Coverage and Prominence of U.S. College and University Wikipedia Articles

A colleague and I are presenting a paper at ASHE in a few months discussing the content of Wikipedia college and university articles.  The most common comment the reviewers made of our paper proposal was that we did not quite answer the “So what?” question.  In other words, we didn’t quite convince them that our topic is important and interesting.  Part of the answer lies in convincing you that U.S. college and university Wikipedia articles are (a) very common and (b) very popular.

First, let’s see how common U.S. college and university Wikipedia articles are.  To do this, I need to figure out how many institutions have a Wikipedia article.  I randomly selected 10% (732 units) of the 2008 IPEDS universe, a listing of every Title-IV-participating institution (e.g. virtually every accredited institution in the United States and its territories).  I then checked to see if these units have Wikipedia articles.  Broken down by sector and control and ignoring the handful of system offices and unclassified institutions pulled into the sample, here is what I found:

Table 1: Coverage of Wikipedia Articles
Less than 2-year 2-year 4-year All
Public 20.69% 87.16% 100.00% 82.04%
Private not-for-profit 9.09% 31.25% 91.28% 81.91%
Private for-profit 13.75% 40.21% 85.96% 35.03%
All 14.50% 62.61% 92.26% 61.47%

Considering that most people in the U.S. think of 4-year institutions when they think of “college” or “university,” Table 1 shows us that it’s fair to say that college and university Wikipedia articles are very common.  Not only are they ubiquitous for public 4-year institutions, they’re very common for private 4-year institutions and community colleges.  The primary types of institutions for which they are uncommon are private 2-year institutions and all types of less than 2-year institutions, institutions typically associated with specialized technical training and usually omitted when talking about colleges and universities.

Next, we need to figure out the popularity of U.S. college and university Wikipedia articles.  In this context, I am defining “popular” by examining where the top three search engines – Google, Yahoo!, and Bing – place U.S. college and university Wikipedia articles.  To do this, I selected a random sample of these Wikipedia articles; the sample is also stratified, including 12 articles from each major quality classification assigned by the Wikiproject Universities (Featured, Good/A, B, C, Start, and Stub).

Table 2: Search Engine Placement
Google Yahoo! Bing
Average placement 6.9 2.3 2.3
Percentage first unofficial link 79% 96% 96%

As shown in Table 2, when you search for these institutions in each of the three leading search engines, Wikipedia articles are not only among the very first results but they’re usually the first result that isn’t controlled by the institution.  Google seemed to struggle with providing accurate results for the institutions who do not have unique names (i.e. Southwestern College, Sierra College), listing several other similarly-named institutions above the Wikipedia article.  Yahoo! and Bing did not have this problem, almost always listing the Wikipedia article immediately after the institution’s official website or immediately after the institution’s official website and the official athletics website (of course, Yahoo! and Bing provided the same results since they use the same search technology).

Based on a random sample of the accredited colleges and universities in the United States, Wikipedia has articles for the majority of institutions.  This is particularly true when considering 2- and 4-year institutions, especially public ones.  Further, those Wikipedia articles are placed very highly in search results, usually immediately proceeding the institution’s official website.  Not only are U.S. college and university Wikipedia articles very common, they’re extremely popular.

(The data are available here:

A few of the spreadsheets are rather large for Google spreadsheets so they’re a bit sluggish.  Sorry!)

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  • http://collegewebeditor.com Karine Joly

    I look forward reading your paper. I’m sure folks working in marketing and communications in institutions will also be very interested in your findings.

  • http://mistakengoal.com Kevin R. Guidry

    Thanks Karine! I agree that marketing and communications folks may be a primary audience for this work. If you have any suggestions on ways I can reach that audience, please let me know! They’re not really my crowd and I’m not very well-connected with them.