Friday, September 22, 2006

Wikipedia IS a tool to support commerce

Something really astounding was said in a recent blog post at the ClickZ Network. Responding to a discovery that a certain Wikipedia article was the destination of a particular Google AdWords advertisement, the CEO of Wikimedia UK had a retort that is just mind-bogglingly wrong.

To quote Alison Wheeler: "We've found that a number of people have this incorrect idea that Wikipedia can drive traffic to their (commercial operation) Web site. It can't, or rather it won't as when we find such SEO / spam linkages we take action to remove them. Wikipedia is a free and open Encyclopedia, not a tool to support commerce."

In the interest of full disclosure: in our opinion, Alison Wheeler has been a particularly aggressive Wikipedia administrator in her repeated efforts to obstruct MyWikiBiz.com and otherwise sully our reputation.

But, still trying to be fair, let's look at the two main points that Alison made.

First, she says that "Wikipedia [can't] drive traffic" to a commercial web site. This is because, according to Alison, Wikipedia's administrators are so vigilant and adept at removing outbound links from Wikipedia that go to for-profit sites.

Oh, really?

There's this neat little tool called "Search web links" on Wikipedia that lets you count up all of the external links that reside comfy and cozy within Wikipedia. Now, if Wikipedia admins were doing a really good job, we shouldn't see very many outbound links to sites whose primary purpose is to sell products or ads.

Then, why do we find...
  • 18,800+ outbound links to Amazon.com
  • 2,600+ outbound links to GlobalSecurity.org -- a for-profit reference site whose owner has been blocked from editing Wikipedia
  • 3,000+ outbound links to Wikia.com -- a for-profit community site paid for by venture capital and Google ads, which happens to be run by Jimmy Wales and a board member of the Wikimedia Foundation
  • 700+ outbound links to Ebay.com
  • 400+ outbound links to Barnesandnoble.com
  • 400+ outbound links to CDbaby.com
  • 200+ outbound links to CDuniverse.com
  • Nearly 50 outbound links to Walmart.com -- just in case the world's largest retailer needs a little more help marketing their brand

Does anyone else see the hypocrisy and futility of Alison Wheeler's first comment?

Wait, there's more. Second, she says that "Wikipedia is... not a tool to support commerce."

Why is that, Alison? Would we say that "Wikipedia is not a tool to support education"? Of course not, because hundreds of thousands, if not millions of students regularly use it as a basic primer on any academic topic under the sun.

Would we say that "Wikipedia is not a tool to support medicine"? Again, of course not, because hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people suffering from various ailments probably turn to Wikipedia as a first-line source of remedy and cure.

Would we say that "Wikipedia is not a tool to support religion"? Of course not, once again, because many people who are exploring their own faith or those of friends, neighbors, or enemies, likely get plenty of factual information from this tool called Wikipedia.

So, why in the wide, wide world of sports would Alison say "Wikipedia is not a tool to support commerce"? Why is commerce the big exception? We have already seen that Wikipedia is a search engine optimization machine. We can further imagine that countless transactions each day are first initiated by some information obtained at Wikipedia -- such as the business owner who is looking at different brands of 4-ton trucks to buy, and finds this page in Wikipedia. Or, more directly, some transactions are spawned by any of these thousands of outbound external links that I mentioned above. (For heaven's sake, if we imagine that each outbound link gets an average of 3 clicks per day, and that 1% of those clicks end up in a sales transaction, then Amazon.com alone is making $2,058,600 a year off of Wikipedia, if the average sale is $10.)

Why, then, do we see this abundantly stubborn yet naive reaction to "commerce and Wikipedia" from administrators like Alison Wheeler? In her defense, nobody wants to see Wikipedia go the way of Usenet, rendered useless by unsolicited spam and advertising. Yet, there has to be some consideration that many Wikipedians are having trouble suppressing feelings that they are pissed off at "the business world", as it appears to be co-opting their volunteer/knowledge utopia. Their quasi-academic "club" is being mercilessly exploited, in their minds. To that, I make the following declaration:

Ninety percent of the companies that are striving for space within Wikipedia are not looking to ADVERTISE on Wikipedia, they're looking to be RECOGNIZED. While the former is a scary thought, there's no real harm in the latter.


6 comments:

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your desire to explain and defend your ideas and all that, but I really can't make myself agree with the bottom line. You're wrong about at least two things that would knock out all your other arguments even if they were right.

For one thing, you talk about Wikipedia "supporting" education, medicine, and religion and then ask why Wikipedia doesn't want to support "business" as well. That's a wrong way of looking at things. As far as Wikipedia's identity is concerned, there are just two spheres: Non-profit and for-profit. As soon as an edit is made with the intention, however vague, to generate money for oneself or one's organization, it is simply WRONG by Wikipedia's definition. No matter whether this edit is in an article about a school, hospital, or a church. That some people do it and get away with it does not give anyone carte blanche.

For another thing, you talk about companies just wanting "to be recognized", as opposed to "advertising". Let's assume for a minute that you really mean what you wrote and that "recognition" is not just a nice euphemism for "advertisement". Even so, you're fundamentally misled about the following: You can advertise yourself or pay others to do it for you. But you can't "recognize" yourself, or pay others to get yourself recognized. "Recognition" is worth its name only if it's the others that recognize you.
As far as Wikipedia and enterprises are concerned: If you are a recognized company that others have something to say about (positive OR negative!) they will do so sooner or later.

Look at it this way: Wikipedia is there to describe things that are notable anyway, it's not there to make things notable.

Finally, you claim that you're providing some positive value to companies. If you honestly believe that you do, you're fooling yourself in addition to your prospective clients.

If people ever find out that a company paid to be in Wikipedia, the damage done to that companie's image will be a lot greater than the benefits could ever be. And such things have a way to get found out, you see. Just recently, employees of a major German corporation were found out who tried to touch up their CEO's article. Both the guy and the company had been in the line of fire before, and after that things went from bad to worse for them.

To cut this short, your idea is a bad one, and the sooner you realize this, the better - both for yourself and the unfortunate people who might pay for your services.

Gregory Kohs said...

While I respect your passionate comment, because you wrote it anonymously, I'm not going to take much time here to refute it. I prefer to have these discussions with the courtesy of full disclosure, as we attempted to do from the start with MyWikiBiz.com.

First, you base part of your argument on a naive concept of "spheres of identity". Do you really believe that Wikipedia has only two halves -- non-profit and for-profit? What about creationists and evolutionists? What about liberals and conservatives? How about Americans and non-Westerners? There are so many ways to split the "identity" of Wikipedia, it's rather humorous that you chose "profit" as the exclusive split.

Then you go on to say that "as soon as an edit is made with the intention...to generate money...it is simply WRONG". I dismiss your entire argument by referring you to the Reward Board, which is paid editing, sanctioned by the Wikipedia community itself, plain and simple.

Two strikes, Anonymous.

Your third strike tells me that you probably have very little experience in the "for-profit" business world. You say, "If you are a recognized company that others have something to say about (positive OR negative!) they will do so sooner or later." What business would sit around and WAIT for someone else to invite them to the phone book, or include them in the local Chamber of Commerce? No smart business, that's for sure. Notable businesses shouldn't HAVE to wait for volunteer Wikipedians to "get around eventually" to writing about them. I reiterate the case of Arch Coal. This is the second-largest coal-mining company in the entire United States, with 2.5 BILLION dollars of revenue each year, employing 3,600 hard-working people, Anonymous. If that company and its assets disappeared today, the American economy would very likely be in a crisis state tomorrow.

You think it's entirely acceptable that Arch Coal was unrecognized in Wikipedia for FIVE STRAIGHT YEARS of volunteer editing. And I think it is just next to shamefully unacceptable. That's where we differ.

By the way, none of our clients have ever expressed dissatisfaction with the results we've achieved. So, either you're wrong, or we've found some uniquely peculiar "unfortunate people".

Thomas Maibaum said...

Hi again. First off, since you complained about anonymity. I am not a blogger and didn't think it was necessary to become one just to leave a comment. I am not a Wikipedia administrator or a very active user, either. I thought you'd consider my comment regardless of my name. But in case not knowing my name prevents you from considering my arguments, it is Thomas Maibaum and I can easily be contacted at firstnamelastname at gmail dot com.
Let me add that I have nothing whatsoever against you as a person. Your profile looks like you are a nice enough guy, and we even share some strange musical tastes. ;) Still, we differ pretty fundamentally about Wikipedia.
Let me address your objections.
You asked "Do you really believe that Wikipedia has only two halves -- non-profit and for-profit"? There seems to be a misunderstanding. Maybe I didn't make myself very clear. What I meant was that the world we live in can be seen as having two halves, non-profit and for-profit. Wikipedia has decided to be in the first half, period. Wikipedia is not a business directory like the Yellow Pages, it's an encyclopedia. Just think: Would you ever trust Britannica again knowing that companies pay money in order to have an article there?
Then you mentioned the Reward Board. First of all, considering the amount of activity on Wikipedia, this really is an insignificant backwater. Second of all, rest assured that if a business were to offer any significant amount of money to manipulate an article in its favor, or to get an article in the first place, not only would that article be scrutinized and ultimately be changed beyond recognition or even deleted; the whole idea of the Reward Board would also come under fire.
You said: "What business would sit around and WAIT for someone else to invite them to the phone book, or include them in the local Chamber of Commerce? No smart business, that's for sure." Fair enough, but as I said, Wikipedia isn't the phone book or the chamber of commerce. It's an encyclopedia. I can start a business today and get it included and registered in all sorts of places. What I can't do is pay for the privilege to be in an encyclopedia. Vice versa, as soon as I ''can'' pay to be in somewhere, that place is no longer an encyclopedia by definition.
You go on to say that "Notable businesses shouldn't HAVE to wait for volunteer Wikipedians" to write about them. Well, they don't have to. They can start an article any day, and if they are notable, the article will remain. Self-promotion is not prohibitied, it's merely discouraged and frowned upon because it's basically a form of advertising, and not of "recognition" (which, as I pointed out, needs to come from others, not from oneself or people one pays). Still, if it is done in a neutral enough manner, it will eventually be accepted. But that doesn't mean that Wikipedia is a venue to pursue commercial interest. Wikipedia defines itself as a non-profit initiative to make available neutral knowledge. As soon as someone decides to make a living off it by smuggling contents of a commercial nature into it, Wikipedia's identity is being damaged. Don't get me wrong, Wikipedia is far from perfect and not always consistent in its policies, either. I'm sure dozens of people are trying to manipulate for their own political, relgious, or commercial purposes as I write this, and a lot of them may get away with it at least for some time. But that doesn't give us carte blanche to dismiss Wikipedia's identity and ideals. If anything, it obliges us to be more watchful about them.

By the way, you suspected I was naive about the business world. In fact, my job requires me to know quite a bit about how people perceive of companies and what companies can do, with varying degrees of success, to change people's perception. In fact, that's precisely the reason why I want for-profit editing out of Wikipedia.

Finally, you argued that "none of our clients have ever expressed dissatisfaction with the results we've achieved. So, either you're wrong, or we've found some uniquely peculiar "unfortunate people"". I do not doubt that a lot of businesses that are willing to pay for being in Wikipedia may actually get away with it. Wikipedia is full of subjects that are either not notable from the get-go, or are presented in a manner unacceptable in an encyclopedia, but don't get noticed. However, there is a risk they will get noticed, and if the company is sizeable enough to matter, there will be severe harm to its reputation.
Of course, it's impossible to judge the validity of your above statement unless we know who your clients really are. If, as you say, you "prefer to have these discussions with the courtesy of full disclosure, as we attempted to do from the start with MyWikiBiz.com", maybe you should reveal what you did and didn't do on Wikipedia. If your business is as harmless and legitimate as you say it is, this will be the best way to convince your critics.
Regards,
Thomas

Gregory Kohs said...

Thanks for introducing yourself, Thomas. I think we're just going to have to agree to disagree, except on the matter of good music. Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia said this about MyWikiBiz:

"...a nice mutually beneficial ground would be for them to charge customers for writing high quality NPOV articles about their companies, with sources and verifiability, but for them to work with well known and respected wikipedians who are NOT being financially compensated to actually enter the articles into Wikipedia upon their own independent judgment..."

That's what MyWikiBiz.com is doing, so if anyone is going to object, they should take it up with Wales and perhaps the Arbitration Committee (which has already once declined to "hear" our case).

You said, "I am not a Wikipedia administrator or a very active user, either." In light of that, I say you are entitled to your opinion, but I am not going to change my way of thinking about Wikipedia based on your assessment.

In sum, you called the Reward Board an "insignificant backwater". Let me assure you, compared against Wikipedia's 1.3 million articles, the articles that MyWikiBiz has authored for pay represent less than 2/1000ths of 1% of Wikipedia's content.

Per your suggestion, we tried from the beginning to reveal what we "did and didn't do" within Wikipedia. Jimmy Wales blocked us from doing that, and so we now work under his "Concordat", which he calls "mutually beneficial ground".

Profit is not Wikipedia's enemy, Thomas. And quite a few administrators agree with me on that, too.

Thomas Maibaum said...

Hi again, it's Thomas writing - sorry about the delay in responding. ;) I didn't have any illusions about reaching a consensus or even getting close to it, so of course, we'll have to agree to disagree.
You mentioned what you called the "Concordat" between yourself and Jimbo Wales. I'm not sure what to think about it. On the hand, its good because it leaves the ultimate decision about what to include to "ordinary", i.e. voluntary, unpaid and hopefully incorruptible contributors. On the other hand, it's clouding the very process by which articles with a "commercial background" find their way into Wikipedia. I know that you are not responsible for this, but in a way this procedure might prove even more beneficial for you and your clients (read: less beneficial for Wikipedia's ideals) than the "full disclosure" you originally intended. Quite irrespective of that, it's a viable compromise for the time being.
However, my original point of contention wasn't the "Concordat"; rather, it was your article "Wikipedia IS a tool to support commerce". This article wasn't written to explain or defend this or any other compromise - it was written to explain why no compromise was necessary to begin with because there was no real conflict of interests between the respective interests of Wikipedia and the world of business. About this I beg to differ. A compromise is a settlement, or rather a truce between conflicting parties. A consensus is the establishment of common ground between parties who have dissolved their conflict. The "Concordat" is very much a compromise, not a consensus. The tension between the two positions within that compromise is still there, as your original article aptly demonstrates, and I don't think it will ever be dissolved in a consensus.
Quote: You said, "I am not a Wikipedia administrator or a very active user, either." In light of that, I say you are entitled to your opinion, but I am not going to change my way of thinking about Wikipedia based on your assessment. That, of course, is your prerogative as much as anyone else's. However, I do not believe I could have changed your way of thinking about Wikipedia based on my assessment even if I were an administrator. After all, Alison Wheeler, who you so vehemently polemicized against in your original article, is an administrator. (As an afterthought, let me add that, as an ordinary user, I probably am at least as representative of Wikipedia's usership and its interests as any administrator, or Jimbo Wales, for that matter.)
You contended that "compared against Wikipedia's 1.3 million articles, the articles that MyWikiBiz has authored for pay represent less than 2/1000ths of 1% of Wikipedia's content". I am aware that the damage you as a one-person shop can do to the moloch that is Wikipedia is infinitesimally small. And I even trust that you as a person understand, appreciate and try to preserve what Wikipedia is all about. However, for the sake of fairness, if we let you do it, we must let everyone do it. And the combined power of the dozens, hundreds or thousands of pluggers who may follow can do damage to Wikipedia indeed. Especially considering that not all of them will share your personal integrity, work ethic and committment to Wikipedia. Profit is not Wikipedia's enemy, you said. Certainly not; but it musn't be its bedfellow, either. And that's it from me.

George said...

My personal qualm with your plan lies within the regions of objectivity.

The whole idea of Wikipedia is teh idea of an objective neutral opinion, stating purely facts. No business wants just information about itself posted online, they want an advert.

By using wikipedia for markleting you are truning it from a reference to an advert, by its very nature, Wikipedia articles tend to be written by outsiders writing purely based around facts. It is all right to write about a product, or a company, but no client is going to ask for a neutral article that also lists all the negative aspects of their company.

The other small complaint I have is that there already many websites that offer price comparisons. Why do you need to invade an encyclopedia, when if people really want product information they can go to specialist sites such as Kelkoo, the only possible advantage your system could have is that people aren't looking for the advert, but in which case surely that's morally wrong to coerce people into buying something when all they wanted was information.