Archive for the ‘Out on a Limb’ Category

My Interview on Online Marketing at

Monday, January 13th, 2014 |

I was fortunate enough to be asked for an interview by I assume this was either due to some clerical error or possibly some under the table bribery I knew nothing about. In any case, if you care to read my thoughts about online marketing then you can click here to do so.

Here are some snippets in case you want to decide if clicking the link is really worth your while.

What do I think about the future of SEO?

The future at this point for SEO is to move forward with a light touch. Don’t do SEO, but market your business like the search engines aren’t there. Of course, quality content and great product/service are the heart of any good online campaign, but link building is still important. But the links you build should meet one of two criteria: The link should prove you are in the industry you are or you are located where you say you are. Meaning, links should support the idea of what your company does. If you sell dog treats, you should connecting with sites about dogs. If your offices are in Richmond, Va., then you should have links from local sites. Search engines pick up on these clues– industry and location.

What are the smartest things a company can do to help boost its web performance and rankings?

Make sure every page on your site has an HTML title that explains what is on the page. Make your titles descriptive.

Blog, blog, blog — but blog about relative topics. If you sell dog treats, write about what treats are healthiest. Think like a dog owner might think when searching for dog treats and write about that and then link to your healthiest dog treats in that post.

You can also find out a bit of history about myself and my company.

Shell Harris,
Co-Founder of Big Oak Studios, Inc.


Google Doodle Pays Tribute to Little Nemo

Monday, October 15th, 2012 |

I feel like this Google Doodle which is a tribute to the comic strip Little Nemo is their best yet. Kudos to the Google creative team for creating this wonderful illustration and animation. Here is a screen shot of the full image, after the animation, which is still beautiful. I also found a video of Little Nemo just in case you have never heard of the little guy. Click the image for a full-size image.


Comics Make Great Link Bait

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012 |

One of our clients posted a comic we created for them on their blog. While being funny and a nice 5 second distraction for your day, this comic also offers the potential for outside sites to link to them. In other words, this comic and comics in general make great link bait. You may wish to entertain this idea of comedy and SEO for your clients or maybe you already have. We would love to see other examples of comics and link building you have used or you have found being used. Add any good finds to the comments below.

We did something similar when we created the first ever monthly SEO Comic a few years ago.

Here is the Bad to the Bone comic from our client. (Love the comic name.) And here is the comic itself.


What Makes a Good SEO Client

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010 |


What Makes a Good SEO Client?

This is the flip side of the question many clients have to answer, “What makes a good SEO company to do business with?”, however; successful implementation of any SEO strategy is based on a partnership between SEO Company and client.  Not only do you need a good SEO consultant but also a good SEO client, so what qualities should you see in such a good SEO client?

Trust in the SEO Company and their SEO Advice

Clients who have embarked on an ecommerce strategy have already recognized the potential of the web for their business.  There is much that is different from the real world, however some basic precepts are the same no matter who you are or what you are doing.  Trust is one of them, and after selecting an SEO partner the client must be able to trust what the SEO practitioner is advising and helping the client to implement for their web strategy.

Availability and Responsiveness

A good SEO client is responsive to requests and performs their part in maintaining good lines of open communication, not only between the principal or senior management, but also the webmaster or whoever is responsible for implementing content and coding changes on the website.

Being available by email or telephone is symptomatic of a good partnership, which is essential when changes need to be made quickly to react to the web developments and search engine algorithm changes.

Questioning and Understanding

A good SEO client values the experience and expertise a good SEO practitioner brings to the business mix, however it is important the client is able to understand what is happening.  This means asking questions and seeking clarification of the SEO strategies being propounded and implemented.  The adage that the only stupid question is the one that doesn’t get asked certainly applies here!

The SEO Partnership

Developing and implementing a successful SEO strategy requires that a good partnership develops between client and practitioner.  The client understands their business and the business environment they operate in far better than the SEO practitioner will do, and the SEO strategy needs to be closely tailored to suit the client’s business.  Strong interaction between client and practitioner is needed, especially when it comes to developing and adding content, ensuring relevant updates and information is provided and who to seek links from.


The advice people tend to follow most is the advice that they pay for!  The same is true for SEO, and SEO consultants rely on a steady stream of happy clients paying their bills.  This may seem like an obvious statement, but a good SEO client is one who understands what they are buying and is happy to write the check for the SEO Company’s invoice each month.

SEO is a Reiterative Process: Look at the Results

SEO is a process rather than a project: it requires a continuous review of the results to see what the impact of SEO strategies is, but also a thorough analysis of how the results are achieved.  It is not simply the rankings which need to be reviewed and monitored, but where the traffic is coming from, user behavior when on the site, monitoring site navigation and engaging in relevant site testing in order to understand what is working well in persuading a visitor to convert to a paying customer.

What makes a good SEO client is a client who appreciates the holistic nature of SEO work and the skills and experience of the practitioner.  A good SEO client will contribute enormously to the success of the web strategies advised by the SEO practitioner, in fact, it is unlikely there will be much success without a good SEO client.

Getting Informed About the Infographic

Monday, April 19th, 2010 |

Infographics, or information graphics, have been around for as long as man has been able to draw. The earliest cave paintings are a form of infographic as they pictorially depict the life and activities of our very distant ancestors. Thousands of years later, we still readily understand them.  The infographic underwent significant development in the 20th Century and an infographic, rather than written or spoken language, has been used in our first communication effort with extraterrestrials!

Infographics are widely used in our society, in mathematics, mapmaking, signage, news media, education, travel, medicine, politics and even religion.  No aspect of our lives is untouched by the application of infographics.

So why are they so popular?

Infographics convey knowledge and advice, even mandatory orders, in a form which the human brain readily recognizes and associates with the information behind the representation. This is known as visualization.

Before man learned to read and write, he drew. Modern written language is itself derived from the development of drawings which became standardized into symbols and in turn, into recognizable letters and numerals we now recognize.  Hieroglyphics from ancient Egypt are a good example of an intermediate written language which revolves around symbology and formed the basis for the development of vowels and consonants.

Graphical representation renders itself far more accessible and understandable by people; whether they understand the language of the designer or not.  The reason why people accept so much information via infographics compared to text is explained by how our brains have formed over time.  During man’s early development, we were not equipped with language, never mind the ability to read and write.  Man primarily looked at the world around him, his eyes being the primary sense with smell, sound, touch and taste running distant also rans.  Visuals are how our brains are “hard wired” to “read” as our default operating system – what we can visualize is our primary mechanism for taking in information as a consequence.  A baby must learn to speak, must be taught to read and write but, they have no issue in drawing as soon as they can hold a crayon.

As the saying goes, a picture paints a thousand words, which is why, possibly, the most important infographic is currently aboard the Pioneer 10 spacecraft.  Pioneer 10 was launched in 1972 and is currently journeying through outer space – the first vessel to leave the solar system.  It contains the Pioneer Plaque (; a pictorial representation of humankind, our planet and solar system and where we are located.  This is a powerful testament to the universal understanding provided by infographics which are not restricted by language barriers.

Visual language is universal for those who can see; imagine your car journey without graphical road signs for instance.  Graphical images can be very quickly assimilated by the human brain, and render a meaning which is clear without the need to read text.  In part, modern infographics are so readily understandable because we have become educated by the basic grammar of visual language.  We know, for instance, that a bar running through a left-pointing arrow means, “Don’t turn left” for instance. Possibly the most important development in road signs has been the stick figure drawings that represent people (originating from the Munich Olympics in 1972).

Newspapers have probably done more to lay the basis for our understanding and appreciation of infographics than any other medium.  In the 1970’s, British newspapers started to develop a series of charts and graphical representations to convey information in an understandable format to readers.  This was rapidly picked up by USA Today when it launched in 1982, and spread to other mainstream media publications such as Time magazine.

Infographics have not been without their critics.  Newspaper critics and traditionalists deride the “chart junk” which populates papers and the media.  They argue that infographics demean the information being conveyed.  At the same time, the idea that infographics are artistic has also received derisory comments from the art world.  The idea that an infographic is where “art meets science”, is not widely accepted in the journalistic or art world, but nevertheless, the reading public clearly appreciates the graphical, and sometimes comical, representation of information.

What of the future?  A notable exception to the long list of infographic applications is in television.  Television has only recently embraced the notion of the infographic for transmission of frequently complex and large volumes of data in a visual fashion.  Perhaps this is because television itself is a visual medium relaying information in real-time, i.e. without the need for a fast data burst to our brains.  This does lead to the question – how much more powerful could a televised infographic be in relaying information to people? The televisual infographic is under development at this time, but how successful they will be we shall have to discover for ourselves as they start being broadcast on our screens.”


Google’s April Fools Joke

Thursday, April 1st, 2010 |

Google has always added their fair share of April Fools shenanigans to the popular search engine. In years past they have made fun of Yahoo and Microsoft.  Currently Google has renamed itself Topeka in honor of a return gesture the Kansas town made to acquire a special Google project.

As part of the ongoing Google April Fools jokes they have adjusted the the search time from seconds to a host of odd units for measuring time.

You can see the full list below in the screen shots. Look to the right to see the time unit. The first one is my favorite, from Monty Python’s The Holy Grail Fame, “times the velocity of an unladen swallow.” Other time units used include microweeks, microfortnights, jiffies,  parsecs, centons, centibeats, epochs, nanocenturies, hertz, warp, and 23.00 skidoo

Click each image for a larger view.

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SEO in the Snow Feb 2010

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010 |

SEO in the Snow Feb 2010

For the past several weeks, Richmond Va has been pelted with unusual amounts of snowfall. Unfortunately today was more of the same.

Working in the Search Engine Optimization and Website Marketing Business however does afford us the luxury to not drive to the office.  We work mind you, because the work of an SEO is never done. We have our lap tops, we have our projects, we have our wireless connections and with luck we have power.

While the image above shows what I (we) woke up to this morning, I can still be productive with my handy laptop, Web Email and Instant messaging program.  All of us at Big Oak are working today, just not at the Big Oak Corporate Offices.

While the 6 Richmond Virginia SEO’s all contemplated the morning commute or not to commute question, our New York SEO, who works out of her home office, added this diddy:

“It is a sheet of ice from my bedroom to my computer. It took me easily
45 minutes just to dig out the hallway. I couldn’t even find any
neighborhood kids to help me shovel. And worse yet, I don’t know where
my car is! This truly is the end of the world.”

The luxury of working with a Professional SEO is that their experience, their dedication, an their abilities are not tied to an office environment. This past summer, in the Dominican Republic ( pictured below) I actually had an online connection and was able to provide some SEO services.

Now if we can just get the Boss to move the corporate offices!

So for reading this far, here is your SEO Tip for Today:

Make sure you have Google Webmaster Tools associated with your websites.  When you log into webmaster tools, not only check your sitemap, crawl stats, and found links, but check out the new Speed Test.  Google has provided through webmaster tools a nice comprehensive overview of what is slowing down your website as well as suggestions how to fix it.

In 2010 Search Engines and Google Caffeine are going to be taking SPEED as a factor in how your website can be indexed, cached, and displayed in the Search Engine Results.

Meet Amy Vernon: the First Top 25 Female Digg User

Thursday, January 14th, 2010 |

Pick a social media site, any social media site.  Amy Vernon probably has a presence on it, and a prominent one.  She’s a top 25 all-time Digg submitter, a “Super-Mixxer” on Mixx, a power tweeter on Twitter and a highly influential Stumbler on Stumbleupon.  female DiggerShe also maintains several blogs, including,, and Somehow, she still finds time to write for a slew of others, like, and  Not impressed yet? Consider that she’s also a full-time mom with two kids.

But there’s more to the Vernon story.  In 2008, she became the highest ranked female Digg user ever and today stands at number 19 according to SocialBlade.  Recently, I caught up with Amy so I could learn about her rise to social media “maven-hood.”  We also chatted about the one topic that no discussion with a top 25 digger would be complete without: the precise direction of social media (skip to the last question if you can’t wait).

Since Digg supposedly caters to a mostly male demographic, many are surprised to learn that a female has broken into the top 25.  Do you think the type of content that becomes popular on Digg these days is slowly changing to cut across more demographics than it has in the past, or do you think the kind of stories that become popular are pretty much the same as they were, say, three years ago?

I think the key word there is “supposedly.”  Things that are popular on Digg tend toward stuff guys (particularly geek guys) like, I guess – computers, gadgets, science fiction, Megan Fox, boobies – but for the most part, it’s about quality content.

I’m also a huge sci-fi and tech nerd, so I have a lot in common with a lot of the folks on Digg.

But, yes, there are more and more women on Digg all the time.  You now might find a story about parenting on the front page where you wouldn’t have even a year ago.  Even sites like Divine Caroline, Limelife, Women’s Day and Elle have had a reasonable amount of success on Digg over the years because the content submitted was interesting on a universal level.

When I look at your body of work and then realize that you’re also a full-time mom, the first thing I wonder is, how in the world do you have time to juggle everything.  About how many hours of work would you say you put in during the course of a day?

It’s hard to quantify. Most of the time I’m awake, I’m doing something that is related to or considered work. But I can take breaks whenever I need or want to.

Some people were happy to see Digg’s shout feature eradicated. Others felt helpless–like the rug had been pulled out from under them. What did you think about Digg’s decision to remove the shout feature? Did you endorse its sudden death?

There were definite problems with Digg’s shout system.  But I think it was a mistake for a social media site to eliminate the most social feature it had. There’s no way for users to communicate with each other directly on Digg itself. By the time it was gone, I probably used it more to just say hi to friends than anything else.

When people were going away for a few days, or behind, they’d just send a shout to their friends to update them. Now, you have to go elsewhere, to sites that have nothing to do with Digg — Twitter, Facebook, Gmail, IM — to communicate with other users. If someone’s a brand-new user to Digg, it’s hard for them to find a way to communicate with older users.

What do you think of the new Digg advertising system that allows Diggers to vote ads up that they like? Are you ok with it?

I’m fine with that, really.  Digg has to make money, right?  So they make it from ads. A lot of Diggers I know have AdBlockPlus anyhow, and so don’t see them – and Digg kindly made sure ABP would work on those ads.  I sometimes vote on the ads, even. I’ve both dugg and buried ads, in fact.

Do you think the Diggbar helps or hinders the user experience?

When it first came out, it was a fabulous addition. You could send out the digg link in a Tweet or post it to your Facebook page and it was accessible both to your friends and followers who were Diggers and to those who were not.

But when Digg changed it so that you only got the frame if you were signed in to Digg and to a Digg landing page if you were not, well, it became useless to many Diggers, including myself. Diggers are only a small percentage of people whom I interact with on Twitter and Facebook.  I refuse to send out links that force readers to click yet another time to get to the actual content.

When Digg banned the top five power user Zaibatsu, he took a big chunk of Digg’s audience with him to Twitter.  In measurable ways, this was a game-changer.  Do you think it’s wise of Digg to ban major players like Zaibatsu and Supernova17, or do you think Digg is better off in the long run taking a more hands-off approach?

I think Z’s move to Twitter was compounded by Digg’s decision to remove shouts and move communication to Twitter and Facebook. Those two things definitely had a measurable effect. I can’t say whether it’s “wise” for Digg to ban major powerusers or not, because I wasn’t privy to that decision-making and don’t know the full story.  What I’ve heard doesn’t make sense, certainly. I think the main problem is that some people are banned for the same things that other people have been given second chances for.

Before the “big ban” of late summer/early fall 2008 (there was one big banning in August and then several smaller follow-up group bannings in the months following), people were given second chances sometimes if they were found to have used scripts and promised they’d never, ever do it again. When the big Ban Hammer came down on a huge swath of Diggers, however, no such allowances were made. Was that fair? No. But life often isn’t.

I have seen Digg give other people second chances before. In fact, I was banned for about an hour one day because a post I submitted from a legitimate site linked to a site where an item could be purchased. It didn’t occur to me that there was a problem with submitting it (it was a purse where the handle was a knuckleduster). And I had no financial stake in the item, either. I just thought it was cool. Once Digg told me the problem and I promised to never submit that kind of post again, I was reinstated.

After that, if I had any question whatsoever, I either avoided submitting it, or e-mailed Digg support to ask if there was a problem with it, if I just reallllly wanted to submit it. A few times they suggested the post in question might not be proper material to submit; other times they told me they saw no problem with it.

Look – Digg can’t be too hands-off. They have a TOU and have to enforce it. It’s really just a matter of consistency and of being willing to work with those who violate the TOU to give second chances when appropriate.

You’re a founding partner of, a vlogging site where you post videos. If this site had a mission statement, what would it be?

Well, our tagline on all our videos is “Where mommies talk and we listen.” The idea is to start conversations with our community, but in a more personal way than just a regular blog. They’re one-person vlogs where we discuss a topic and ask for our viewers to put in their two cents. We’d love for more users to post their own videos on the site, too, which they can do. We’re still sort of in a soft launch, though, as Donna Chaffins (the founder and CEO) and I have rather hectic lives.  As most moms do.

Some people build niche sites with an exit strategy planned right from the onset. They know what large sites or companies would be interested in buying them.  Others know exactly who they want to ask for venture capital when their site reaches a certain milestone. What would you like to do with iMommyTalk?  Any epic goals?

Sure, we’d love to make money from the site.  In fact, I think one of our videos made a whopping 15 cents! (Can you buy anything for 15 cents anymore?) But for now we’d really like to share our experiences – as two relatively “regular” moms, in two-parent families. Not rich, not poor. We’re not incredibly snarky or polished. We’re just like our audience. We just want to connect with them and hopefully help put things in perspective for people. Our vlogs have ranged from how to deal with mommy guilt to whether it’s appropriate to ever drink in front of your children.

Stumbleupon has made some drastic changes lately.  Are you a fan of the new Stumbleupon?

Well, to me the most significant change is in sharing, and I am a big fan of that.  When SU first made the change from its previous incarnation to what’s now being called “Old StumbleUpon,” I and many others cheered the newfound ability to share en masse – send a post with just a few clicks to all our followers. But that quickly became a nightmare. I know people who soon unfollowed everyone because they wanted to use SU as it was meant to be used – to stumble onto new, interesting sites. If you have 99 shares in your Stumble bar at all times, you’re never experiencing the true enjoyment of the site.  Then it just becomes a chore.

That said, SU did need to make it so you could share items with more than one person at a time. I just posted a blog item about Lost. If I had a dozen or so followers whom I knew liked Lost, I might want to send it to them to make sure they saw it. And chances are, they’d want to see it. But that’s not how it was being used. Now, you have to click on everyone’s name to send it, so hopefully that’ll make people less like to share everything with everyone.

Sometimes I just quickly cycle through my shares because it becomes overwhelming and I can’t look at it all. I stopped using the “share all” on a regular basis long ago, using it only perhaps once a week or if I was going to be out of pocket and wanted to let everyone know I wouldn’t be around to see their stuff.

Have you caught NComment’s comic strip portrayal of Digg?  What do you think of his analysis?

I can’t believe NComment finally finished Part II! I don’t mean it really as “finally,” because I can’t even fathom how much work all that detail took. I’ve looked it over two times, and will have to look another time for all the little bits, such as the “TechCrunch” candy bar by “Arrington’s,” written in the same script as Nestle’s (have to look REALLY close).

I haven’t met a single person yet, Digg, Reddit, Mixx, whatever, who didn’t think it was just spot on.  It highlights all the problems with all the sites – and of course they all have problems. All the little things that make Digg goofy – all the memes, the inscrutability of the algorithm – are also what make it so addictive and lovable.

I can’t wait for part three, but I hope it doesn’t take eight more months.

However, if it does, I’m sure it’ll be worth it.

Where do you see social media in exactly five years–just kidding.  I’m not going to ask you that; it’s a contrived question and unfair to throw a crystal ball at someone and ask them to read it.  Let me ask you this instead: if you were building a social media site, what would you make its defining characteristic?

The main thing any social media site needs to insure is quality control. You can’t let the spam take over.  I think Digg, StumbleUpon and Reddit have such strong communities that were developed before spam started taking hold that it’s not as much of a problem on those sites. The community takes care of knocking those submissions down.

I think if a site could combine editorial controls with social voting, it could really take off. Original content, vetted and then voted on, with the most popular posts rising to the top.  Hey, scratch that – I didn’t say anything. I think I need to go find a site developer.

You can follow Amy Vernon on Twitter at @AmyVernon and read her blog at

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Big Oak Moves to New Offices

Friday, October 2nd, 2009 |

31495659Most of walls in our new offices are bare, except for George’s – he has a swanky setup going with mood lighting, and the foyer is empty at this point. We don’t entertain many customers in our office space as they prefer we come to them or else a phone call made, so furniture in the foyer is something for next month. But we are moved in, our FIOS connection is humming along at a blistering 25,000 kbps and it is all our space, so we are a happy SEO company now.

I’ve always wanted to have our own building and our sign on the door and finally that is the case. It only took six years to get to this point, but it was worth it.

The move went well and we are here for the next three years so we plan to stick around. If you are in Richmond, VA and would like to drop by, please do. The fridge is full of sodas and we have a crushed ice option on the fridge door so cold beverage are available.

We are also back in the Richmond proper, so to speak, so our address is once again a Richmond address.

Big Oak SEO
3781 Westerre Parkway
Suite C
Richmond, VA 23233

Just glad to be somewhere  where I control the thermostat. ;-)

Link Buying Becomes Comical

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009 |

Our latest Ranked Hard, SEO Comic, is up for viewing. It deals with the concept of link buying and Google’s sporadic approach at curtailing the purchase of link. Take a look at Crazy Eddie’s Link Emporium.

Here is an excerpt from my post under the comic. Please visit and read the entire rant on link buying.

If you would listen to Google, and why wouldn’t you, you would be led to believe that they are against link buying and don’t reward sites who do buy links. In fact, they will penalize sites that do buy links. Don’t believe me? Read Google’s engineer Matt Cutt’s own words on buying and selling links. They even provide a handy dandy form to report paid links. Find a site selling links? Report them. Find a competitor buying links? Report them. Then, your site, which is honestly gathering links, should rise to the top of the rankings. Right?

Wrong. Oh, so very wrong.

Google has been caught selling links more than once. So they understand the temptation and financial rewards of selling a link. But the rewards can be much greater when buying a link: higher search rankings, more customers, more sales and more profits. But if link buying is really being stamped out by the big G, then why, oh why, are so many people doing it and dominating the search rankings?

Read the rest of rant.

Interview with Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009 |

When Jimmy Wales launched Wikipedia in 2001, many thought he was laying the foundation for disaster.  Some even felt the whole concept was borderline insane.

“A public encyclopedia that anyone can write and edit, even without being logged in?!  And this concoction will serve as the sum of all human knowledge! Madness!” the critics wailed.

Today, it’s hard to imagine life without Wikipedia, which has blossomed into the 7th most popular website in the world¹ and inspired the creation of some 2.8 million articles on the English version of the site alone.  Recently, Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales was kind enough to feed my questions about the Wikimedia Foundation’s goals, likely future, and ballooning cultural relevance.  I also gave him an opportunity to respond to Wikipedia’s “professional troublemakers”–er critics.

How do you think Wikipedia will evolve as technology evolves?  Can you foresee, by say 2020, a way for Wikipedians to create editable, interactive videos about a topic?

I think we’ll see a lot of advances in video.  One of the things I like to point out is that Wikipedia is a social innovation, not a technical innovation.  All the tools necessary to create Wikipedia existed in 1995 when Ward Cunningham invented the wiki editing concept.  Webserver, web browser, database, wiki.

What technologies already exist today for collaborative video editing that no one has created the social structures to use?

Well, having said that, I will also say that words are far more fluid than video, and always will be.  If I don’t quite like what you have written, I can adjust it slightly until we are both satisfied.  But once a video has been shot, there is a very limited set of things that can be done about it.

British-American author Andrew Keen, the self-described antichrist of Silicon Valley, gets a kick out of regularly blasting Wikipedia. I watched your February 2008 debate with Keen, and I agreed with some of Keen’s points, but I found his fixation on the length of Wikipedia articles to be a bit odd.  He pointed out that the Harry Potter article is longer than the Hamlet article, and because Hamlet is more historically significant, this somehow represents a shortcoming in Wikipedia.  Do you find his logic lacking?

I don’t think the words “Andrew Keen” and “logic” generally belong in the same sentence.  No, I’m just teasing!

I actually agree with _some_ of Keen’s points, as would any thinking person. But the overall thrust of his argument is not compelling to me.

Regarding the question of the length of Wikipedia entries, I don’t find the argument compelling at all.  Wiki is not paper, and it isn’t as if we “cut” the Hamlet entry in order to make more room for “Harry Potter”.  And I rather suspect that Keen would agree with me when I say that I wouldn’t find it a very good idea to push the Potter fans to write about Hamlet.

Some criticisms about Wikipedia entries of various lengths is actually misplaced simply due to how we slice-and-dice the world.  It is likely that our entry on “China” is shorter than our entry on “Harry Potter” too.  But that’s more because we have a short overview article on “China” and then break out specific topics into separate articles.

What happens normally is that when one entry gets too long, people will naturally want to break it up.  I have been told that Britannica’s entry on “World War II” is more than 100 pages long.  (I haven’t checked.) Wikipedia’s entry is much shorter, but our overall coverage of World War II is much more in-depth than Britannica.  It’s just that in the medium of HTML on the web, it makes little sense to force the reader to download a 100 page document.  Better to give them 5-10 pages in a chunk, with lots of hyperlinks and timelines to help them navigate thousands of pages of detailed material.

When I was a student at Ohio State, I had Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger as a philosophy professor.  Sanger had a policy that if you used Wikipedia as a source on a paper, you would receive an automatic five point deduction. Do you think Wikipedia is reliable enough at this stage to pass as a source on an academic paper?

I would do the same thing if I were teaching a course at a university. I would also deduct 5 points for citing Britannica.  This is simply not the proper role for an encyclopedia, no matter how good, in the research process.  A high quality encyclopedia is a starting point, giving us broad background knowledge and helping us to firmly and correctly fill in gaps, not an original source.  The right thing to do is to quickly read the Wikipedia entry to get your bearings, and then go read the original sources.

Do you still dispute Sanger’s designation as Wikipedia’s co-founder?

I think the whole debate is silly.  Ironically, I think Larry is given too little credit for his role in the early days of Wikipedia as the “editor-in-chief” of the project (his actual title).  He was an employee working fully under my direction with no ownership interest of any kind., another of your projects, gives people an opportunity to create and develop their own special-interest wiki communities. The site now boasts over 800,000 articles and some 200,000 registered users.  Is Wikia’s growth on pace with your expectations?

Yes, although we’re much bigger than 800,000 articles and 200,000 registered users. :-)  We’ve been growing at a similar pace to Wikipedia, but being 3 years younger, we are 3 years smaller.  I think we’re just now beginning to enter the broader public consciousness, as Neilsen just named us as the 5th fastest growing community site.

Larry Sanger, now the Editor-and-Chief of Citizendium, takes jabs at Wikipedia on a Citizendium page titled Why Citizendium? He writes, “Wikipedia is full of serious problems. Many of the articles are written amateurishly. Too often they are mere disconnected grab-bags of factoids, not made coherent by any sort of narrative.”  Do you see any flaws in Citizendium’s model, and what do you think of Sanger’s decision to critique Wikipedia in what essentially is Citizendium’s sales pitch?

I think Larry’s right on that particular point, and this is a flaw of Wikipedia.  I don’t know if Citizendium (which I haven’t studied in depth) corrects for this or not.

One thing that happens at Wikipedia, particularly on controversial articles, is that the editors get really focused on sentence-by-sentence work on neutrality and factual accuracy.  That’s a great thing.  But what can get lost in the down-and-dirty search for those things is “flow” or what Larry once termed “Brilliant Prose”.

Usually, though, after a period of intense debate resulting in a neutral compromise version of an article that is unfortunately choppy in style, is that some thoughtful good writer who has no stake in the controversy will come in and work gently to make the article more readable.  Such people are the unsung heroes of the information revolution.

In 2007, Wikipedia decided to add no-follow tags to all of its external links. This drew the ire of some and sparked the creation of anti-Wikipedia wordpress plugins that automatically turn all the Wikipedia links on a person’s blog to nofollow.  Has the community’s decision to place no-follow tags around external links kept out spam, and do you think Wikipedia would ever decide to flip the switch back?

I was opposed to the change, and only reluctantly agreed to it after Matt Cutts of Google recommended it.  I am still not sure it is the right answer.  After all, Wikipedia prides itself on public service, and our external links are generally quite carefully vetted.

On the other hand, it is also true than when we were not using ‘nofollow’ we had a bigger problem with skeevy “SEO” experts doing everything they could to get Wikipedia links.  Even today, of course, a link in Wikipedia can drive a significant amount of traffic so we have to deal with inappropriate self-promotion.  But my vague sense is that the troubles have declined.

I don’t know of any pressure within the community to flip the switch back.

Apparently you sat at a long dinner table with Mahalo CEO Jason Calacanis at Wikimania in 2006, and during this dinner, Calacanis “begged you” (his words) to sell ads on Wikipedia.  He claimed that if you put a leaderboard up, Wikipedia would generate over $100 million a year.  He later offered a more modest revenue proposal, one that involved putting a search box on the Wikipedia.  He estimated this would make $6 million a year, which is ironic considering $6 million is what you raised last year via charitable donations.  Can you ever envision a scenario in which the Wikipedia community would agree to put ads on the site, especially in light of the fact that it met its $6 million donation goal last year?

Actually, I sat next to Jason, but I didn’t know who he was.  Afterwards, when he published his post about the dinner, I didn’t really remember him.  I regret saying so publicly, because this seems to have hurt Jason’s feelings. I was exhausted that evening, and the fault was entirely mine.

The thing is, lots and lots of people propose that Wikipedia should accept ads.  And it is not an unreasonable position.  I am opposed to it, but I am actually a moderate about it.

I think there is a set of circumstances in which the Wikipedia community would accept ads, but we are nowhere near it and I personally hope we never get there.  But, time will tell.

My view is that we should all – not just me, not just the board, not just the current community – but everyone who thinks of themselves as a citizen of the Internet, a citizen of the world – we should all think about Wikipedia as part of the infrastructure of the world, not a competitor in the Internet space, not just a website, but something deeper, cultural, and potentially of value to everyone.

As such, we should think about the long run – not the next quarter, not the next year, not the next 5 years.  What about 50 years?  What about 100 years?  What’s best for the world in the long run?

We desperately need to make sure that everyone on the planet has access to high quality information.  We are on a small and crowded planet that will get more crowded in this century.  We need to live together in peace and productivity.  We need to take individual rights seriously. We need to have political decisions that are rational and fact-based.

We need to have cultural and joy and art and love.

These are heavy responsibilities for us all.  And slapping a “leaderboard” on Wikipedia to bring in short-term revenue might not be the best plan.  (Or it might.  But we need to think like adults about it.)

Regarding your dinner with Calacanis, you wrote on your blog that “there were some very much more interesting people at the dinner.”   Have you and Calacanis patched things up, and do you admire, to some degree, Jason’s ability to get a rise out of people through what some call brilliant performance art?

I have come to admire Jason over time, and I very much regret and apologize for that blog post.

Jason and I are very different people.  He’s competitive, I’m collaborative.  He tries to get a rise out of people on a daily basis (and I hope he doesn’t take offense at that) and I try to be soothing and supportive.  But this means that when I throw someone “under the bus” (his phrase, not mine), it resonates deeply, whereas random statements by Jason don’t have as much impact.  So it’s really bad when I make a mistake like that.

Will it be harder or easier for you to reach a $6 million donation goal in 2009?

Since traffic is growing (according to Comscore) by 4% per month still, I think it will be easier to reach $6 million since we will be 66% larger in terms of reach by next fundraiser as compared to last fundraiser.

On the other hand, I suppose everyone is watching with nervousness about the financial crisis!

You’ve set a tone that Wikipedia has a much deeper responsibility to the world than to act, simply, as a giant encyclopedia.  In what ways do you think Wikipedia will permanently change the fabric of humanity?

Well, if we do our job right, we will be a positive change for the world.  Wikipedia will be a little bit dry, a little bit uncontroversial, but a place where people of all stripes turn for clear explanations and information that allows them to have more difficult debates in a rational and evidence-based manner.

Did you catch this satire of Wikipedia?  Did you find it amusing?


I’d like to see a roundtable discussion involving you, Andrew Keen, Jason Calacanis, Noam Chomsky, and Ron Paul.  55 minutes into the discussion, a thunderous gong would go off and a mystery guest would emerge and immediately inject himself into the conversation.  As odd as this sounds, I am 100% serious about one day setting this up. There’s no doubt a video of the event would serve as tremendous linkbait–quite an interesting collection of people. Would you participate in this roundtable discussion if your airfare was paid for?

Yes, gladly.  What an interesting set of characters.

You can follow Jimmy Wales on Twitter at @Jimmy_Wales and read his blog at

Image credits: William Brawley
¹based on Quantcast numbers

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