Jimmy Wales reveals Wikipedia white-hat optimization hack

This is a tough one. The way the headlines are written, Microsoft offers cash for Wikipedia edit and Microsoft tried to doctor Wikipedia, it sounds like a no-brainer to condemn Microsoft as “evil.” But upon reading more about the issue — and having to consider this issue myself in other contexts — I must ask, if markets are conversations (see Cluetrain), then we have to find the appropriate etiquette where the people who make up a company can have voices in conversations when they are being defined by, in some cases, their competitors. However, a dogma has developed on Wikipedia that suggests it is inappropriate for anyone to write about themselves or anything they are personally involved with, or may have some unique insight into. Indeed, the presumption seems to be that if an original source adds something to a Wikipedia entry, it must be false or spun or have some hidden agenda. Therefore, the resulting practice has become, it’s okay to get ones best friend to correct a Wikipedia entry, but don’t do it yourself. That way you’ll be able to say, “I have never edited my Wikipedia entry.” (Better yet, if you can say, “I never read my Wikipedia entry,” you’re even cooler on the geek scale.)

The irony of this convoluted etiquette can best be seen in this quote from one of the articles:

Wales said the proper course would have been for Microsoft to write or commission a “white paper” on the subject with its interpretation of the facts, post it to an outside Web site and then link to it in the Wikipedia articles’ discussion forums.

I am a fan of Jimmy Wales but there is a well-publicized history of his correcting his own Wikipedia entry in a somewhat more direct way than he is suggesting in that quote.

In the way that a high-profile individual (like Wales) who sees inaccuracies about their entry on Wikipedia is lambasted for correcting the entry, there has emerged some form of group-decision that has become translated to mean that those who work for a company shouldn’t be writing about it or the things it does directly on Wikipedia — but should construct some Rube Goldbergish trail of white papers and postings on external websites. This Wikipedia cultural nuance, while very likely evolving from well-reasoned intentions, has naturally led to the unintended consequence of a company like Microsoft looking for a “right” way to engage in the conversation, but stumbling miserably when that attempt is outed by those who believe it is better to have wrong content, than “corporate” content.

I love Wikipedia. However, the “white paper” suggestion is really crazy.

When interpreted as “Microsoft offers cash for Wikipedia edit,” sure, it sounds evil. But if Wikipedia has become the platform of record for web-based knowledge, then having a voice there is going to be a requirement for corporate America. Wikipedia either needs to find an accepted “white hat” way for this to be done directly and transparently (and not some “in the discussions, off the website way), or dark-hat, Rube Goldberg solutions will naturally follow.

Prediction: In the future (like a week from now), in addition to “SEO” (search engine optimization) and “SMO” (social media optimization) expect to see the term “WO” (wikipedia optimization) added to the “lexicon of expertise” of certain online marketing consulting firms.

Prediction: I will have much more to say about this in the future.

Bonus links:

  • Dave Winer“State of Wikipedia“:

    “To me, in areas outside my expertise, it seems that Wikipedia is an excellent source of information. But that’s the problem. In areas that I know better, I can see its flaws. I play by the rules and don’t fix the mistakes. That leaves it to the trolls to write the story. Somehow we have to resolve this. And Wales should recuse himself from being the judge in these matters.

  • Scott Karp“What is the check on Wikipedia’s power?

    “It now appears that if you are a corporation that feels Wikipedia is inaccurate or slanted on a topic that is of substantive importance to your business, you’re pretty much screwed.”

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    • So, SMO = PR 2.0?

    • How can you say you haven’t read your Wikipedia entry yet you know of it? It is basic human nature to be nosy or curious.

    • Pingback: Microsoft: Lessons in how to look stupid » Mathew Ingram: mathewingram.com/work()

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    • Les

      It should also be noted that the one Microsoft was going to hire was
      1) a recognized expert
      2) insisted Microsoft could not change his text

      Microsoft was just too upfront. They should have laundered the money.

    • Anon for this one

      Anyone who thinks that Microsoft is either the first or the last company to recruit someone to fix their Wikipedia entry for them is smoking something.

      The company I work for had a relatively short and not very helpful Wikipedia entry. Our competitors have much longer, more detailed, and generally much better entries about themselves. I’ve wanted to fix our entry for a long time, but according to Wikipedia, I can’t. I have to sit on my hands and wait for one of our customers to decide to commit the hours to such a project — and let’s not kid ourselves, creating a good Wikipedia entry about a technical subject is not a small job. It can take hours, even a couple of days.

      Yet if I try to facilitate matters, then I’m bad and should be roundly criticized. I call bull. That’s only true if you subscribe to the theory that anything a corporation does is inherently tainted and untrustworthy. The world just isn’t that black and white. Companies with a legitimate interest in providing accurate information about their products should be able to do so without either sneaking around or going over hurdles that their competitors don’t have.

    • Rex Hammock

      Dear Anon, I think your company should publish a white paper — sorry, just kidding….Actually, I think this is where “a friend” who is good at “wikipedia optimization” can help out.

    • awesome