William Beutler on Wikipedia

How Did the New York Times Overestimate Wikipedia’s Popularity? [Corrected]

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on August 30, 2009 at 11:59 am by William Beutler

Update: Man, did I blow this one? Yeah, I think I did. David Gerard points out in the comments that updated gobal comScore figures — which are not easy to come by but which have been donated to Wikimedia and are available here — indeed show that the Foundation’s websites at #4 globally, with Wikipedia presumably the biggest traffic-driver by a long shot. So, hey, that’s great news. And that should be more widely-known. However, in the U.S. Wikipedia is still somewhere around #9 overall.

Which brings me to the mistake that got me here: I had misquoted ComScore and Quantcast numbers below as being global figures when in fact they were U.S. That’s just my mistake, and essentially the same mistake I had accused Cohen of making. So, there you have it. I will retreat now to the assertion that the New York Times should adopt Wikipedia’s inclusion of inline citations. Then maybe I wouldn’t make mistakes like this one.

New York Times tech correspondent Noam Cohen, reporting on the final day of the Wikimania conference in Buenos Aires for the NYT’s Bits blog, begins his most recent dispatch as such:

Considering that Wikipedia has reached Top Five world status among Web sites – with more than 330 million users – its annual Wikimania conference, which ended Friday night in BuenosAires, featured a lot of hand-wringing about all the problems the project faces.

What catches my attention is the assertion that Wikipedia has attained “Top Five” status worldwide. Cohen doesn’t provide a source (no small irony there) which makes his decision to uppercase the phrase “Top Five” all the more curious. According to what metric? There are several to choose from. And according to whose calculations? There are several competing firms who collect, analyze and determine such rankings, but none of them is necessarily authoritative.

The best-known but least-respected is Amazon-owned Alexa, which currently puts Wikipedia at #6 globally, according to a combination of users and pageviews counted by Alexa’s (somewhat murky) sources. That’s close, but it’s not in the top five.

Compete.com, a web metrics company which makes some public rankings available, lists Wikipedia at best #9 globally, according to Unique visitors. Somewhat surprisingly, it doesn’t rank for their other metrics, such as Visits and Page views.

A similar company is Comscore (I mean, comScore) which releases such information on a press release basis. Their last report, in July, put Wikimedia Foundation Sites at #10 for Unique visitors — actually down one place from a few months earlier.

Another service is Quantcast, one of the newer entrants and also one of the most-praised. Quantcast currently puts Wikipedia at #8. Although I like that figure — it reflects figures I’ve seen in months past and have quoted numerous times — perhaps we can split the difference and say, right now, Wikipedia is #9 overall. Nothing to be ashamed of there.

But then where does Cohen’s “Top Five” claim derive? I tried Googling for the answer, and I think I might have it.

According to an August 8, 2009 entry published on the blog of a web design firm which may be called PJ Designs and Concepts, Wikipedia lands in the “top five Social Media websites in terms of Inbound Links, Google Page Rank, Alexa Rank, and U.S. traffic data from Compete and Quantcast.” In fact Wikipedia ranks second, behind only MySpace and ahead of YouTube, Facebook and Photobucket. I find this claim somewhat suspicious. For one thing, Facebook routinely ranks in the top three of rankings by Alexa, Compete and Quantcast (follow the above links). It also has an identical PageRank to MySpace: 9/10, which Wikipedia also enjoys. That the post is authored by “admin” does not especially inspire confidence, either. And of course, these are just “social media” sites and not all “Web sites.”

Granted, it’s possible that new scholarship was announced at Wikimania, but I think that would have been worth a headline itself. As much as I’d like to see Wikipedia at #5 (let alone #2) I think we’d know if this was the case. If there is another explanation for Cohen’s assertion than the one I propose above, I can’t find it. But I’ll let you know if I find out.

  1. Wikimedia sites actually ranked #4 on ComScore for ages, then #5 when Facebook overtook us. I’m surprised at that #10 ranking you link, that’s new and suggests they changed what they were figuring into their numbers.

    Alexa ranks by URLs, not owner (unlike ComScore).

  2. For an example, meta User:Stu has a copy of the March 2009 listings here:

    http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Stu/comScore_data_on_Wikimedia

    Wikimedia sites are #4 there. No way it dropped from #4 to #10 in four months calculated by the same method. Though both sets of numbers claim to be “unique visitors”.

  3. Aha.. well, this makes more sense now. First of all, I erred in a big way: ComScore and QuantCast are both listing U.S. figures, not global figures. This makes Alexa’s #6 look a bit better, since that one is explicitly a global figure.

    I suppose I can’t much fault his shorthand “Wikipedia” for “Wikimedia Foundation Sites” as I presume Wikipedia is by far the most-trafficked.

    All the more reason, then, for the NYT to cite sources! So I wouldn’t make mistakes like this.

  4. Yeah, US vs global makes sense and I didn’t think of it either, even when reading Stu’s page :-) We went from #4 to #5 globally as Facebook overtook us.

    English Wikipedia is about 30% of the pageviews, I think. (Also 30% of the data, and has one of the three Foundation database servers all to itself.) The biggest Wikipedias are really quite a lot, I think. I need to review all the latest statistics for press questions :-)

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