Help End Wikipedia Ignorance

The following is a collaborative guest post from David King and Robert Lawton. If you’d like to contribute thinking here, please read the guidelines.

Wikipedia has been called the most influential website in the world. When Wikipedia went “black” last month in protest along with others, it helped stop a Congressional effort to pass SOPA/PIPA dead in its tracks. It’s fair to say, Wikipedia is influential.

Yet in a world filled with data, research, workshops, and experts, most marketers still don’t understand how Wikipedia works or its impact on their image. And those who attempt to manage their brand on Wikipedia without an understanding of how to edit appropriately may find themselves in an embarrassing flap.

Assumptions and misinformation easily spread in a vacuum of real knowledge about Wikipedia.

It’s about time we debunk some common myths.

Common myths:

Wikipedia isn’t a respectable source

Wikipedia bills itself as the encyclopedia “anyone can edit”, so how could anyone trust a document that’s written by anonymous volunteers? Indeed, Wikipedia has gotten plenty of media flack for being banned by college professors as a reliable source for student papers. However, over the generations college professors have almost always barred the use of any encyclopedia as a source. The media seems to have forgotten, or maybe the older generation just doesn’t write articles about the Internet.

Many of our most active Wikipedians are actually subject matter experts, scientists, and engineers. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Survey, 53 percent of online adults read Wikipedia. This group includes a strong concentration of readers with undergraduate or advanced degrees. Wikipedia has more PhD and Bachelor degrees readers by count than any other social media platform. And since they have full edit access, when they see a mistake, many of them pause to fix it.

Corporate editors aren’t welcome

Every so often a news story breaks about someone getting caught fiddling with Wikipedia. However, most instances of corporate meddling on Wikipedia never reach the public eye. The problem essentially stems from ham-handed editing by paid advocates who don’t know the rules. Editors with a conflict of interest are found and dealt with daily as a matter of routine.

Even so, there is no rule on Wikipedia banning corporate editors. There are rules for neutrality, disclosure, editing with a conflict of interest, external links, encyclopedic tone, and the use of trademarks in usernames. These rules comprise a virtual minefield that novice corporate editors frequently discover after stepping on one. However, editors who have invested the time and effort to learn the rules and work within community standards fair reasonably well.

Requests for improvement are ignored

Here’s a common situation: there’s a blatant error or sadly dated statement on a company article. You know your edits are tracked in a permanent, publicly available log and don’t want to make a mistake, so you post your request on the article’s “Talk” page and voila! Nothing happens – not for days, weeks, or months. This happens a lot.

If no one is interested in (or monitoring) the article, nothing happens, and it is nobody’s job to fix it. Wikipedia’s editors are all volunteers. They do what they want, when they want, whenever they feel like it. But it’s not all dusty tomes. Once you learn the ropes, it’s not difficult to find a volunteer who can help you out – often within minutes.

Good intentions are enough

Newbie editors often have a rough start on Wikipedia. For marketers it’s even harder. It’s not enough to have good intentions. Wikipedia has hundreds of pages of rules called “policies”, “guidelines”, and “essays”. Any one of them can trip up an editor. Naturally, Wikipedians have their own vocabulary and a keen sense of fairness. Wikipedians don’t want to see their work subverted to benefit your corporation or client. Wikipedians see their efforts as a gift to humanity, but that includes presenting accurate information, and there’s your hook.

Just like SEO firms are trusted to understand and avoid black-hat SEO, experienced editors, even those with a conflict of interest, can work within the rules to ensure their client’s articles remain current, complete, and factual while avoiding embarrassing mistakes. Good intentions are not enough, it takes experience to do a proper job.

What can be done?

Edit Wikipedia fairly and neutrally, and your prospective customers will at least get the right facts. Wikipedia is a high-profile resource that hundreds of millions of individuals use every month to research topics that interest them. If your company, product, or service interests them, they’re very likely going to use Wikipedia to cut through your marketing hype.

Don’t let novices edit for you or your clients. You wouldn’t hand a novice a microphone and put them “live” on the radio, so don’t unleash them on Wikipedia. Unlike the radio, edits to Wikipedia are permanent. Bad edits will haunt you.

Tell your professional societies you want training from credible sources at industry events. It’s true that if you want the job done right, you must do it yourself. Just be sure to give yourself every advantage.

Consider including “experienced Wikipedian” in your entry level job requirements. Wikipedia has nearly a hundred thousand active editors, and many of them will graduate this year. Use them. Just be sure to listen to them when they tell you they can’t just copy and paste whatever you want. All edits must fit within the community’s norms, and it’s that experience you bought when you hired them.

Educate yourself if you’ve got the time. Start by proofreading a few articles that interest you – golf or sail fishing for example. When you’ve got the basics, continue by reading any of the following:

Together we can end Wikipedia ignorance.

David King specializes in helping organizations make compliant, neutral, encyclopedic improvements to Wikipedia following ethical best practices. You can find David on Wikipedia here.

Robert Lawton is the owner of LawtonDigital.biz, an adjunct instructor, and a volunteer Wikipedia editor/administrator since 2002. You can find Robert on Wikipedia here.

image credit: Shutterstock