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Wikipedia via Google

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The other day, after reading this article about factual errors on Wikipedia, it dawned on me how often my family and I uses Wikipedia to find information. It's an amazing tool and while the warnings about mistakes and misinformation have dogged it for years, it continues to be one of the most popular sites on the Web.

I have seen comments from people who've claimed to have stopped using Google in favor of Wikipedia. It's hard to believe that at first, but even I have started doing the same thing, albeit in a more indirect way. When I need to look up something I start by searching Google, and generally Wikipedia is one of the top of results. In fact in most cases, that's the link I'm looking for. Why not search Wikipedia on Wikipedia site? Two reasons: I want to see other the other unbiased search results, and, Google search is way faster and better than Wikipedia's.

Most of my searches are of no consequence. For example, when Syd Barrett died, I went to Wikipedia to learn more about the life of this Pink Floyd's founding member. I also used Wikipedia to find out more about the relatively new rock band, My Chemical Romance. In both case, Google was the point of entry for me. And if there were factual errors for those Wikipedia entries, it wouldn’t matter much.

But suppose I was researching lung cancer or lymphoma, both of which have Wikipedia pages appearing high on Google results. Factual errors in those cases could result in catastrophic decisions being made by a potential patient, or even a health care provider in a third-world country who supplements Internet research with his own knowledge and judgment. I would have preferred a site like WebMD to upstage Wikipedia for those terms.

Wikipedia has the vaunted position of dominating Google's best search results for many terms. I can imagine that a large portion of its traffic originates from Google. If the site wasn't not-for-profit, it might have been a formidable competitor to Google itself. But perhaps it is its non-profit status that gets it the favorable treatment from Google. That's just speculation on my part as Google always claims to be unbiased about its search results, using mainly popularity as a criteria. Whatever the case, the Google, Wikipedia virtual duopoly seems to be receiving some backlash, at least in the academic circles. For instance, my children's teachers, on a number of occasions, have forbidden their classes from consulting either site for their homework. I applaud them for that, as that sends a message to the youth that relying on a single source for information is not always wise.

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