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September 17, 2007

Wikipedia > Search?

About a month ago I finally changed my browser home page to Wikipedia, abandoning the search engine which had previously occupied that spot.

Although of course I still sometimes wind up switching over after I start the browser, it is much less frequent than then times I had to switch to Wikipedia to find what I wanted. I find that a lot of my searches are looking for information on a particular topic, and the Wikipedia page is usually a good place to start (most search engines will return the Wikipedia page near the top of the search results anyway, but why bother with the intermediate step). One of the big early benefits of Google was its inbound link counting, so that if you searched for an organization where you knew the exact name but did not know the URL, it would almost always put it at the top of the results. Wikipedia also does this well since it is going to find the entry for that organization (and chances are high if you care about it, it has an entry) and that entry will include a link to the real website, if you care (which you often don't after reading the Wikipedia entry). Wikipedia writers have also done a pretty good job of creating redirects, so "tokenring" redirects you to "token ring", the real entry. And searching for something like "ACM" brings you to the Association for Computing Machinery page but with a link at the top to the disambiguation page. The only thing that they really need is a spell-checker, so that searching for something like "Seattle Children's Theater" would at least suggest that you wanted "Seattle Children's Theatre" instead.

I also find that Wikipedia often works better when I'm looking for a quote or fact that returns far too many hits when I try to remember specific phrases in it. For example, I knew that in the past somebody had claimed that learning BASIC as your first programming language would warp your brain. But I couldn't remember enough of the specific phrase used to find it via searching for things like "BASIC warped", "BASIC damaged", etc. So I went to the BASIC Wikipedia page and lo and behold there was a link to a 1975 letter by Edsger Dijkstra titled How do we tell truths that might hurt? with the quote "It is practically impossible to teach good programming to students that have had a prior exposure to BASIC: as potential programmers they are mentally mutilated beyond hope of regeneration."

Wikipedia just passed 2,000,000 entries in the English dictionary, which continues to be one of the signal accomplishment of the World Wide Web. I also noticed that Wikipedia has a tag for Article that need to differentiate between fact and fiction which shows, perhaps, that the faceless faces behind it have a sense of humor.

Posted by AdamBa at September 17, 2007 06:51 AM

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