Wikipedia needs to stop begging for donations and start implementing ads

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.
Written by Stephen Chapman, Contributor

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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