When Wikipedia Gets It Wrong
Whether you agree with their nofollow decision or not, Wikipedia rules the Web. Encyclopedias weren’t a hit when you were in grade school lugging that 20lb torture device around, but online, they’re golden. Drop your favorite noun, ’80s TV show or an office supply you never have enough of into Google and hit search. I bet its Wikipedia entry is on the first page of your search results. Heck, it’s probably even in the top five.
Wikipedia originally caught attention in the search engine optimization community because it was great way for sites to gain exposure in their topic area. But what do you do when your product, brand or company is being misrepresented? What happens to your search engine optimization campaign and/or reputation management concerns then?
Let’s back up.
I opened up TechMeme this morning and this is what I found. Oh, no, I thought to myself, now what did they do. It sounded pretty grim for Microsoft. However, despite the hyperbolic headlines, it seems Microsoft didn’t really try to "doctor" or "manipulate" anything. Here’s what happened.
Good-intentioned Microsoft employee Dough Mahugh felt that the Wikipedia page regarding Open XML Format contained slanted and inaccurate information. Dough wanted to bring attention to the misinformation but didn’t know how to go about it, saying flagging the article got him nowhere. (For what it’s worth, the only comment I see from Dough before this all went public is from August 15th where he talks about the lack of attribution in the OpenDocument entry.)
Frustrated and without getting approval from Microsoft, Dough decided to email Rick Jelliffe, Chief Technical Officer for Topologi and an Australian blogger, and ask for his help. Below is an excerpt from the email Dough sent Rick:
"Wikipedia has an entry on Open XML that has a lot of slanted language, and we’d like for them to make it more objective but we feel that it would be best if a non-Microsoft person were the source of any corrections … Would you have any interest or availability to do some of this kind of work?
“Feel free to say anything at all on your blog about the process, about our communication with you on matters related to Open XML, or anything else. We don’t need to “approve” anything you have to say, our goal is simply to get more informed voices into the debate … feel free to state your own opinion."
Rick then blogged about the interesting offer he had received from a Microsoft employee and a firestorm erupted.
Taking a look at Dough’s email, it doesn’t appear that he was trying to doctor or manipulate anything. He wasn’t asking Rick to fill the page with Microsoft-propaganda. He wanted someone with actual expertise to read the page and fix the inaccuracies. Isn’t that the entire principle behind Wikipedia?
Should Dough have run his idea through PR and legal before he acted? Lord, yes.
Should he have offered to pay Rick for his services? No. No. No. Though his initial judgment wasn’t so great, you have to give Dough credit for owning up to his mistake over at Slashdot, a community not exactly known for being pro-Microsoft, and explaining what happened.
The trouble with Wikipedia is also what makes it so great: Anyone can say whatever they want about anything. Yes, there are safeguards involved – others can edit and flag misleading information. And that may work when you’re talking about ponies or Luck Dragons, two beloved topics at Bruce Clay, but when you’re talking about technical articles, people often don’t know when information is incorrect.
My problem with Wikipedia has always been this. Looking at it from a search engine optimization or brand management angle, it’s difficult to combat uninformed users from spreading false information about your product. It’s dangerous considering how highly these pages are known to rank on the SERP.
Clearly, had Dough tried to edit the Wikipedia pages himself he still wouldn’t have won any favor. Editing an article that’s about you or a company you work for violates Wikipedia’s terms. If I remember correctly, Jason Calacanis mentioned in his Chicago keynote how Wikipedia wouldn’t even let him correct his middle name when they had it wrong. He would change it and then they would change it back because individuals aren’t allowed to edit their own pages. Clever.
If there’s a Wikipedia page spreading false information about your company start a conversation about it, everywhere you can. This includes speaking out in Wikipedia’s discussion area so that your objections are made in public (and you can offer your opinion on the matter), but it also includes blogging about the inaccuracies and pointing readers to the real information. Never ask anyone to make the changes for you, just expose the misinformation. Chances are people will take the hint and the initiative to correct the information.
After that, take it offline. If the information about your site is glaringly inaccurate, contact Wikipedia and tell them that.
And you don’t let up on your traditional search engine optimization techniques. Social media and user-generated content sites can be powerful tools for branding, but they’re not the keys to Internet marketing and they’re still fairly new to the game. Wikipedia may be golden today, but no one knows where social media will go in the future or how much power it will hold. Use the tools, but monitor them wisely.