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Scepticism is a healthy part of SEO (or, why Wikipedia has NOT received a Google penalty)

A couple of weeks ago, SimilarWeb published an article with the sensationalist title “Is Wikipedia Being Hit By a Google Penalty?” (observant readers will note that the URL is even worse, a click-bait “Is Wikipedia dying?” which may have been the initially published title)

SimilarWeb claims that their website has seen a 40% drop in the amount of referral traffic from Wikipedia, and that their tool (which estimates website traffic and referring/referral data via purchased click-stream data) shows an equally sudden and severe decline in traffic.

wikipedia-organic-search

This (very superficial) analysis is interesting, and I’m actually quite a fan of SimilarWeb’s service – it gives a broad indicative view of a website’s potential traffic data, and the other data presented is useful for competitor analysis – although should be taken with a large grain of salt. Our own data analysis of client website data vs SimilarWeb’s reports revealed actual numbers can be out by +/-50%.

What I take issue with is the conclusions the SimilarWeb blog piece leaps to with this very limited data sampling:

“In conjunction with my recent post on Google’s new Panda 4.2 update, I want to explore another site that seems to have been hit – though whether or not it’s from Panda is still unclear.”

Wikipedia lost an insane amount of traffic in the past 3 months. And by insane I mean that the free encyclopedia site lost more than 250 million desktop visits in just 3 months!”

This type of wild speculation is exactly what’s wrong with the SEO industry. Let me explain.

This SimilarWeb piece has been shared to a huge audience.

It’s safe to say that the coverage has been read by 10,000’s of marketing people, and the article read by thousands of them.

And they’re all reading what is, in all likelihood, complete nonsense.

For one, losing 250 million desktop visits in three months is not “insane” – it’s a fluctuation of ~11%, something that many websites experience every month as a natural part of constantly changing traffic trends.

Why might Wikipedia have lost traffic from Google?

I’m not disputing that Wikipedia has lost traffic, but given the available evidence, I don’t believe for a minute that it’s because of a Google penalty, or a change in algorithm, or a change in Google Knowledge Graph “answer boxes” stealing traffic from websites (although there is certainly evidence of this as a longer term trend)

So, why has Wikipedia’s traffic dropped, especially from Google?

Reason 1 – Schools across the UK and US have broken up for summer

Wikipedia generates a huge amount of traffic from students doing research or looking for homework answers. You don’t need to go any further than the comments on the SimilarWeb article to see a comment left by Andrew Lih, a associate professor of journalism at American University in Washington, D.C. who has literally written the book on Wikipedia.

AndrewLih

Reason 2 – The U.S. TV season has ended

It’s mentioned by Andrew Lih above, but the evidence is right there in SimilarWeb’s own screenshot from their blog post

tvshows

House of Cards, Better Call Saul, Game of Thrones and dozens of other popular TV shows have finished their seasons in the US, so it’s not surprising that there’s been a substantial drop in search traffic for these terms, and a subsequent drop in Wikipedia traffic

Reason 3 – Wikipedia’s move to HTTPS (regards SimilarWeb’s drop in referral traffic from Wikipedia)

As I previously posted, websites that are hosted with a secure certificate on HTTPS don’t pass referral data through links to sites that are hosted on HTTP (non-secure protocol).  In June, Wikipedia started a substancial project to move all of their content over from HTTP to HTTPS. SimilarWeb, by default, is served from a HTTP site. You do the maths.

So what’s the issue?

My problem isn’t with SimilarWeb posting some interesting analysis. It’s not even that they’ve leaped to conclusions (which happen to be sensationalist and likely to attract engagement) with very little data and seemingly no attempt at understanding what the causes of their data observations might be.

It’s with the respected websites and industry experts sharing this content with their audiences with no scepticism, disclaimer or note of caution. By doing so, they encourage their vast audiences to take information at face value, and before you know it we have yet another “SEO myth” permanently circulating the industry and being repeated as fact in meetings and agencies all over the world.

For a community that prides itself on analysis, a scientific approach and above all integrity (to distance ourselves from the SEO spammers), it’s really disappointing to see misinformation being spread around with so little consideration.

So my plea? Please, please be sceptical and think for yourself when you read something about SEO or digital marketing. Do a little digging for yourself before you commit something to memory as “fact”, even if you’ve heard it from someone who’s deeply respected for what they do.

 

Update: Following up on the insistence that Jimmy Wales from Wikipedia has “confirmed” the traffic drop SimilarWeb are reporting, we reached out to him on Twitter for comment. His response is below:

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5comments

  • Boaz Sasson / 2 years ago

    Please see http://blog.similarweb.com/wikipedia-just-lost-550-million-visits-good-news-for-seo/ for an updated version of our Wikipedia post, which includes a statement by Wikipedia's Jim Wales, confirming that there was indeed a drop in seach traffic, but it was not gradual. Our numbers are showing this drop to have happened over the course of the last 6 months.

  • Rob Welsby / 2 years ago

    Hi Boaz. Thanks for the link to the 'updated version' of the post. I still have concerns however..

    1. There's no edit or update published on the original post to point users to the newer post - therefore people who follow the widely shared link to the older post are still going to be mislead.

    2. The newer blog post is more balanced in my opinion, and the observation that Google is providing more and more "direct answers" thus depriving traffic from informational websites like Wikipedia is spot on.

    However, there are still statements like "It may be that Google’s Panda update is partially responsible for the drop in Wikipedia’s mobile traffic." which is speculation with absolutely no evidence to back it up. Given how negative the idea of a "Google penalty" is to the general public (usually being equated to a website that's spamming the internet in some capacity), the digital marketing community needs to be more concious of the reputation damage this sort of accusation creates.

    3. "which includes a statement by Wikipedia’s Jim Wales, confirming that there was indeed a drop in seach traffic"

    Even with the caveat, this statement is quite disingenuous. Jimmy Wales's comment is actually "My understanding is that the Foundation is looking into this report with preliminary indications that it is wrong. The headline in particular is almost certainly wrong [...] We know there is a longterm issue with decreasing traffic from Google but this article makes it seem like something new and 'sudden' and 'massive' has happened."

    Wikipedia absolutely has seen a longer-term decline in traffic from Google, but in no way does this confirm the statements that SimilarWeb make in their first blog post of July 28th (which, remember, still includes no clarification).

    The purpose of my blog post was to point out that the digital marketing industry doesn't do itself any favours by reporting wild speculation in a way that many readers will take as fact, especially when respected industry peers share this content without any disclaimer or scepticism. This is what leads to "SEO myths" and misinformation being repeated as fact, which fundamentally undermines the integrity of the industry.

    Despite the better second blog post by SimilarWeb, I don't see that the situation I describe above is improved any.

  • Boaz Sasson / 2 years ago

    Fair enough, we're all entitled to opinions, and all that.

    Just keep in mind that we noticed a huge drop, tried to figure it out, came up with a good explanation, and to cap it all, got confirmation from JW that Wikipedia traffic, is indeed suffering, and now have others discussing the main issue, which is Google cannibalizing traffic from webmasters.

  • Roy Hinkis / 2 years ago

    Hi Rob, please check the updated data now: http://bit.ly/1Km9z6i

    • Rob Welsby / 2 years ago

      Thanks for the update, Roy. The latest post and data is very interesting. Especially the comparison of Wikipedia and SimilarWeb data on pageviews, which is remarkably similar in trend if not absolute numbers. It reinforces the general advice we give to clients - that tools like SimilarWeb (which we do often recommend) are really useful as a trend monitoring and benchmarking tool, although the absolute numbers given should generally not be treated as an accurate reflection of performance. Equally, the more traffic a website receives (i.e. more data), the more likely a tool like SimilarWeb is to be insightful. For smaller websites (<20,000 visits a month), any benchmarking tool using non-first party data is unlikely to provide much value.

      I'm really pleased to see the new post tones down on the speculation and postulation seen in the previous posts, which was the main issue I had with posts one and two - not the data itself which has opened up some fascinating discussions across the web.

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