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How does Wikipedia work?

Curious about how Wikipedia works? Things get complicated when you’re a PR or marketing professional.

Wikipedia is most well-known for the ease in updating a Wikipedia article. Editing an article on Wikipedia is as simple as clicking the “Edit” button, typing some new content, and clicking the “Publish Changes” button. Most editors don’t carry a specific bias into the articles they edit. Communications and marketing professionals have to play by a different set of rules because of Wikipedia’s Terms of Use (ToU). When trying to develop a Wikipedia strategy, what may seem simple at first glance is much more complex. With an ever-evolving list of over 250 guidelines and policies, it’s difficult to determine where to begin. Compounded with a community of editors who are notoriously hostile to new users, it’s even harder to even ask for help. Just as someone could represent herself in a legal matter, it’s clearly preferable to hire professional counsel. Here’s a brief overview of some of the inner workings of Wikipedia, and why expert help is a necessity.

Legal Enforcement

We often gloss over the Terms of Use and End User License Agreements for the programs and platforms we use because of the dense texts of legalese. However, when it comes to Wikipedia, ToU helps the Wikimedia Foundation limit its liability and establish a clear code of conduct necessary for the long-term health of its user-generated content platforms. For example, public relations firm Wiki-PR was sent a cease and desist from the Wikimedia Foundation and subsequently blocked from editing after violating the ToU. Consequently, the Foundation updated its ToU in response to the rise in companies directly editing articles. The Foundation now requires that anyone with a Conflict of Interest (COI) must disclose their affiliation with the article subject regardless of whether they’re being paid or not. In no uncertain terms, undisclosed paid editing is a violation of the ToU. Repercussions for failing to disclose a COI range from blocking usernames from editing and restricting IP addresses from accessing Wikipedia.

Code of Conduct

The Wikimedia Foundation’s ToU helps to manage the overall platform, but Wikipedia has its own principles. Volunteer editors (known as Wikipedians) are responsible for adhering to and overseeing these guidelines. These principles are known as Wikipedia’s Five Pillars. In a nutshell, Wikipedia is an encyclopedia of unbiased, free information, and its users should treat one another respectfully. Two of these principles focus on acceptable conduct across Wikipedia: “Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view” and “Wikipedia’s editors should treat each other with respect and civility.” These two principles are essential to Wikipedia’s sustainability as a reliable platform.

Wikipedia's Five Pillars are the fundamental principles of the online encyclopedia
Wikipedia's Five Pillars are the fundamental principles of the online encyclopedia
Neutral Point of View

Wikipedians heavily scrutinize any content submissions from COI editors because of the presumed bias of the company employee or consultant. It’s natural for COI editors to defend the company or brand they’re representing, even without realizing it. From the Wikipedians’ perspective, anyone hired to write carries an inherent bias and shouldn’t be trusted to be objective.

Wikipedia’s Neutral Point of View (NPOV) policy creates a style similar to news writing. When proposing new content it’s paramount to ensure that the style remains impartial, devoid of any promotional language. (Conversely, if an article has an overly negative tone, it can be challenged on this same basis of NPOV.) Hiring an external team helps mitigate bias in creating new Wikipedia content. A quality team with an outside perspective will ask the right questions to ensure the content remains sufficiently neutral for Wikipedia.

Collaborating with Respect and Civility

Wikipedia on the surface may seem like an enchanted forest infested with basement-dwelling trolls. That misconception is what can lead company-hired Wikipedia editors into a den of debate. Conversations on Wikipedia mirror social media. Many people will offer their opinion and criticism but only a few have the experience to respectfully debate. On Wikipedia, the conversations and debate take place on the Talk page, where editors propose changes, request review (of new content), and voice concern about the current state of the article. The Talk page is also where COI editors disclose their affiliation with the article subject.

COI editors petition changes on the Talk page the same way volunteer editors do. While some tension is to be expected, it is often heightened when company-hired writers are involved. Back-and-forth disputes called edit wars can arise, but cooler heads prevail. Maintain respect and civility by asking clarifying questions rather than getting defensive. Because every interaction on the Talk page is part of Wikipedia’s public record, other editors may join in the conversation to offer their opinions. On Wikipedia, reputation can make or break an editing career, so welcome the debate and use every interaction as a new lesson in the content publishing process.

Permanent Public Ledger

One of Wikipedia’s defining features is its transparency. Wikipedia keeps activity logs for all edits (on both articles and Talk pages) that are both public and permanent. Anyone can look back at the growth of a Wikipedia article from its creation to the current version. Everything that anyone ever does on Wikipedia is tracked and recorded, for both registered users and anonymous IP addresses alike.

These ledgers are known as edit histories and are an important tool for combating vandalism and COI violations. Administrators and regular users can revert the article back to its previous unadulterated state, leaving any commercial efforts wasted and any affiliated organizations exposed for negative publicity. For example, companies such as Burger King and The North Face recently faced criticism for their COI violations by directly editing their respective Wikipedia articles. While the news cycle moves on, Wikipedia doesn’t forget.

An Ad Age story on Burger King's Wikipedia backlash
Ethics is Worth the Hassle

Regular and paid editors alike should adhere to Wikipedia’s policies and guidelines. Wikipedia’s high level of nuance in each phase of the process sets it apart from other media platforms. Becoming familiar with the basics like the Five Pillars and Plain and Simple Conflict of Interest Guide aids future content strategy. All these policies are what make Wikipedia so valuable as a platform. Hiring Wikipedia specialists to manage brand presence on Wikipedia with expert knowledge on legal implications, content policy, and code of content helps avoid costly mistakes. Look beyond the benefits of conventional SEO, audio branding, and brand visibility strategies and consider Wikipedia as an ongoing practice in ethics and empathy.

RECOMMENDATION: Our blogpost “How to Hire a Wikipedia Writer” provides guidance on best practices for hiring an ethical Wikipedia consultant to represent the company brand on Wikipedia.

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