Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Wikipedia is the new Yahoo

In the beginning — 1994, early 1995 — Yahoo wasn't a portal, or a search engine. It was a collection of links to “cool stuff,” compiled by a group of grad students. They categorized everything that they found on the web, and the rest of us benefited: we could go to Yahoo, drill down through the categories, and learn about whatever we were interested in at the moment.

The web expanded, of course, until it was no longer possible for human-powered indexing to capture everything. And that's when the search engines took over: Yahoo itself, Altavista, and the current king, Google.

The trouble with search engines is that they aren't very selective — although Google certainly tries. I see this with my own website: there's a single line in my pancake recipe that describes the appropriate time to flip a pancake, and it regularly turns up highly ranked for the search term "pancake flipping." I can only imagine that the people who search for that term want to learn how to flip a pancake, not when. None of them have clicked through to my recipe.

I've recently noticed a change in my own browsing habits: when I want to learn about something, I don't go to Google first. Instead, I turn to Wikipedia. This in itself isn't unusual: lots of people turn to Wikipedia for a summary view of a topic. What is unusual is that, after reading the entry, I start clicking on the footnote links.

This makes sense: these links are selected by the people editing the article, as authoritative references to the subject. They are almost guaranteed to be the best, most relevant links for that topic.

All of which reminds me a lot of 1994, except the index has moved out of the dorm room.

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