Fighting Wikipedia Spam

When a hotel investment firm decided a 10-block stretch of Miami Beach needed a name, the easy part was coming up with SoBe 10, to catch a little of the cachet of South Beach. The hard part was getting the name to catch on.

The firm, Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels, decided the best way to get people to use its made-up name was to pretend people were already using it. Not long after he dreamed up SoBe 10, Gregory Rumpel, the firm’s executive vice president, inserted it into Wikipedia’s South Beach page. The modified entry read, “The 10 blocks along Collins Avenue, from 15th Street to 24th Street, also known as the SoBe 10 or Power Mile, are considered to be the epicentre of South Beach nightlife and entertainment.”

Wikipedia’s openness makes it a tempting target for those looking to create their own versions of reality. But while most people know that Wikipedia is not 100 per cent reliable, readers still expect entries to have some basis in fact.

Even when the “information” promoters add to Wikipedia is actual, rather than aspirational, it decreases the value of the site. Wikipedia articles are intended to be neutral and objective, like the content of traditional encyclopedias. Business owners and publicists who write or edit where their own interests are concerned are therefore acting deceitfully, implying a neutral perspective they do not actually have.

Wikipedia’s page on Wikipedia spam offers clear guidelines on how interested parties can avoid inadvertently interfering with the site’s mission. Would-be editors are instructed, “If you are here to tell readers how great something is, or to get exposure for an idea or product that nobody has heard of yet, you are in the wrong place.”

The page also cautions users against creating pages for their own products and websites, explaining that “Most often, when a person creates a new article describing his or her own work, it is because the work is not yet well-known enough to have attracted anyone else’s attention.” Just as few employers go to candidates’ parents to get letters of recommendation, few Wikipedia readers want to hear that something is noteworthy from its creator.

Unfortunately, often publicists are more concerned with promoting products than they are with protecting the reliability of third-party websites. As we increasingly get our information from user-generated content – from Wikipedia rather than the Encyclopedia Britannica or from Yelp rather than newspaper restaurant reviews – we gain access to new voices and to more comprehensive data, but we lose important information about authors’ interests and motivations. A Wikipedia entry could be written by an expert, or by someone looking to introduce new “facts.” A good review on Yelp may come from a satisfied customer, but it may also come from the business’s owner or from someone who has never even visited the business.

A recent column in The New York Times revealed that a company called Softline Solutions, which provides reputation management among other online services, paid 25 cents for positive reviews posted on Yelp about its client, Southland Dental. Yelp filters reviews that appear to be fake, placing them on a separate page, but acknowledges that some legitimate content gets incorrectly filtered out and some less-than-legitimate content slips through.

Wikipedia’s vigilant editors and administrators, for the most part, ensure that profit motives are kept in line with the site’s mission, preserving reliability. By strictly enforcing community standards and deleting promotional content, Wikipedians send the message that any attempt to take advantage of the site is unlikely to succeed. In a 2010 press release, the public relations company Punch Communications advised other firms to avoid marketing on Wikipedia, not because it lowers the quality of the site, but because the risk of getting caught is too high. “While it may seem like a quick hit at first, once [a] post is deleted, the agency finds themselves having overpromised and under-delivered; something we all hate to do,” Pete Goold, a managing director at the company, said.

The same openness which allows promotional content to enter Wikipedia also helps to weed it out. Shortly after the mention of SoBe 10 appeared on Wikipedia’s South Beach page, an anonymous editor removed it, with the concise justification, “I’ve deleted the following, which is a made-up designation inserted for marketing purposes.”

As wikis become a bigger part of our lives, we owe ever greater thanks to those who keep them as clean and accurate as possible. In a letter on the site, Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, writes, “Commerce is fine. Advertising is not evil. But it doesn’t belong here. Not in Wikipedia.” Keeping advertising out, however, requires hard work and dedication. And surviving without advertising requires the support of readers. Not everyone who reads Wikipedia can afford to donate to its mission, but it’s worth remembering the amount of work that goes into keeping the site free of promotional content, and also keeping it just plain free.

For more articles on financial, business, and other topics, view the Palisades Hudson newsletter, Sentinel, or subscribe to my daily opinion column, Current Commentary.

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