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.
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 been covered by Business Insider on their country-specific websites around the world. (They’ve “reached out to Google for comment”)
- It’s also been picked up by Search Engine Journal
- Shared on LinkedIn 181 times.
- Shared on Facebook 146 times.
- It’s been Tweeted about 194 times, including by SEO authorities I respect like Rand Fishkin, Martin Macdonald, Dr Dave Chaffey and Aaron Wall
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.
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
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:
— Jimmy Wales (@jimmy_wales) August 18, 2015