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November 21, 2011

Should Wikipedia accept advertising?

imageIt’s that time of year again. The nights are drawing in, snow is starting to fall in the mountains, our minds turn to thoughts of turkey and Christmas pudding, and familiar faces appear: Santa, Len and Bruno, and of course, Jimmy Wales.

If you are a user of Wikipedia (which, if you’re a user of the Internet, you almost certainly are), you’ll likely be familiar with Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia and head of the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit which runs the site. Each year Jimmy personally fronts a campaign to raise funds to cover the cost of running Wikipedia, which this year will amount to around $29m.

The most visible part of this campaign is the giant banner featuring Jimmy Wales’s face which appears at the top of every Wikipedia article at this time of year. This year the banner has caused some hilarity as the position of the picture of Jimmy just above the article title has provided endless comic potential (as above), but every year it becomes increasingly wearisome to have Jimmy’s mug staring out at you for around three months. Would it not be easier for all concerned if Wikipedia just carried some advertising?

Jimmy has gone on record as saying that he doesn’t believe that Wikipedia should be funded by advertising, and I understand his position. To parse/interpret his concerns, I believe he’s worried about the following:

  • Accepting advertising would compromise Wikipedia’s editorial independence from commercial interests
  • Ads would interfere with the user experience of Wikipedia and be intrusive
  • Wikipedia contributors would not want to contribute for free to Wikipedia if they knew it was accepting advertising

I’m biased, of course, since I work for Microsoft Advertising, but I believe that each of these concerns is manageable. Let’s take them one by one:

Concern 1: Ads would compromise Wikipedia’s independence

There are plenty of historical examples where a publication has been put in a difficult position when deciding what to publish because of relationships with large advertisers. Wikipedia certainly doesn’t want, for example, Nike complaining about the content of its Wikipedia entry. And the idea of Wikipedia starting to employ sales reps to hawk its inventory is a decidedly unedifying one.

But Wikipedia does not have to engage in direct sales, or even non-blind selling, to reach its financial goals with advertising. The site could make its inventory available on a blind ad network (or ideally multiple networks) so that it would be impossible for an advertiser to specifically buy ad space on Wikipedia. If an advertiser didn’t like their ads appearing on Wikipedia, most networks offer a site-specific opt out, but the overall impact of this to Wikipedia would be minimal – Wikipedia carries such a vast range of content that it has the most highly diversified content portfolio in the world – no single advertiser could exert any real leverage over it.

Concern 2: Ads would make Wikipedia suck

As has been noted elsewhere, there are plenty of horrible ads at large in the Internet – intrusive pop-ups, or horrible creative. It would certainly be a valid concern that Wikipedia would suddenly become loaded with distracting commercial messages. But according to the back-of-an-envelope calculations I’ve done, there is no need for Wikipedia to saturate itself with ads in order to pay the bills.

According to the excellent stats.wikimedia.org site, Wikipedia served almost exactly 15bn page views world-wide in October 2011 (around half of which were in English). Assuming no growth in that figure over 12 months, that’s around 180bn PVs per year. So to meet its funding requirements, Wikipedia would need to generate a $0.16 eCPM on those page views (assuming just one ad unit per page). That’s a pretty modest rate, especially on a site with as much rich content as Wikipedia. It would give the site a number of options in terms of ad placement strategy, such as:

  • Place a very low-impact, small text ad on every page
  • Place a somewhat larger/more impactful ad on a percentage of pages on a rotation, and leave other pages ad free
  • Place ads on certain types of pages, leaving others always ad free (such as pages about people or companies, or pages in a particular language/geo)
  • Deploy a mix of units across different types of page, or in rotation

This also assumes that Wikimedia needs to raise all its funds every year from advertising, which it may not need to – though once the site accepted advertising, it would definitely become more difficult (though perhaps not impossible) to raise donations.

To preserve the user experience, I would definitely recommend just running text ads, which could be placed relatively unobtrusively. Sites running text-based contextual ads (such as those from Google AdSense or Microsoft adCenter) can usually expect to get at least around $0.30 eCPM, so there would be some headroom.

I would also recommend that Wikipedia not run targeted ads – or at least, only work with networks that do not sell user data to third parties. It could cause significant backlash if it became felt that Wikipedia was effectively selling data about its users’ browsing habits to advertisers for a fast buck.

Concern 3: Ads would make contributors flee

I can speak to this concern less authoritatively, since I am not that familiar with the world of Wikipedia contribution, but so long as Wikimedia made it clear that it was remaining a non-profit organization, and continued to operate in a thrifty fashion to cover its costs, the initial outrage of Wikipedia contributors could be managed. After all, plenty of other open-source projects that rely on unpaid contributors do provide the foundations for commercial activities, Linux being the best example.

In any case, in its deliberations about balancing the needs of its contributors with its need to pay the bills, Wikimedia will need to face some hard questions: Will it always be able to cover its costs through donations? Does the current level of investment in infrastructure represent an acceptable level of risk for a site that serves so many users? Is it acceptable to rely on unpaid contributors indefinitely? If Wikipedia ran out of cash or went down altogether, the righteous indignation of its contributors may not count for very much.

Apart from advertising and donations, the only other way that Wikipedia could pay the bills would be by creating paid-for services – for example, a research service. But would the unpaid Wikipedia contributors really be happier with this outcome than with advertising? It would effectively amount to selling the content that they’d authored for free. At least with advertising, it’s the user that is the product, not the content. So long as Wikipedia can maintain editorial independence and retain a good user experience, advertising feels like the better option to me.

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