Sunday, February 18, 2007

Wikipedia's Feckless Attempts to Fight Link Spam

Although it's hardly breaking news, I recently discovered that Wikipedia developer Brion Vibber has reinstated nofollow attributes for outbound links on Wikipedia articles. Brion took this action at the request of Wikipedia founder and God-king Jimbo Wales, but Brion also mentioned that he had heard a rumor that a search engine optimization (SEO) contest threatened to overwhelm Wikipedia with spam. According to Brion, the change will be for the indefinite future:
"I'd prefer to see actual improvements (whitelisting, fading, flagging and approval system, etc) rather than just turn it off one day, though."
Hard on the heels of this policy change, most members of the SEO community started crying foul, even as a significant number of Wikipedians started chanting, "Ding, dong, the witch is dead." Both of these responses are what I would have expected. However, when the nofollow feature was first put to a vote on Wikipedia some time ago, a majority of Wikipedians voted to turn off the nofollow attribute on Wikimedia software, returning Wikipedia to the status quo ante.

Even with the nofollow atribute enabled on Wikimedia software, Wikipedia remains an attractive nuisance for link spammers, as Wikipedia is currently ranked 12th on Alexa for overall web traffic. Assuming that the nofollow attribute does what it purports to do, all the current Wikipedia nofollow policy does is make sure that a search engine like Google does not count links on Wikipedia as votes in favor of increasing a particular URL's Google PageRank. While this may have a phenomenal impact on search engine rankings and results over the next month or two, it will have little to no impact on Wikipedia link spam, at least not in the foreseeable future.

Simply put, Wikipedia's nofollow policy makes about as much sense as screen doors on a submarine. While the latter may keep the fish out, the floodgates will remain open, and the shameful joy of the Wikipedians who think that Jimbo has struck a blow for truth, justice, and the American way is sounding more and more like hollow and self-aggrandizing rhetoric:
"We are not a links directory which is one of the problems with various ideas to selectively turn off no follow[sic]. If we do that we are basicaly[sic] admiting[sic] we are a links directory and we would gain very little for doing so."
Notwithstanding claims to the contrary, Wikipedia is a trusted source of URLs, not unlike a links directory. Moreover, it's pretty clear that link spam is already a serious problem for Wikipedia, and that the problem is only going to get much worse for the foreseeable future, prompting me to revise what I asserted in a previous blog post that the first practical limitation that Wikipedia will encounter will be in its ability to attract additional contributors. Indeed, the problem that Wikipedia now has is that it is attracting too many contributors with a hidden agenda.

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