Wikipedia, the free online community-edited encyclopedia, is used by millions of people daily, but it is often misunderstood by those who are not familiar with the way its content is managed. Our expert Sarah Keeling takes a few minutes to share her experience and knowledge of Wikipedia, and to help individuals and companies understand how their presence on the platform can be both an opportunity and a potential risk.
Tell us a little about your background and area of expertise, how you came to join Digitalis, and your team.
Before joining Digitalis I worked in social media, helping brands communicate with their customers. I was drawn to Digitalis because of its forward-looking approach to online content: that it can be just as important to consider what is not yet online, or what should not be shared, as it is to curate the content that does appear when someone searches for your name or business online. Digitalis has always had a big-picture approach to what it means to be visible online.
In the five years I have been at Digitalis, I have moved from writing our in-house content to managing our dedicated team in this area, as well as advising clients from different sectors. One of the areas I specialise in is helping clients with the delicate and surprisingly complex task of how to approach their presence on Wikipedia.
What is it about Wikipedia that prompted you to want to specialise in it – why is it so fascinating?
As a free online encyclopedia created and edited by volunteers around the world, Wikipedia is a unique product of the international collaboration promised by the earliest pioneers of the internet. It is used by millions of people daily, but is often misunderstood by those who do not regularly interact with its community.
The site’s mission is very simple at its core, aiming to serve as an evergreen digital knowledge source that relies strictly on external verification and citation of sources to support the material it hosts. 21 years after its foundation, the site retains much of the somewhat retro, text-based appearance and functionality it started with, hiding a deceptively complex and very human set of inner workings.
For those looking to ensure Wikipedia represents them or their business online in an accurate way, the complications arise from four main issues. The first of these is that it can be difficult to establish what sort of knowledge is considered “encyclopaedic” enough for inclusion on a website which is already over two decades old and aims to rival established academic sources in longevity and significance.
The second issue is that of determining which external sources are considered consistently reliable enough to serve as “citations needed” (supporting material to verify Wikipedia content), in an increasingly polarised media environment.
Thirdly, the content Wikipedia hosts is entirely beyond any individual’s control. All text, images and other media that appear on Wikipedia must be free to use, and no one “owns” a Wikipedia page, even if it is about yourself, your family, your company or your client.
Finally, the site has always been run and maintained by volunteers (known as editors). As these editors are not employees of Wikipedia or the Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia is not responsible for their actions, although if someone adds incorrect or harmful information to the site, other editors try to identify and remove it.
What positives can Wikipedia bring to its users, and to the people and organisations who feature on its pages
Wikipedia is an absolute powerhouse in terms of search engine optimisation (SEO). If there is an article on or related to a term that a user searches for on Google (or another search engine), the relevant Wikipedia entry is likely to appear near the top of the results.
The Wikipedia English-language homepage alone attracts hundreds of millions of views every day. Despite having “no follow” links to external websites, which stop content receiving higher rankings on search engine results pages as a result of people clicking through to it from a Wikipedia page, Wikipedia can still generate considerable traffic to news sources and websites simply by making visitors aware of them. It also has an enviable internal link network, prompting users to stay on the site and open further pages to learn more on a given subject. Owing to its advanced methods of identifying probable vandalism and bias, the site has a strong reputation for accuracy, and Google regularly generates knowledge panels from its content.
For many individuals and companies, this visibility and trust is fantastic news: Wikipedia enables internet users to quickly find out all about them, free of charge. The reliance on external sources and myriad policies to guard against disinformation, bias and vandalism also increases the credibility of the information.
But an article about you, your business or your client on Wikipedia should always be taken into consideration as both an opportunity and a potential risk. Volunteer editors work tirelessly to keep the site accurate, but it takes time to correct every mistake or attack. Often the final text of an article is the result of pages of behind-the-scenes debate. The community ethos of the site means consensus is required, even at times for content that is seemingly innocuous. So-called “edit wars” arising from disagreements about sourcing and intent range from entertaining squabbles on the lamest debates to serious work such as identifying covert propaganda and intimidation campaigns.
What can go wrong for people who lack an understanding of how Wikipedia works, or try to “cheat the system” when submitting content?
On the face of it, Wikipedia is a free encyclopedia that anyone can edit – and this has long been both a selling point and a caveat in terms of the accessibility and reliability of information on the site.
It is considered bad form to attempt to edit your “own” Wikipedia article, which may seem surprising to some: after all, who better to make a change than someone with intimate knowledge of the subject? However, due to the site’s ambition to be free of bias and corporate influence, information added by anyone considered to have a conflict of interest is typically challenged and removed by the site’s editors.
There have sadly been many cases of article subjects, their friends or PR teams attempting to add content to Wikipedia that is little more than blatant advertising. Those who have a connection to article subjects are also unlikely to be regular contributors to Wikipedia, and their lack of awareness of the systems in place means they are likely to make mistakes and break rules when adding content.
Despite its aim to be a neutral source of information, Wikipedia admits that it has multiple systemic biases. One of these is that, in order to devote so much time to Wikipedia as volunteers, many editors are not currently in work. This means a large proportion of editors do not have experience of or interest in topics of relevance to various areas of employment. This can lead to clashes with those who do work within those sectors (particularly finance), as the editor may argue against the inclusion of salient information simply because media catered towards the more general public does not regularly cover these subjects.
It can be tempting to take matters into your own hands, but the teams of editors who specifically look out for covert editing will more often than not discover any attempt to do so. Such editors will be looking out for content added using work IP addresses, proxies to disguise IP addresses, patterns of language that suggest PR influences, and even file names left in an edit.
What does your team do to help clients understand and navigate the complexities of their own presence on Wikipedia?
There are many ways to engage with Wikipedia without participating in conflict of interest editing. Every article has a discussion page attached to it, known as a talk page, where people are welcome to make suggestions and requests regardless of their affiliations. There are also templates you can use to draw the attention of experienced editors, noticeboards where you can flag issues, and legal teams who can act on serious issues such as endangerment, especially where open communication is not appropriate. Creating a Wikipedia page is probably the hardest task, but it is not impossible; there are open request channels for this too.
My team at Digitalis works with both individual and company clients to successfully navigate the etiquette, policies and rules of Wikipedia. We use our in-depth knowledge to advise on the best actions to take, and guide clients through the process in a way that respects the integrity of Wikipedia, while helping to ensure that content about them on the site remains accurate.