How to Game Wikipedia.

Last Updated Dec 3, 2007 9:53 AM EST

Wikipedia Sock PuppetThe most recent issue of SellingPower (full disclosure: I write for that magazine and BNET distributes their videos) has a cover story on How Wikipedia Impacts Buying and Selling. The article points out that Wikipedia plays a huge role in buying decisions because some 36 percent of adults use it at least occasionally as a reference source. If you're in B2B sales, that means that your prospects and customers are probably going to be checking out the entry on your corporation. And that can mean lost sales if the entry contains opinions and factoids that turn customers off. (I pointed out this problem in my recent post: "Is Web 2.0 Good For Sales?")

Before going any further, let's retire the shopworn hype that Wikipedia is some sort of magnificent experiment in free information. In many cases, entries are created and edited by people who have some sort of agenda concerning the specific subject matter. While attempt is generally made to tie the "facts" in each entry to published sources, the selection of such sources, the interpretation of those "facts" and the decision about which facts are "notable" (and which are not) are all political acts that reflect a certain viewpoint. In the case of major entries (like the entry for G.W. Bush), there are enough people on both sides of the story to keep the article and its citations relatively neutral. But for corporate entries, wiki-editors are far more likely to be disgruntled ex-employees or angry ex-customers. After all, who else would care enough to trash your firm online?

Some companies make the mistake of trying to "correct" their corporate Wikipedia entry. Wrong move. For example, somebody recently edited out a paragraph critical of SeaWorld's "lack of respect toward its orcas." Unfortunately, the other updaters (which obviously included people with a political agenda) quickly noted that the URL of the deleting party was from a computer at Anheuser-Busch, SeaWorld's owner. That generated a firestorm of controversy over corporate Wikipedia updating because, in the twisted world of Wikipedia, a corporate updater (even if identified as a real person with a real identity) is assumed to be biased, while any anonymous troll with a chip on his shoulder is considered a "real" person capable of making judgments about what's appropriate to go in a corporate entry. Go figure.

With that in mind, here's exactly how to game Wikipedia so that your corporate entry reliably reflects a brand image that will help drive sales:
  1. Create a credible sock puppet. Get into Wikipedia from your home computer (not your office computer) and create a persona that has a reason to be interested in updating your corporate entry (like an ex-customer). Make up some name that sounds reasonable and provide a biography that gives a wide range of interests, including your interest in your company's industry. Don't feel badly about creating a sock puppet, because many wikipedia updaters have profiles with false Wikipedia credentials which they will not hesitate to use against you if you try to question their edits. Any system that allows anonymity is implicitly approving the use of sock-puppets and consequently there are plenty of them crawling all over Wikipedia.
  2. Create a credible audit trail. Spend a couple of night poking around in Wikipedia making small edits to various entries -- correcting grammatical errors and so forth. You don't want to look like you're only interested in your corporate website. You might want to make a few innocuous changes to your corporate entry -- maybe rewording things (very neutrally) so that they're easier to read. In the "why updated" note, say that you're a former customer and generally interested in the industry and in the company company. Meanwhile...
  3. Make an initial negative entry. Here's where you make your first substantive edit. No more than a paragraph. Do not make a change in your corporate entry that's advantageous to your company. Instead, make a change that's mildly critical. (You've heard of "damning with faint praise"? This is "praising with faint damnation.") Example: Add something like "a few customers were dissatisfied with the discontinued product line." That's a negative statement, but largely irrelevant. Why add even a mild criticism? Simple. It establishes you as an objective source. By the way, if you're lucky, some other updater will delete your criticism as unsubstantiated. If so, complain loudly in the discussion forum that your change was unfairly edited. Here's a nice touch: accuse the person who deleted it of being a corporate drone.
  4. Make your first brand-conscious edit. Find a positive news story about your firm, preferabley in a reasonably reputable publication. (Don't have one on hand? Have your PR folks place one somewhere.) Edit your corporate Wikipedia entry to reflect that story and include the URL citation to that article. IMPORTANT: Backpedal a bit on the good news that you're trying to insert. For example: if you want to include a news story about an award that your company won, add something like "However, ACME's main competitor, ABC, also won an award, making ACME's award less significant." Why the backpedaling? You guessed it. It gives you additional credibility and objectivity as a source.
  5. Make further changes that enhance your brand image. You've now established your sock puppet as a credible and objective source for "true" information about your company. The other people editing the blog will consider you "one of them" and generally welcome your contribution -- as long as you symbolically cowtow to their concerns. (In other words, always backpedal slightly and don't try to fill the entry with biz-blab.) Over the next few weeks, add stuff that makes your company look wonderful. Delete any criticisms and comments that you think are unjustified. (Be sure to come up with a reason why it's not true -- and a reference to an external article proving it untrue.) For example, if you worked for SeaWorld, you could have change the entry about mistreating orcas to something like "While there's been some criticism of SeaWorld's treatment of orcas, noted biologist Fred Scientist has pointed out that captive orcas live longer and are healthier than their counterparts in the wild." (And then include a URL reference to the bogus article that your PR group placed quoting the scientist who was paid to talk nice-nice.)
Pretty easy, eh?

By the way, before anybody says "that wouldn't work," I happen to know that it works because I know somebody who did it for their corporate website.

Which one? I'll never tell.
  • Geoffrey James

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