Wikipedia needs to stop begging for donations and start implementing ads

Wikipedia needs to stop begging for donations and start implementing ads

Summary: I think it's time for Wikipedia to stop existing solely on donations and embrace an ad-based model of monetization for sustainability. Here's why.

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All over it like a hobo on a ham sandwich!

I don't know about you, but I love Wikipedia. Contrary to the worn-out criticism that nothing on Wikipedia is accurate or worth quoting, I find that it's quite often a great resource for information on topics I'm interested in researching -- or, at least, it often provides an accurate, easily-digestible summary of a topic prior to deeper research elsewhere, if needed. As the years pass by and Wikipedia presses on, I've noticed a few constants:

1 - The quality and credibility of their content continues to increase. 2 - They are continually one of the most trafficked sites on the Internet. 3 - Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, appeals for donations instead of just implementing ads to support server and staff costs.

The first two are great, but the third is really beginning to wear me thin. And to be honest, his face is starting to become more annoying to me than those old smiley ads that, when hovered over, said "SAY SOMETHING! WAAAT?". The reason for that is because every time I see his face pop up at the top of Wikipedia, I can almost guarantee it's there to ask me for money -- much like an ad, but more like a hobo who washes your windshield at a red light in hopes for some spare change so they can keep on doing what they do.

For example, here's what I currently see at the top of Wikipedia:

And here's his appeal in full, which I will use to base my points on below:

Google might have close to a million servers. Yahoo has something like 13,000 staff. We have 400 servers and 73 staff. Wikipedia is the #5 site on the web and serves 454 million different people every month – with billions of page views.

Commerce is fine. Advertising is not evil. But it doesn't belong here. Not in Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is something special. It is like a library or a public park. It is like a temple for the mind. It is a place we can all go to think, to learn, to share our knowledge with others.

When I founded Wikipedia, I could have made it into a for-profit company with advertising banners, but I decided to do something different. We’ve worked hard over the years to keep it lean and tight. We fulfill our mission, and leave waste to others.

If everyone reading this donated $20, we would only have to fundraise for one day a year. But not everyone can or will donate. And that's fine. Each year just enough people decide to give.

This year, please consider making a donation of $5, $20, $50 or whatever you can to protect and sustain Wikipedia.

Thanks, Jimmy Wales Wikipedia Founder

That sounds awesome, right? I mean, surely, anyone looking to do everything they can to not implement ads that might annoy users is to be commended, right? Well, not that it's not commendable, but I think his aversion to ads is an extremely misplaced endeavor now, what with the state of monetization and the very real cost of running a popular site on the Internet in 2011 (and, soon, 2012).

As such, the non-profit "free encyclopedia," as Wikipedia is sub-titled, is only really free to the people who don't donate. It costs money to operate, and without money to support it, it could be the non-existent encyclopedia. But the way I see it is that there's nothing wrong with making money for providing a useful service. I get it that he wants to be a non-profit who harbors a site where people can freely access information, but Wikipedia can still be all that even with ads.

Above, he states their desire to keep Wikipedia "lean and tight," but a site can still be that with ads as well. All they needs is the right person to come on board and discuss options for ad placement, ad sizes, etc. A/B testing would be a cinch with as many pages and visitors as they have, and it's not like people would stop using Wikipedia if ads were implemented, because Wikipedia is of value to millions of people, daily. Sure, if ads were implemented, I'm fairly confident we would see a vocal few writing sensationalistic posts like "The Death of Wikipedia," but that would be a short-lived venture and, in my humble opinion, completely inaccurate.

Would it take Wikipedia falling into dire straits before they implemented ads, or would Mr. Wales let the ship sink? I mean, it just seems ridiculous to me that he's so adamant about not implementing ads. They don't have to be pop-ups or pop-behinds or bright, seizure-inducing flashy ads or whatever else. The ad environment can be policed, controlled, clean, and facile for users. They could even be rolled out with extremely small, perhaps text-based ads to start with. You don't have to jump in with both feet right off the bat. There is so much flexibility with ads these days, it's crazy to continue writing them off.

Now, I understand that implementing ads would shift the direction of Wikipedia away from the ad-less one they've been heading in from day-one -- as well as whatever that would imply for them as a non-profit organization -- but monies gathered via ads could be used not only for sustaining running costs, but other noble facets as well... like donations! Hey, imagine Wikipedia doling out the donations instead of asking for them!

As for the people who would want to keep using Wikipedia without seeing ads, here's the deal: if someone doesn't want to see ads that badly, then they most likely already have Firefox with the Adblock Plus extension installed. And if it's a matter of not wanting to show ads to specific people/regions, then you can control that as well! Display ads to just the top-3 richest cities in America if you want.

But the real kicker to this is that Wikipedia wouldn't use something like Google AdSense to monetize, no. They wouldn't have to, because companies would practically trip over each other to have their ads displayed to 454 million people every month! They could have companies bid, much like advertising on Google; pay them a set fee to display X number of ads on X pages; implement an ad network that's like AdSense, or something else altogether.

[RELATED: Make money online, part 1: Introduction to Google AdSense]

Lastly, I would like to address the following statement: "Wikipedia is something special. It is like a library or a public park. It is like a temple for the mind. It is a place we can all go to think, to learn, to share our knowledge with others."

You know... while Wikipedia is certainly something special, it's not so special that it can't be easily replicated by someone who could do it better and make a killing doing so. If Wikipedia fails to meet its monetary requirements, then the idea of Wikipedia and the information therein is all out there, just waiting for someone else to come along and do it all again in a different, more easily sustainable manner.

Overall, I'm not asking Wikipedia to stop accepting donations. By all means, keep the donations flowing. But at this rate, as a frequent Wikipedia user, I would very much appreciate the consideration of alternate monetization models. Maybe it's not a big deal to others, but I'd like to see Wikipedia move from a needy entity to one that's able to sustain itself primarily through means that ask nothing of its users. Naturally, no one's visiting Wikipedia to see or click an ad, but if your ads present something that's relevant to the content of a page and potentially enriching for the life of the viewer of that page in some way, then you're simply providing added value to their experience.

I have plenty more I would like to say on this matter so as to shore up the many loose ends that exist from my points above, as well as to mention other methods of monetization they could try, but I don't want to get too much more long-winded than I've already been. With that in mind, I'm curious to see what you fine readers have to say on the subject.

Would you mind an ad-implemented Wikipedia or do you think things should stay as they are? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

Image source: Wikipedia

-Stephen Chapman

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56 comments
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  • RE: Wikipedia needs to stop begging for donations and start implementing ads

    Excuse me, but this is a stupid idea IMO. There is already far too many ads everywhere else on the net. I don't want ads in wikipedia.
    atari_z
    • Yes; instead, Wikipedia has to hide these appeals for money once you pay ..

      @atari_z: ... them something.

      [b]This way you will never be annoyed either by these appeals nor, even worse, by advertisements.[/b]

      Just pay them something each year.
      dderss
  • RE: Wikipedia needs to stop begging for donations and start implementing ads

    When you start relying on ads for funding you start down a road that ends with a compromising of the editorial neutrality of your site.

    Wikipedia is a (inter)national treasure, as such what it needs is an endowment, not ad based revenue.
    dsf3g
    • 100% agree.

      @dsf3g

      I don't find advertising evil, but it is very annoying, intrusive and puts limits on your objectivity. For an encyclopedia, OK, it is wrong if not evil.

      I donate a couple times/year but I like the idea of an endowment.
      Bruizer
      • RE: Wikipedia needs to stop begging for donations and start implementing ads

        @Bruizer

        Those donations ought to be going towards an endowment, not current expenses.
        Michael Kelly
      • RE: Wikipedia needs to stop begging for donations and start implementing ads

        Who would heavy sponsors be? Oil companies, of course. Maybe cigarette companies! Mexican mafiosos? Putin, Iran, Syria, Israel. The Dems, the GOP. Propaganda + information -- a potent mix; I'm not sure I'd like to see it.
        geneven
    • Neutral donations? What, are you a comedian?

      I'm far more worried about the "editorial neutrality" of a site that has to rely on The Tides Foundation and Peter Lewis for money, than one that has a broad base of advertisers, no one of which is big enough to dictate anything.
      Robert Hahn
  • I agree...

    with dsf3g and atari_z, but not with the article.

    I don't like JW's face appearing on the site, but it is better than ads. And at least he isn't as anywhere near as bad as Richard Stallman.
    wright_is
  • RE: Wikipedia needs to stop begging for donations and start implementing ads

    It's not about /seeing/ the ads, it's about /having/ them. Paid advertising has been consistently rejected by the Wikipedia community because it would bring an inherent conflict with the project's mission, and also because it would risk giving the impression of conflict of interest. We would also have nightmares trying to deal with firms that pay for advertising only to find that the content is not to their best advantage (e.g. if Boiron advertised how would they feel about the fact that we reflect the scientific consensus that homeopathy is abject nonsense? How would scientists and doctors feel if the anti-vaccination movement advertised on medical articles?).

    We have enough trouble with SEOs and marketing departments trying to use Wikipedia to boost their image as it is. We seriously do not need the additional complication of advertising.
    Guy Chapman
    • RE: Wikipedia needs to stop begging for donations and start implementing ads

      @Guy Chapman

      I completely understand that and trust me, the whole SEO/marketing department thing... I can only imagine how much of a headache that is. But the advertising woes you bring up could certainly be thought through. I understand that Wikipedia seeks to champion the truth and I like your point about bogus ads, but there are plenty of solutions for that issue.

      As long as the donations are working well, there's obviously no reason to change, but I just get tired of Jimmy's pleas making it seem like Wikipedia is hanging by its last thread. That's why I was prompted to write this, and I know my opinion won't be shared with the majority of others, and that's fine. But in dire straits operation, which is what it always seems to me like the condition that Wikipedia is on the cusp of existing under, monetization should be the last thing Wikipedia needs to worry about with the plethora of options available through advertising (and not necessarily via traditional avenues which cause the issues you've stated).

      Thanks for taking the time to respond! I appreciate it.

      -Stephen
      StephenChapman
      • Wikipedia would have to build their own ad platform

        @StephenChapman

        And could then sell ads that target specific pages and content rather than general ad banners. It wouldn't bother me so much, and if it was done right the ads could actually be useful. The problem is they may spend any money they would make off of ads on building the ad platform.
        LiquidLearner
      • RE: Wikipedia needs to stop begging for donations and start implementing ads

        @StephenChapman The technical issues could possibly be thought through but the philosophical ones remain, and the Wikipedia community is very solidly behind those philosophical reasons.

        There really isn't a way of putting ads on Wikipedia without giving at least the impression of compromising editorial neutrality. Also, every word in Wikipedia is donated free of charge. There is a substantial segment of the community who believe that this spirit of free contribution would be weakened if there were advertisements. It's not just that the community believes you should not be able to buy your way into Wikipedia (though we certainly do believe that), it's more that advertising is about making money for the advertiser, that is its entire purpose, and most of us don't feel motivated to work for someone else's profit.

        Advertising would feel like a corporate takeover.
        Guy Chapman
      • RE: Wikipedia needs to stop begging for donations and start implementing ads

        @Guy Chapman - quite. The minute Wikipedia implement ads, questions will be rightly raised as to why volunteers are maintaining the content "cash cow" for free. "Not for profit" changes nothing - Fact: profit is whatever you want it to be; money in minus your choice of expenses + salaries (see many household name "charities").<br><br>I'd love to know how they are splashing out on 73 full time members of staff for an unadvertised, community maintained site - albeit a mega popular one - that rarely changes its design or systems! Do you really need a 73 strong staff to maintain a bunch of servers?<br><br>Plus as others raise - there *will* be immediate conflict of interest - the editors are not going to tolerate critical entries on the pages about particular corporates that are major sponsors. If topic targeted ads are supported - as they almost certainly would be - then you also would face new barriers to adding criticism of key sponsors linked to those areas. Tobacco being an immediate prime example, of many.

        I agree the plead ads are annoying, not helped by Jimmy's fame hungry mug. But so long as they're suppressible (I presume this is the case - is there a "don't show this again" button?), they're the lesser of evils. I'd argue if sponsorship isn't covering the costs of a community run site, they're doing it wrong.
        Psdie
      • RE: Wikipedia needs to stop begging for donations and start implementing ads

        @Psdie - Frankly, when I joined the staff at the Wikimedia Foundation, we were hovering around 30 staff members, and I was shocked at how small it is. With 73, I'm still shocked. Compare the staffing numbers to any other top-100 website and it's clear we're extremely low-staff.<br><br>The Foundation has a community liaison, Maggie, who writes periodic responses to questions like yours, and posts them to our website. You can read the "What do Foundation staff do" answer at <a href="http://wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/Answers#Foundation:_How_many_employees_does_Wikimedia_have.2C_and_what_do_they_do.3F" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">http://wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/Answers#Foundation:_How_many_employees_does_Wikimedia_have.2C_and_what_do_they_do.3F</a>.<br><br>I should also address the "fame hungry" accusation. Last year, I ran the annual giving campaign and made the decision to switch to graphical banner treatments. I believed it was right then, and it's still right now. It increased fundraising - more than doubling the productivity of those banners, which means a shorter fundraiser and less annoyance for everyone. Jimmy resisted using his image. He argued and fought, and in the end, we had to take him a series of tests showing that we tried just about everything else and couldn't beat the ads with his face on it. Calling him fame-hungry is incorrect.<br><br>Philippe Beaudette<br>Head of Reader Relations<br>Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.
        philippebeaudette
      • RE: Wikipedia needs to stop begging for donations and start implementing ads

        @philippebeaudette - thanks for your considered reply. I stand corrected RE use of Jimmy's grin, thank you ;)

        I see from the link you give that the number of staff has increased again and now stands at "95 and a number of independent contractors" (i.e., well over 100 I should imagine). I stand by my viewpoint that that's an excessive number of staff for a knowledgebase where 100% of the content is created and maintained by the community, using FOSS MediaWiki software!

        Think about it for a minute: you have an entire "Community" fund raising department, plus developers dedicated to the "Donor platform". If that doesn't hint at a wider bloat issue, I'm not sure what does! :)

        Of course, job creation in itself isn't a bad thing, provided it's not creating a donations short fall problem. However, I assume there *is* a funding problem going by the use of large graphic banners rather than more subtle solicitations. If that shortfall ultimately means you start considering commercial activities in the future such as sponsorship (not that this is necessarily the case), I'd suggest Wikipedia considers whether the expansion in job numbers is actually yielding proportionate improvements to the service, or if there's an element of bloat.

        Just to reaffirm though - thank you to the Wikipedia community for one of the greatest assets on the web. I have no bones with those that volunteer their time in support of the shared ideal.
        Psdie
  • It's worked so far

    So leave it alone eh? Seriously they make enough in donations so it is fine. Don't fix something that is not broken.
    mikeken763
    • RE: Wikipedia needs to stop begging for donations and start implementing ads

      @mikeken763 Is it? Is it working? Are the donations bringing in enough? The ads seem to be getting bigger every time :/.
      CobraA1
  • like nature preserves need toxic waste

    This'd never work. After a mass revolt of editors, the site would quickly degrade in quality and the Internet would break. Ads suck. Write about something real like how the Protect IP Act will affect SEO optimization or whatever it is you people peddle.
    Stephen Fawkes
  • KEEP THE DAMN ADS OFF WIKIPEDIA!

    Its commitment against ads is one of the reasons I view Wikipedia as an honourable endeavour to avail information to the world. Seeing JW's face may become a little too much after a while, but it's only for a month or so per year, and far better than having a year full of ads displayed. I like its clean interface and it helps me to focus on the information written. <br><br>Besides, it's plea for donation is the most effective ad I've seen so far. It is a strong reminder of the importance of helping the organization which we all love. Even though the donation pleas may become a little overbearing, I will happily put up with what is basically an effort for a worthy not-for-profit mission.
    JOB83
    • +1

      I'd rather see the face of a real person at the top of the site than the line "Wikipedia, sponsored by BP Petroleum" and related ads, like if you look up an article on Cuba, a US Army ad shows up on the side.

      Wasteful, annoying ads were the most complained-about feature of print media before it fell to the wayside.

      @Stephen: Your sentiment is why there is a large influx of RSS and web reader programs available now that strip out the garbage from what people actually want to use the Internet for: content. The Internet was not meant to be delivery channel for ads, but profiteers would quickly push all of the content into a pidgeon hole and waste as much bandwidth as possible if it meant that they could make a fast buck. Would you want a big headline at the top of this page saying "Stephen Chapman, SEO Whistleblower, presented by Google"?
      Joe_Raby