business Insider pressed both Wales and Wikipedia on this issue, and now — according to Similar Web’s most recent analysis, conducted with input from Wales — it appears that Wikipedia did suffer from a total decline in incoming traffic from Google this year.
And, just to reiterate, the decline from Google appears likely to be linked to the adoption of HTTPS, which reduces the number of fake clicks, and NOT because Google has somehow downranked Wikipedia.
We asked Wales for one final comment and he replied, “All good.”
Here are the top 10 biggest sites on the web: