Crash course on Wikipedia

Headline: Harvard Business School professors Karim Lakhani and Andrew McAfee publish a case study on Wikipedia. Confused readers wonder why their version stops before the conclusion. While the analysis and recommendation are left as an exercise to the reader, the case includes a wealth of detail that anyone dealing with Wikipedia should read—and if anything related to your business is in Wikipedia, you should be paying attention. A lot of people get their information there now.

I first wrote about reputation monitoring on Wikipedia in October. I learned about some of the risks of trying to fix errors from a corporate PR guy who was trying to correct material factual errors related to his employer. The challenge—made clear in several recent incidents—is that Wikipedia norms generally oppose changes by anyone who has an interest in the entry. That includes PR agencies and anyone else editing on behalf of a client, and it includes employees making changes for the benefit of their employers.

You might be the world's leading expert on a topic, but if it's related to your income, you're not supposed to change it. The approved method is indirect—you're supposed to suggest changes on the discussion page and let someone else make them on the entry.

Wikipedia on more radars
Wikipedia versus interested parties is almost a meme lately. Steven Colbert summarized it in a bit on "wikilobbying" (via SEOmoz). Someone at Microsoft offers to pay an expert to fix an entry, and the whole world hears about it. Wikipedia adopts the "nofollow" attribute for all outbound links, making it likely to outrank its own sources in Google results. SEOs are not pleased. Should word of mouth marketing and viral marketing be merged? Boy, talk about bias! Sometimes it seems that anti-business is the exception to NPOV.

But the process worked
The Wikipedian aversion to PR and proprietary interest makes things challenging, but a funny thing happened: since we talked, a page that was bothering the unnamed exec above got fixed. The bias toward a competitor is—well, not entirely gone, but greatly diminished. The entry has been renamed from the competitor's brand name to the generic term, and it describes both competitors' brands as examples.

So I looked up some other examples, and they were fixed, too. The entry that inaccurately linked Dow Chemical to the Bhopal disaster has been corrected and has lost its activist bias (it does link, appropriately, to information on the lingering controversy). The entry on public relations no longer describes some of the worst bad PR practices as if they're typical, and the entries for word of mouth marketing and viral marketing were not merged. Maybe the process works, after all?

Lessons learned at others' expense
The lessons for marketers are clear. Pay attention to Wikipedia entries related to your business. If you see material errors or negative information, address them, but tread lightly. Work within the Wikipedia system to address problems, and be extra sensitive to the appearance of violating its norms. If you represent a commercial interest, you are not considered a member of the community, and the fallout from a botched effort to correct your entry will be worse than the entry itself.

Wikipedia includes many entries on how to do Wikipedia. The new HBS case study will give you a quick introduction in a much more manageable form.


About Nathan Gilliatt

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  • Voracious learner and explorer. Analyst tracking technologies and markets in intelligence, analytics and social media. Advisor to buyers, sellers and investors. Writing my next book.
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