What happened was, I went to check out the new Microsoft search engine at live.com (it’s not bad), and I started by looking for myself. I was kind of surprised when my Wikipedia entry came in ahead of ongoing. (Wikipedia’s #2 at Google and Yahoo.) I’m seeing this pattern of Wikipedia inching up the search-result charts for a whole lot of things. Search-result rank, on the Internet, more or less equals Authority. So this trend has to worry the anti-Wikipedians. It worries me too. Maybe it could be reversed, but I don’t think so. [Update: Byron Saltysiak suggests a more positive aproach.]
There’s an old saying in business: if you want to get credit, the first thing you have to do is show up. Let me rephrase that: if you want to have authority on the Web, you have to show up on the Web. And those who ought to enjoy more authority than Wikipedia aren’t. Let me make the point by example.
Tonight’s Assignment · Let’s ask an interesting real-world question that real-world people might ask: for each of the ten provinces of Canada, what is its population? Let’s suppose you’re not a Canadian insider who knows that the Source Of All Numbers is Statistics Canada. So, you could go to Wikipedia, which would be easy and quick. From East to West you’d look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newfoundland, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_Edward_Island, and, well, I’ll stop there, because the pattern is obvious. On each of those pages you’ll find the population, along with a lot of other basic facts, presented crisply and legibly, no further steps required.
But you know, that’s just the Wikipedia; some joker might have gone in and changed the number by couple hundred thousand up or down, just for fun. Wouldn’t you be better off going to a source with some real authority?
I think you would. And that authority would be, in each case, the provincial government. Well, the good news is that they’re easy to find. Go to your favorite search engine, type in “Government of Newfoundland” and you’re there in one click. Then the news gets bad; let’s go East to West.
Newfoundland is poor start. You have to go four clicks off the front page, and it took me way more because the way to go isn’t obvious so I took some side-trips. Eventually you get to http://www.stats.gov.nl.ca/Statistics/Population/, but it doesn’t have the numbers, just links to a bunch of PDFs.
Prince Edward Island also has a maze-like web site; once you find it, three clicks in is http://www.gov.pe.ca/infopei/index.php3?number=5100 but, once again, the answer’s not there, just links back into Statistics Canada.
Nova Scotia could be worse: three fairly direct clicks to http://www.gov.ns.ca/finance/statistics/agency/index.asp which actually has the number on it.
Québec is better; I took one side-trip (perhaps due to weak French) but it’s only two clicks to http://www.gouv.qc.ca/portail/quebec/pgs/commun/portrait/demographie?lang=fr, which even provides a little commentary on the numbers.
Ontario is a fairly straight three-click run, but the URL is frankly astounding: http://www.gov.on.ca/ont/portal/!ut/p/.cmd/cs/.ce/7_0_A/.s/7_0_252/_s.7_0_A/7_0_252/_l/en?docid=EC001035, and the page is full of anodyne marketing-speak, saying “With a population of more than 12 million...”
British Columbia, my own province, is awful; the front page has lots of cheesy photos of the Premier but no useful facts-and-figures pointers, I spent a few minutes poking around and gave up.
The Right Answer · It’s here, but good luck finding it. I found it because it was (very quietly, easy to miss) linked from the Ontario population page.
Horrible URIs · Cast your eyes back across those web addresses. What are your chances of guessing them? Of remembering them? Of writing them down accurately? If you bookmark them, how confident are you that they’ll be there after the next site re-org?
The End · So if the public-sector community decided to standardize their URIs, or adopt a principle that every front page should have a FAQ link, or make some sort of concerted intelligent attempt to show up on the Web, they might grab some authority back. But they’re not. And I don’t see any signs of interest.
So Wikipedia is going to win. Do you see any other plausible outcome?