What Does Wikipedia Say About You?

After not thinking about Wikipedia much for at least a year, the massive Web encyclopedia returned to my consciousness a few weeks ago in a roundabout way.

While fact-checking "the new normal," I instinctively went to Wikipedia fully expecting there to be an entry tracking the origin of the phrase. But, there was nothing.

That's a shame because "the new normal"—whose ubiquity eventually earned it the dubious distinction of being Bloomberg's most overused phrase of 2009—is historically significant. History (and Wikipedia as the 21st century version of the history book) should credit PIMCO's thought leaders for popularizing the expression used to describe the post-2008 economic environment. It is no less than "green shoots" and may be on par with "irrational exuberance," both of which are memorialized on Wikipedia.

Factual Errors

A day or two after my "new normal" disappointment, Wikipedia came to mind again when a study reported that 60% of respondents to a Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) research project said Wikipedia articles about their companies contained factual errors.

That report prompted me to take a look at mutual fund and exchange-traded fund (ETF) firms' presence on Wikipedia. In May 2012, Wikipedia seems a bit passe, doesn't it? But there's no disputing its usefulness as a general reference site or its staying power as the eighth most visited Website in the United States, a function of its high search engine rankings. As shown below, Wikipedia averages 10 million U.S. visitors a day, according to Google Trends.


I approached my search for asset manager Wikipedia pages with dread, though, given where content on the site comes from. In the site's own words: "Wikipedia is written collaboratively by largely anonymous Internet volunteers who write without pay." Contributors are discouraged from writing articles about themselves or organizations in which they hold a vested interest.

A lack of balance, bias and incomplete reporting can diminish the value of any article, Wikipedia recognizes, until "the crowd" working collaboratively eventually gets it right. But add to it the special sensitivities surrounding investment companies, investment products and performance claims, and things can get ugly.

In fact, the volunteers who write about asset managers tend to gravitate toward the firm's number of funds (an ever-changing number, as we know), selective Lipper rankings (out of date in three months) and litigation.

A spot-check revealed several articles that need a makeover, updating or expansion. How does American Funds (whose page was last updated in July 2011) warrant just two paragraphs while Groupon's page goes on and on? Other firms, including ProShares, the world’s largest manager of leveraged and inverse funds, have yet to get an entry.

What Would Rodney Do?

What to do? The choices: A. Do nothing and let a dated or marginalized entry reflect poorly on your brand B. Pursue Wikipedia as an opportunity to leverage the visibility and positioning that comes from presence on such a well-trafficked site.

What's out there today seems to be a result of general apathy on the volunteers' part. Not to go all Rodney Dangerfield on you, but it's possible that contributors find other subjects more interesting to write about and edit than mutual fund or ETF companies.

To wit: When Lundquist, an Italian consultancy, in 2010 analyzed the Wikipedia pages of the Fortunate Global 500, guess what company was found to have "the most complete and easily consultable Wikipedia page"? Apple. Not much of a surprise, given the fervor of Apple's brand fans.

Rather than wait for a group of contributors to take an interest and do a comprehensive job of telling an asset manager's story, firms may have to be proactive.

Tread Carefully

Fixing the Wikipedia entry is a project for a PR professional to jump on, mindful of the very specific—some would even say prickly protocol—spelled out by Wikipedia.

And, you digital marketers may need to give your PR team a nudge. According to the PRSA research, 25% of their survey respondents (all public relations professionals) weren't even familiar with their firm's Wikipedia entry. Those who did seek to engage with Wikipedia reported poor results when they appealed to the editors for changes.

"Editing articles that you are affiliated with is not completely prohibited; you may do so as specified within the COI [Conflict of Interest] guideline, but you must follow our policies," Wikipedia says on its site.

But, emboldened by the PRSA findings, PR professionals are calling for improved responsiveness from Wikipedia. Clicking on this link will download "Exploring the Problems with Wikipedia’s Editing Rule for Public Relations," a .pdf written for the Institute for Public Relations by the director of the research.

There's every indication that this work is going to take time and commitment. Once your entry—and possibly other entries reflecting what your company has contributed to the world—is accurate, checking Wikipedia belongs on a list with the rest of your communications to be verified and/or updated at least every quarter.