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8 Things You Need to Know About Wikipedia

To optimize your presence on the online encyclopedia, you need to understand its unique rules.
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Earlier this week, 11 professional communication firms came together--in an unprecedented move in their industry--to jointly issue a statement about how they engage with the Wikipedia project/editor community. My firm, Peppercomm, was one of those involved with the proclamation.

We did so in part to distinguish ethical practice in our field from companies that have sold services (and made headlines) for engaging in deceptive practices on the online encyclopedia like making edits to pages without disclosing existing conflicts of interest. But the move also was a first step toward educating our fellow professionals and our current and future clients about what ethical engagement on Wikipedia means. As Bill Beutler, who helped organize this week's statement, told Inc.'s Abigail Tracy, most infractions from professional communicators in the past have been due to ignorance rather than malice.

Over the years, I've had the chance to talk with a wide range of entrepreneurs and other business leaders. I've heard stories that venture capitalists are increasingly considering whether a company has a Wikipedia entry or not as a sign of their cultural relevance, and, ultimately, their investment potential. I've met business leaders concerned that an inaccurate or incomplete Wikipedia entry is among the top couple of search results for their company's name. And I've met plenty of companies who are concerned that their competitor's product line has its own entry in the online encyclopedia, while theirs did not.

Along the way, some of those organizations I've talked with had tasked an employee with popping onto the site and inserting information about a newly launched product, or had their admin create an account to post the corporate bios of all the company's senior leaders, or hired a company who claimed it could "address all those issues" on their Wikipedia entry in one fell swoop, and for a relatively low fee. And most of the time, these senior leaders had no idea why that would be controversial.

So if, like me, you are not a veteran volunteer Wikipedia editor, what do you most need to understand about this site?

1. Wikipedia is "the encyclopedia anyone can edit."

That means, technically, anyone can create an account and start making changes--including your detractors, employees of a competitor, etc. But Wikipedia is also overseen by a community of volunteer editors, many of whom dedicate significant time to doing what they can to review the site for accuracy. Any claim made in a Wikipedia entry is expected to be properly sourced. So that means every entry is constantly evolving, and the way the page looks today may change drastically by tomorrow.

2. Wikipedia is a key place to listen.

The site is one of the 10 most popular in the world. For many subjects, it is the top hit on search engines. And other sites automatically pull information from Wikipedia. That means that when thinking about your organization from the perspective of the people you seek to reach, you cannot discount the importance of any Wikipedia page that references you--and you probably should keep a regular watch on what's on it.

3. Wikipedia is not a traditional media organization.

When a journalist writes something inaccurate, you can email them or call their editor to appeal for a correction and/or a retraction. Wikipedia has no such straightforward process. Various editors update those entries over time; many of those editors remain anonymous. And the relatively small Wikimedia Foundation that runs the servers that operate the site does not maintain editorial control of the encyclopedia's content. Rather, that lies with the many volunteer editors who maintain the site--a decentralized group with no official hierarchy of command to appeal to.

4. Wikipedia requires disclosure of conflicts of interest.

Many entrepreneurs know that anyone can edit the site but truly aren't aware of the fact that Wikipedia editors have agreed-upon guidelines that require disclosure of paid or unpaid conflicts-of-interest--and strongly discourage those with such a conflict from making direct edits to a page (save some non-controversial changes, but there is some degree of controversy as to what constitutes a non-controversial edit). 

5. Every Wikipedia entry has its own "Talk" page.

Behind every Wikipedia page is a tab that shows you its edit history, as well as a "Talk" tab that allows Wikipedia editors to pose questions and discuss issues. For those who have a conflict of interest, the Talk page is the more appropriate place to air a grievance about the content, while disclosing your own conflict of interest. But I'd also recommend great caution with wading into Wikipedia talk pages without deeply understanding the community, or working with someone who does.

6. Wikipedia is a community, not a landfill.

Even if you follow all the proper protocol, Wikipedia is an encyclopedia maintained by a community of volunteer editors, not a repository for all information. Editors expect additions to the site to be properly sourced by trusted sources, which means suggesting the copy-and-paste of your sales materials or extensive linking back to your own corporate website will probably not be changes an independent Wikipedia editor would find valuable. The rule of thumb is this: Think about what you would expect from an objective entry on any subject outside your own space, and ensure your article adheres to that. Ultimately, for an update to stand the test of time on Wikipedia, it has to pass the editorial litmus test; there's little point in even suggesting an edit that doesn't. Even if it miraculously got added to the site by an editor (or if you violated the guidelines of Wikipedia and posted it yourself), it would very likely be flagged to come right back down as soon as a volunteer editor has a chance to properly vet it.

7. Wikipedia is not a place to "fight fire with fire."

You may see another company in your field--much less prominent than you--whose product line has an entry filled with marketing-speak, while yours doesn't have an entry at all. Or maybe you suspect a competitor of adding disparaging claims to your entry. That doesn't mean the answer is to counter with the same. Wikipedia editors don't justify subjectivity and inaccuracy via arguments of parity. The criticism and controversy you open yourself up to isn't worth the risk.

8. You can survive--perhaps even thrive--without a Wikipedia entry about yourself.

As of today, there is no Wikipedia entry for this "Sam Ford." In fact, there is likewise not a Wikipedia entry about the agency for which I work, Peppercomm. I can promise you I haven't lost any sleep over that fact. And at going on 20 years as an agency, Peppercomm hasn't had its business momentum affected by that, either. So please don't think having a Wikipedia entry is the metric by which you should define your life's work.

And for the record, no, I'm not trolling for a reader to go make an entry about me, or even trying to claim I'm a notable enough figure to have one. A Wikipedia entry would just give me something else to have to monitor on a regular basis.

Last updated: Jun 13, 2014

SAM FORD

Sam Ford is director of audience engagement at Peppercomm and co-author of Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (NYU Press, 2013). He is an alumnus and affiliate with MIT's Program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing and acts as co-chair of the Ethics Committee for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association.




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