Small Businesses Still Struggling with Wikipedia

Michael Essany Headshot by Michael Essany on January 27, 2011
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Now in its tenth year, Wikipedia boasts a massive volume of user-generated content that ensures it comes up in the top few results for virtually any search engine query. The site is incredibly useful and is an undeniable success story… but not everyone is thrilled about it.

Countless former Wikipedia contributors who have seen their work deleted or accounts disabled remain both frustrated and confounded by Wikipedia’s stringent deletion policy. Though it was not created as a social network or an online marketing tool, the unrivaled power and visibility of Wikipedia in search results has turned it into a platform upon which everyone — especially small businesses — want to be featured.

At Odds with Small Business

Throughout the last decade, Wikipedia has been a magnet for the small business community, and just about everyone wants to capitalize on Wikipedia’s promotional muscle. But Wikipedia’s editors are as infamous as they are adept at banishing anyone who comes close to self promotion on the site. As a result, some have resorted to highly controversial tactics to claim their share of digital ink.

Gregory Kohs, a research practitioner with a Fortune 100 company, says there’s no shortage of methods one can employ to effectively pull the wool over Wikipedia’s eyes. In a recent interview with the Intuit Small Business Blog, Kohs shared several of these tips — and Wikipedia’s supporters and volunteers were quick to express their disdain (informally) for them.

Although Wikimedia representatives did not respond to requests for an on-the-record interview to rebut to the piece that sparked such ire, the web is full of material about Wikipedia’s posting and deletion policies. Still, the sheer bulk of information available doesn’t make the process any more transparent, according to those who remain outside of Wikipedia’s good graces.

Switzerland Syndrome

“Wikipedia is a complex culture, and sometimes it can feel like the free encyclopedia everyone can edit… except me,” Jay Walsh, a spokesperson for the Wikimedia Foundation, stated in early 2010. Walsh confirms that Wikipedia’s team of staff and volunteers are charged with discouraging users from creating articles about themselves or their companies. It’s the so-called “Switzerland Syndrome,” a conscious and aggressive effort to remain a bastion of unbiased and “neutral” information.

As far as Wikipedia is concerned, one thing is clear; a small business can only be the subject of an acceptable Wikipedia profile if the company is notable — that is, the subject has obtained “significant coverage in reliable, independent secondary sources.” Of course, a formal request for an article can always be made, but the content for that article will ultimately have to be provided by somebody unrelated to your company. Per the site’s rules:

The Wikipedia community strongly discourages articles written by individuals close to a subject because of the difficulty in writing objectively about your organization, yourself, your family, or your work, in line with Wikipedia’s conflict of interest and autobiography rules.

While Wikipedia and its editors have repeatedly asserted that their collaborative encyclopedia is not a business or web directory, the criteria employed to measure the notability of a business or its accomplishments are as subjective as they are strict. It’s a situation that continues to stymie the efforts of many credible small business owners who remain unaware of alternatives to entry. (Businesses aren’t the only ones confused by the rules: There is infamously more written on Wikipedia about the Call of Duty video games than about World War II.)

With regard to using Wikipedia for purposes of promoting one’s small business, there are, indeed, far more questions than there are answers. But, auspiciously, there is also a long list of small companies that ultimately succeeded in their efforts to secure some form of representation on Wikipedia. Tekserve, for example, is a consumer electronics and information technology consulting business in New York City. It has a Wikipedia page. So does Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles. Sparks Steak House is there too. What do they all have in common? They didn’t begin their quest for notability on Wikipedia. Instead, they provided evidence of their perceived notability and played by the rules — Wikipedia’s own enigmatic and inconsistent ones.

Here’s how some have gone about it.

  • Wikipedia Shouldn’t Be Your First Stop – If your business is new and largely unknown, trying to make a name for it on Wikipedia is ill-advised. A promotional effort that secures media coverage for your business, its accomplishments, or — ideally — its humanitarian or charitable efforts should precede any effort to create a Wikipedia page. Once your business is verified as being “notable” and has the links to prove it, the chances your business’s entry staying on Wikipedia increase exceptionally.
  • Dive into Wikipedia – If ever there was a realm where knowledge truly is power, it’s in the world of Wikipedia. If you’ve never contributed to Wikipedia or volunteered for article construction or research, do so far in advance of publishing an article about your company. Learn the ins and outs of Wikipedia and build your “street cred” in the world of Wiki by contributing as much and as meaningfully as possible.
  • Play by The Rules But Be Clever – Without resorting to shady tactics, many have succeeded in cleverly promoting their businesses — legitimately and without hindering the neutrality of Wikipedia content — by augmenting other articles to include a mention of or a referral link back to their business where it was both applicable and appropriate.
  • Stub Your Way into Wikipedia – Don’t make a splash. Make a ripple. If you’re a newbie to Wikipedia who jumps in head first with an elaborate self-serving piece about your business or the business that employed you to write the article, there’s an excellent chance the piece will be gone before your work day is done. By starting with a “stub” — an entry comprised of only a few sentences — your post can be seen as something of a challenge to veteran Wikipedians, one of whom may venture to complete a more elaborate profile to which you can once again contribute at a later time. A profile built through multiple writers is more likely to “stick” on the site for good.
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