Wikipedia – The Rules of the Game
We’re often approached by PR and communications agencies that wish to create a Wikipedia article or clean up an existing article for their client. The goal of this post is to give you a broader context and better understanding of how Wikipedia works so that you can better advise your client whether to take the Wiki route to online image building.
The desire to appear on Wikipedia in a positive way is clear. Wikipedia ranked as the 13th most popular website in 2019 and in January 2020 alone, it reached a total of 22 billion page views. More importantly, it is one of the highest ranking search results on Google. Despite the lingering question of its reliability, it is trusted by billions of people worldwide and by Google itself, which pulls Wikipedia data for its knowledge panels, meta data, and virtual assistant. The fact that Wikipedia editing is so accessible, as anyone can edit practically anything at any given time, makes it even more attractive—a quick fix for a tarnished reputation, a shortcut into the public eye.
But it’s not so simple. Wikipedia has a hefty set of rules and regulations and almost 70,000 active English Language Wikipedia editors making sure they are abided.
The North Face Case – Good Advertising, Bad Wiki Work
In mid-2019, The North Face launched a brand awareness campaign on Wikipedia. The company’s goal was to appear in search results for popular hiking destinations. So, it replaced the images on the Wikipedia pages of these destinations with images of athletes wearing its gear while trekking at these locations. The campaign was a success – The North Face photos began to appear at the top of the search pages for the various destinations.
However, it didn’t take long for Wikipedia editors to catch on. Once they did, all images were immediately removed, and the campaign was publicly criticized by the Wikimedia Foundation and condemned on social media. Eventually, the company published an apology for exploiting the open platform for commercial needs.
As a marketing stunt aimed at keeping The North Face gear top of mind, the campaign was a success. It was creative, cheeky, memorable, and it cost practically nothing. But if it were an honest attempt at Wikipedia editing, it would be an epic fail.
Because Wikipedia is no place for self-promotion. It is run by principled volunteers who will fight for the integrity of the platform.
Because no matter who or how powerful you are, if your edits deviate from Wikipedia guidelines, they simply won’t stick.
Because once you try such a stunt, every editing attempt you make will most probably be scrutinized by dedicated Wikipedia users.
Wikipedia – an Encyclopedia for the People by the People
Wikipedia is built on the principles of openness, accessibility, and transparency. Most Wikipedia articles can be edited by anyone, with or without an identified user. The full editing history of each article and the discussions about it are accessible to all in the “talk” and “history” sections.
In order to maintain a high level of reliability, Wikipedia works according to strict editing guidelines. Detailed instructions can be found on Wikipedia itself, but the three main pillars are:
Wikipedia aims to provide impartial information. It discourages autobiographical writing and disapproves of anyone writing about people, events, or organizations with which they are affiliated. Language should be clear and simple, tone of voice should be neutral and factual, and information should be based on verified secondary sources.
One has to be something or someone to deserve a Wikipedia article. Subjects must be relevant to the public. If your clients or their company have not been extensively featured in the media, there is no reason for them to be featured on Wikipedia either.
All information added to Wikipedia must be backed by reliable sources. A reliable source is objective and vetted/peer reviewed. It may be a major news outlet, a government/academic site, or a professional niche publication. Company websites, opinion pieces, tabloids, or social media accounts are not reliable sources.
What Does All This Mean for You and Your Client?
Not everyone is worthy of a Wikipedia entry. Your client may need to build up their notability before attempting to appear on Wikipedia.
Wikipedia articles are not owned by their creators or by their subjects. They are owned by no one and guarded by the Wikipedia community.
Wikipedia is not about what is true. It’s about what you can prove with accessible, reliable third-party sources.
Wikipedia articles reflect reality as it appears online. If there’s a lot of negative news coverage about your clients, they may be better off without a Wikipedia article about them.
Wikipedia – It Can Hurt to Try
Clicking on “edit” and deleting every controversial detail about one’s company from Wikipedia is extremely tempting. It’s so simple, and what could happen anyway? Worst case-scenario—some editor will come along and revert the edits. But the worst-case scenario is really much worse than that. If devoted Wikipedia editors catch on to such an attempt, they are likely to start guarding the entry to ensure that Wikipedia guidelines are followed to the letter, making future attempts to improve the page significantly challenging, if at all possible.
In conclusion, Wikipedia editing is a beautiful challenge. When done hastily, it may cause more damage than good to your client’s image. When done correctly in a way that honors the platform, its heritage, community, and rules, the results can be quick, powerful, and longstanding.
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