Debate: Is Wikipedia Transparent Enough (Mike)

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Wikipedia’s editorial transparency is increasingly important as a company or individual’s Wikipedia page is more likely than ever these days to show up on the SERPs. A number of factors – including the all-volunteer nature of Wikipedia contributors, editors, and administrators – raise concerns about the possible difficulties in correcting inaccurate material that has become part of a Wikipedia entry. In extreme cases, companies have been banned for trying to edit their own entries, either by themselves or through a marketing agency.

A Wikipedia editor and a search marketing agency executive square off. Do Wikipedia’s editorial practices need more transparency?

Jonathan Hochman has two computer science degrees from Yale. He is the founder of Hochman Consultants, an Internet marketing firm, and the director of Search Engine Marketing New England (SEMNE), a regional conference series. Jonathan is an administrator and editor at Wikipedia where his username is Jehochman (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Jehochman).

Mike Nierengarten, an Account Executive at Anvil Media, focuses on ROI-driven search marketing. Working with clients such as Animation Mentor and Yesmail, Mike has demonstrated proven ROI in everything from paid search to building widgets and RSS advertising.

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Mike: Wikipedia is incredibly transparent in identifying editors and in its editorial guidelines. But Wikipedia fails to be forthright in its power structure and often sacrifices the most relevant knowledge for strict adherence to the site’s rules.

The Wikipedia project has essentially created its own demons. Like chat rooms or forums, Wikipedia requires a handful of very active users that contribute frequently. But unlike chat rooms or forums, there is no entity to monitor abuse. Wikipedia is self-policing, and much like government without regulation, this leads to a general mess.

From a company’s standpoint, this can be infuriating. Companies are full of pertinent information and too often are shut out of Wikipedia without recourse. Wikipedia should amend the site’s guidelines to include the most useful, relevant information regardless of source.

I would much rather see Wikipedia editors discuss an edit’s relevance instead of the editor’s IP address any day.

Jonathan: Wikipedia has robust mechanisms for controlling abuse by cabals or by users with “ops” (sysop privileges). Information complaints of abuse can be made to the Incidents Noticeboard (WP:ANI), and formal complaints can be made to the Arbitration Committee (WP:ARB) if lesser measures fail to resolve a problem. (Please note that in my answers, I will provide shortcuts to the relevant Wikipedia pages – type the shortcut into the Wikipedia search box.)

Many stakeholders, including businesses who are covered by Wikipedia articles, do not know how Wikipedia works. A good place to start is the Business FAQ (WP:BFAQ). For best results, take the time to learn how the community operates before filing complaints.

Wikipedia’s conflict of interest policy (WP:COI) discourages self-indulgent editing. However, companies are not strictly forbidden from editing articles about themselves. They can revert vandalism and carry out non-controversial housekeeping edits like grammar and typos. Any editor, even the subject, can remove poorly sourced information from a biography under the “BLP” or Biography of Living Persons policy (WP:BLP).In general, companies should avoid adding material to their own articles, as this often leads to accusations of bias, whether the material is biased or not.

The best practice is for the company to propose content additions on the article’s talk page. For example, if Google wants a change to their article, one of their people could go to Talk:Google and make a request. It helps greatly when such requests include links to reliable, independent sources. Company articles normally include some links to the company’s own materials, especially for non-controversial facts. However, an entire article cannot be based on a company’s press releases and marketing literature.

Mike: Yes, Wikipedia has mechanisms in place to monitor abuse and appeal for arbitration, but much like our tax code, those who intimately understand the site’s inner workings are apt to take advantage. Rather than focus on whether a contributor followed Wikipedia’s conflict of interest policy, the focus should be on whether the edit contributed to Wikipedia as a whole.

Ideally, companies would be able to add relevant information (independent sources cited, of course) to not only their company’s article but also articles within their field. Who better to discuss the iPhone than the engineers who developed it? Who better to contribute to the athletic shoe article than Nike?

Too often, the source of the content is taken into account over the relevance of the content. The oligarchy of Wikipedia has no issue removing the entirety of an editor’s contributions if the editor is found to work for a related company – the accusation of bias Jonathon mentioned above – disregarding whether the edits actually improved Wikipedia.

Furthermore, ad agencies are essentially prohibited from Wikipedia despite agencies having the resources to learn Wikipedia’s convoluted rules and regulations. CPAs are paid to understand the tax code. Doesn’t it make sense for agencies to get paid to learn Wikipedia’s system? A knowledgeable agency adding valuable content to Wikipedia within Wikipedia’s guidelines seems like a win-win.

Jonathan: Ad agencies are welcome to help their clients navigate the details of Wikipedia. The best practice is for the agency representative, or brand ambassador, to disclose their connection and request help via the article talk page. Most Wikipedia editors are happy to help when they are approached honestly and treated with respect. Unfortunately, it is much more common for business interests to edit on the sly, adding poor-quality content, and then edit war or otherwise disrupt the work of neutral editors.

Writing in the encyclopedic style is a skill that requires practice. An engineer who has worked on the iPhone, to use your example, is probably too close to the subject to evaluate things objectively. They are likely to add content sourced to their own gray matter, rather than to a reliable source. Wikipedia is not for publishing original research. Experts are welcome, but they still need to cite the content they add to a reliable source (WP:V). Reliable sources are things like newspapers, magazines, or academic journals, depending on the subject. An iPhone expert could certainly review the article and post criticism on the talk page. I think that sort of participation would always be welcomed.

Wikipedia does not remove content because of the real-life identity of an editor. It is forbidden to bring up the identity of another editor unless they reveal the details voluntarily (WP:OUTING). Conflict-of-interest content is often removed because: it looks like blatant advertising, it contains peacock terms, or is otherwise not written from a neutral point of view (WP:NPOV).

Editors who have a connection to a subject can contribute to that subject as long as they follow Wikipedia’s standards. Based on long experience, we have found that most businesses fail to uphold standards when writing about themselves.

About the Author

Mike has worked in the online marketing industry since 2005. Mike started Obility Consulting in 2011. Obility works with b2b companies looking to lower customer acquisition costs through improved performance in paid search and conversion optimization. Please visit obilityconsulting.com to learn more about Mike or Obility.

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