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Responses to my previous posting called “How to Ethically Update Wikipedia” have been incredibly polarized and I felt it was important I provide some visibility to the ethical issues and ramifications faced by an immensely influential volunteer-run organization like Wikipedia.

First a Little Background
My July 17th posting was based on an excellent article published at Search Engine Land called “SEO Tips & Tactics from a Wikipedia Insider” written by a Wikipedia Administrator with the pseudonym Durova. My post summarized a few of the unethical Wikipedia listings that Durova had noticed throughout her time at Wikipedia and how Wikipedia responded to each situation. I was very impressed by Durova’s article and how transparent the process appeared to be.

The Ramifications
Since my posting I received a few comments on the posting that were obviously from people who felt very strongly that Wikipedia, and in particular Durova, had serious issues with ethics. In that regard I have little doubt that these people had previously poor experiences with Wikipedia/Durova and have an axe to grind; the anger was palpable. One of the comments even revealed Durova’s real name (which I chose not to allow) and linked to a page where unkindly and distasteful words are shared about Wikipedia and Durova.

The complainants’ comments on StepForth’s site and Search Engine Land’s insinuate Wikipedia is run in a mafia-like manner where those who administrate the encyclopedia can be malicious when angered and may act without repercussions. Here are some quotes:

  1. One commenter by the name of Gregory Kohs defined Wikipedia:
    Wikipedia is not an encyclopedia. It is a blog disguised as an encyclopedia, controlled by a limited number of people with admin tools who have particular axes to grind about living people with real names, all while hiding behind a cloak of anonymity.
    Source, StepForth SEO blog post.
  2. A commenter followed up Gregory’s comment with a long reply that included this:
    Durova’s advice to openly declare your intentions as COI (conflict of interest) in her article sound good - but like much of Wikipedia, the intentions are good in the script of the rules, but the proof of the “pudding” in implementation often winds up “on the faces” of the business people who naively trusted Wikipedia to be a professional and business-friendly place. It isn’t that.
    Source, StepForth SEO blog post.

  3. A Search Engine Land comment caught my eye:
    Are we now to the point in our Web 2.0 society where anonymous persons holding authority positions within Top 10 website communities can say defamatory things (that I lie to journalists), and the end result of my politely personal complaint is to have my “professional reputation” further questioned by the anonymous administrator?

    That’s just lovely.

    Thank God I love my wife, daughter, family, and many friends — who all love me dearly and don’t give two whits about Wikipedia. I really can’t imagine that if any major donor to the Wikimedia Foundation knew THIS is the type of culture that is fostered there, HOW they would possibly sign that check over to Jimbo and his admins-gone-wild.
    Source, Search Engine Land article.

At the StepForth SEO Blog Durova posted the following response to some of the comments:
“I am a voluntary participant in a program called ‘administrators open to recall.’ That means I’ll stand for reconfirmation of sysop status if half a dozen Wikipedians in good standing request it. Nobody’s ever initiated such a request. My candidacy for administratorship passed on an 81-0-1 vote (one neutral short of unanimous). So the community has expressed its confidence. I do, however, specialize in investigations and dispute resolution. So some sitebanned individuals sometimes turn up elsewhere on the Web with complaints.”

Comment note: many more inflammatory and defensive comments can be found in a less censored format within this Search Engine Land article.

My Position

I cannot attest to the accuracy of the lengthy complaints against Durova and Wikipedia and I don’t have the time or interest to thoroughly research the past (there appears to be a LOT to review). That said, if any of the complaints have an ounce of truth then Wikipedia has to be more cautious about the stance they take on content that may irreparably harm others or face a dmoz-like fate. On the flipside, those who post content on Wikipedia had better realize that whatever they post has ramifications on their own reputations so they had better be 100% certain of their sources and intentions.

Also I commend Durova for replying to the comments by noting that her current role as administrator can be circumvented by a vote by members in good standing. That said, I do wonder whether members in good standing would have any reason to oust a fellow member that may be of like mind. (i.e. who guards the guardians?)

In Closing
I have to admit that a volunteer-operated site that has the ability to seriously harm a business’s or a person’s good reputation gives me the creeps. This is especially true for online encyclopedias like Wikipedia where content, by its social nature, tends to stray into gossip territory. I realize that this applies to many social media websites but very few have the massive power to affect opinion that Wikipedia currently has. If there is one thing that this whole scenario illustrates it is that Wikipedia’s content, no matter who administrates it, should be heavily seasoned with salt. The same goes for any socially driven content online.

If you are in dire need of reputation management on your Wikipedia listing then read the well-written Search Engine Land article by Jessica Bowman where she explores the various ethical techniques of battling bad press on a Wikipedia page.: What To Do When Your Wikipedia Page Goes Bad.

PS) Google Needs More Diversity!
Google desperately needs to level the field a bit and offer up content from online encyclopedias other than Wikipedia (who regularly sits at #1 for most searches) to reveal some differing perspectives and soften Wikipedia’s influence. After all, there are bound to be other online encyclopedias that deserve a shot at the limelight as well.

If you represent an alternative online encyclopedia please email me, I would love it if you would submit a couple-paragraph introduction of your site and the reason why your content is just as or more deserving than Wikipedia. When I receive your introductions I will blog them promptly. Thanks!

by Ross Dunn, CEO, StepForth Web Marketing Inc.
Celebrating 10 Years of Web Marketing Excellence