Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Hunter Walk who spends way too much time researching 1980s hair metal bands on Wikipedia. His obsession with Wikipedia is unrelated to his day job leading the consumer product team at YouTube.
Wikipedia is the world’s 5th largest website, runs no ads and, depressingly, seems to be perpetually on the fringe of solvency. Google for “Jimmy Wales personal appeal” (Wales is Wikipedia’s founder) and you’ll see that there are 32,000+ results, which gives you a sense of the fundraising requirements for this user-generated encyclopedia. The question of whether they’ll ever run ads in order to break this cycle is an ongoing debate. In fact there’s a Wikipedia page devoted to this topic with discussion about ads, opt-in ads, search ads, etc.
At 400+ million users worldwide, any of these options could certainly raise considerable funds used to support the technical and philosophical mission of this non-profit. But to date, Wales has been reluctant to introduce any advertising. So where do we end up? After hitting its 10 year anniversary this January, the question is: can Wikipedia sustain itself for another 10 years without a significant change to its business model?
In my mind there’s a simple solution previously unexplored which would cover their fundraising goals of $16 million annually without any visible change to the site or behavior of its authors and users: simply insert affiliate codes into relevant links on Wikipedia. When I’m reading about the film Twilight, give me a link to buy the video at Amazon and Wikipedia will collect up to 8.5% of any transactions as an Amazon Associate. Or from the Hawaii page, a simple Orbitz affiliate link will produce $3 for each plane ticket sold, 3-5% for a hotel reservation, and so on.
How much money could Wikipedia make from this small change? How about $16,422,000 annually from just their US traffic, roughly 2.7 billion monthly pageviews (25 percent of Wikipedia’s total pageviews). Multiplying those pageviews by a .50 revenue per 1,000 page views yields a total which amazingly just exceeds the $16 million target. [note: the .50 eCPM is an estimate gathered from web experts in affiliate monetization. Oliver Roup, CEO of Viglink, a technology which helps web publishers monetize their site in the manner I suggest for Wikipedia, told me they see some eCPMs up to $5 within their network but suggests a more conservative estimate like mine for Wikipedia.]
Three simple steps can make this happen and preserve Wikipedia as a vibrant, free service:
1) Jimmy Wales needs to say “yes!”
Although I’ve heard Jimmy talk about his views on advertising, I haven’t located any comments regarding affiliate programs. Unlike ads, affiliate links require no change to the site or conflict of interest. However today Wikipedia maintains strict policies on outbound links which forbid affiliate programs. Accordingly, Wikipedia would need to relax their policies on outside linking.
2) An Affiliate Marketing Partner needs to be selected
Viglink and Skimlinks are two of the leaders in the affiliate monetization space. Although specifics would need to be worked out, Roup offered Viglink’s support: “We’ve helped thousands of publishers monetize their content, including a few of comparable scale and we’re proud of the meaningful role VigLink revenue now plays for them. We’d be honored to similarly assist Wikipedia in continued pursuit of their mission.” That sounds like a deal waiting to happen!
3) Participating Merchants need to honor Wikipedia affiliate clicks
Affiliate programs exist to generate incremental sales and merchants reserve the right to limit payment to partners based on a variety of conditions. This is why you don’t see Twitter just append their own affiliate code to all Amazon links shared via their site — Amazon would likely say “bug off.” However, in this case, given Wikipedia’s non-profit status and the massive amount of traffic this would help unlock for participating merchants, merchants would likely welcome the affiliation. And those who don’t? Well, there’s always another merchant who will or how about a people-powered boycott by the Wikipedia community? :)
By embracing a smart affiliate program technology, Wikipedia could readily remove the questions around their solvency and redirect all that fundraising energy to activities more directly productive to the wikipedia corpus. So c’mon Jimmy, what do you think?
Disclaimer: I work for YouTube, which is owned by Google, which has a group called Google Ventures which made an investment in Viglink, however I’ve got no agenda here other than Wikipedia’s future.